In her new memoir, Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, Salma Abdelnour travels from New York City to Beirut on a quest for her true home.
BEIRUT – It's funny how sometimes the things that drive us insane about a city are what we end up missing the most. In Beirut, it's the noise — the humming din all over the city, all night long, all day long. I grew up there in the late '70s during the Lebanese civil war, and the sounds of that time had a specific horror and ferocity. I can't say I'll ever miss those.
But when I moved back to live there two summers ago, searching for home and writing a memoir, Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, the more workaday sounds of daily life became my soundtrack. Those street noises — screeching out from cars, machines, people, animals — can drown out café conversations like scenes from a Buñuel film or jolt you awake at the crack of dawn. The sounds are endless, infuriating, unstoppable. But they're also Beirut, through and through.
The city's distinct noises, if you break them down into categories, are enough to fill a generous boxed set:
Volume 1: Jackhammers at the hotel and condo construction sites all over town at all hours, permits be damned.
Volume 2: Street vendors yelling out "onions" or "kaak!" as they hawk their addictive sesame-bread rings.
Volume 3: Taxi drivers screaming, "You pimp!" or "Your sister's [er, private parts]."
Volume 4: Muezzin prayers and church bells.
Volume 5: Tipsy partiers spilling out of bars and restaurants in the wee hours.
Volume 6: Everything else: car horns, roosters, babies, stereos, and muffler-less mopeds, known in Lebanon as "tiztayzehs," a riff on the word for "ass."
Now that I'm living in New York again after my year in Lebanon, in a Brooklyn apartment on a leafy residential street, the noise panoply around me is more limited: usually just a loud woodpecker in the backyard or patients chattering loudly as they walk out of a nearby methadone clinic (the Methadonians, my boyfriend calls them) or, lately, the muted sounds of a construction site a few blocks away.
Oddly enough, these noises don't bug me as much anymore. Part of me is aching for Beirut all over again, enough to forgive the most maddening things about it — at least from a distance. A nonstop city soundtrack brings me back there like nothing else.
The nostalgia I'd always felt for Beirut's manic restlessness is one of the reasons why I'd decided to move back to Lebanon in 2010, at least one of the more tangible ones. The deeper motivation was a need to figure out what home means, and what it means to me. I'd had a hunch that Beirut was still my true home, more so than any city I've lived in ever since my family left Lebanon during the war in the early '80s. But after living for so many years in New York — a city much like Beirut in its jangle and intensity, its 24-hour pulse — I no longer knew if my ideas about Beirut were by now delusional or whether the city was still my home in a visceral way that I'd be unwise to ignore.
So I decided to move back and confront the question head-on. I set up shop in my family's old apartment in Beirut's hyperkinetic, hip-again Hamra neighborhood. I'd only been back a few times for visits in all the years since we'd left, but this time I was here to stay, at least for a year, I promised myself. There was no jumping on a flight back to JFK after a few days.
As the weeks and months went by, I explored the city again and found its old and new incarnations existing at times side by side. I rediscovered so many things I love about it: the Mediterranean beaches that are always a short walk or drive away; the breathtaking old houses with their triple-arch windows and jasmine bushes; the killer fashions on the streets; the bustling restaurants and bars, open late and full of Beirutis intent on living it up whenever they can. I plunged head-first into 21st century Beirut life, renewing friendships with family and a few old classmates, meeting new people, going to parties and dinners and beaches and concerts, showing up at a few political demonstrations, and spending hours writing at my laptop at Beirut's smoky cafés.
Just around the corner from my apartment, I found a hidden alleyway with a handful of little bars crammed next to each other: two of them, Dany's and Carafe, became regular hangouts where I often met up with old and new friends. I was happy when a new music venue opened just down the street. It's called DRM — Democratic Republic of Music — and one memorable summer night I saw Tony Allen, the legendary drummer who, along with Fela Kuti, created the Afrobeat sound. The crowds at all these places would sometimes spill over into the street, and I'm sure my friends and I helped contribute to Beirut's noise problem. In New York City, the bar owners would've tried to shuttle customers back inside to keep the neighbors and community board from griping. In Beirut, complaint is futile.
During my year in Lebanon, I contemplated my old life there and my new one, my Beirut and New York selves — were they the same? — and tried to get to the bottom of what we talk about when we talk about home. I meditated on belonging and identity. When I wasn't wrestling with the big questions, I was busy dealing with the more basic needs of daily existence: mainly, working on writing assignments and my book, and trying to get some sleep. The other pressing need, eating, turned out to be less of an issue. Food, and mind-blowingly good food at that, is a cultural fixation in Lebanon — not expressed in a "hi, I'm a foodie" way or through hours spent in front of TV cooking shows. Food is just the most basic vehicle for nourishing not just the body but life, too: community, family, friendship. Memorable meals are available all over Lebanon for as low as 50 cents or as high as 300 bucks or more per person, depending on your means or your mood. At family dinners, I discovered an exquisite, classic lamb soup I'd somehow never had before and a lentil-tamarind dish I'm now addicted to (both recipes are in my book). I ate more chargrilled chicken and garlic sandwiches than I care to admit. I stuffed myself on desserts made with buttery phyllo and Lebanese-style clotted cream. Needless to say, every meal in Lebanon is noisy. That raucous dinner-table scene in Annie Hall? Multiply it by ten.
Sleep, or a quiet workspace, are less widely available. Something will usually distract you or keep you up if you're trying to sleep and wake you if you're already sleeping. As much as Beirut's high-volume soundtrack can annoy the hell out of the locals, myself included — especially as I struggled to resettle in my old Beirut bedroom when I first moved back, fighting jetlag and the melancholy of leaving New York behind — I eventually got used to the incessant noise all over again. In some cities, early morning interruptions seem arbitrary. For instance, if that couple on the street below would stop arguing, I can go back to dreamland. Or as soon as the construction is done around the corner, things will surely quiet down again. Not so in Beirut. Always noisy. All the time.
If you're living in Beirut, you mutter helplessly to yourself about the noise or you grudgingly surrender to it. If you're away from Beirut, and the city is wedged in your soul for better or worse, the sound of a jackhammer early on a New York morning, or the loud chatter of a group of friends walking home at dawn after a night out, or a bird squawking at dawn, just may give you goose bumps. If only for a second.
When that happens to me now, I indulge in a quick Beirut flashback. I might even crack a smile. But I keep it to myself.
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Read Salma's whole story: Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut