Mama’s Kitchen

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Toy stove from the collection of Museum Terug in de Tijd (Back in Time Museum), The Netherlands.



—for Nadia and for Souad



Mama cooks all day, food we couldn’t eat even if we tried. Heaping mounds of glistening rice, stacks of grape leaves rolled tight and perfectly identical, stews generous with meat and spice. The dishes pile up in rows along the kitchen counters, on top of the fridge and cabinets, inside the onion basket.


Soon there is only a small circle of clear floor that remains, with a narrow path leading to the stove. Soon the flies are so thick in the air that we must clamp our hands over our noses and mouths so we don’t gulp them down by the throatful when we breathe. Soon the smell of rotting food has seeped under our doorway, crawled down the crumbling stairs of our building, slithered up the walls, and curled into every crack and bullet hole. Only Baba doesn’t seem to notice, shielded from all of this from behind the tent of his newspaper. And still Mama cooks and no one eats.



In truth, I am sure of nothing but the first line of this story. Everything else has been reconstructed from what I think I remember.


I wrote it in 2003, or maybe even 2002, back when I was unable to call myself a writer aloud without cringing. Over the years, I visited and revisited the story, opening the file on my laptop, fiddling and fussing with the sentences and paragraphs. For every new line I wrote, I fed more and more into all the lines that came before it, each time weighing them down with more adjectives, more clauses, more ideas and images, until they were heavy and unwieldy, falling shy of their intended shape, their actual meaning buried so deeply beneath the layers that it was obscured even to me. Over time, which was hours and hours and hours of work spread out over days and months and years, the story grew outward, swelling sideways, but never onward to reach a point or ending.


And then, one night, a decade after this beginning, thieves broke into my house while I was sleeping and, among other things, stole my laptop as well as both of my backup hard drives. I heard nothing of this; I only woke to find a desk swept clean of work. Hours and days and months and years of work: everything I’d ever written up until that point, gone. So many stories but so few endings. I was left straining to imagine them all, to reconstruct intent from image, to find a meaning, if nothing else.



*


The kitchen always seemed a strange and lonely place to me. I have no recollection of sitting in the kitchen as a little girl, weaving among women’s legs as they chattered and laughed their way through preparations for a Sunday feast. Falling silent when a man walked in and then starting up again at a low murmur when he left, perhaps with a little joke made at his expense. These were scenes I came to know later from other people’s stories, from books or movies or the kitchens of friends.


Even during family gatherings, the talk and laughter always happened in the dining room where everyone milled about, straightening cutlery and arranging dishes, awaiting the food. And as I stood there among them, folding napkins, laying them out on the plates, the smell would suddenly find me, beckon to me, and I would leave the noise and chatter like someone enchanted, going into a place where there was only the quiet gurgle of boiling stews. There, I would find my mother or grandmother, her features made hazy by steam, as though in solitude become someone no longer entirely familiar. I would watch her silently, pounding, grinding, stirring, chopping, and I would be overcome by something for which the closest name is fear. I felt I was observing someone across a great distance. Crossing it—which I understood was my fate—would be, I knew, a journey fraught with great peril, at the end of which was loss.


It was the men, rather, who seemed the picture of camaraderie when they prepared food—but never in the kitchen. Outside, on the balcony, or beneath a tree out in a field somewhere, tending to a barbecue, fanning coals into rubies, slapping one another on the back in congratulations over well-spiced kafta or a good tawook marinade, usually prepared by the butcher—but to have chosen the right butcher and gotten a good price was yet another credit to the man’s skill.



*


A recipe is a list of ingredients and instructions but no two people following them will ever come out with the exact same dish. Cooking is alchemy. There is something of the witch about it, sorcery. When someone is a beautiful cook, it is said that they have a nafas for it. Not knack, not skill, but breath. As though the spirit that moves all things moves through them.


My grandmother (was) and my mother (is) a beautiful cook.



*


Afterward, when she finally sat down to eat, long after the others had begun, she still seemed like someone removed from us. Marked as other by her damp brow, glowing with sweat, by her fingertips stained green or purple or red with the juices that oozed from vegetables and herbs. And the garlic or onion that smelled so good and tasted so rich in the food would have left a stench on her, as though the only way they could become transformed into such redolence was by leaving the worst of their stink behind in her hair, her fingers, and her clothes.


She would eat very little, picking at the food, and when asked why, urged to eat more, she would reply: ma illi nafes. Nafes, different from nafas, can mean soul, but it can also mean self. And so: I have no self for it. I have no self for it because it has all been poured into that which has been made.


As a woman, then, it seemed the price of revealing the gift of your spirit was ultimately a loss of self.



*


The instructions I received about how to be a girl, a woman, were many, some more explicit than others. For example, my father had a story he liked to tell, the point of which was to illustrate the qualities of the ideal girl. Being on the receiving end of the story made it apparent that, in his eyes, I most decidedly was not. It was about one of my cousins—but I had no way of ascertaining its truth. One morning she woke up to find there was only a single egg left in the fridge. And so she made the rounds, asking each person in the household, her father, her brother, her mother (in that order I presume), in turn (in a low, sweet, and pleasant voice) and in person (she certainly didn’t scream out from the kitchen and hope to get three answers for a single question) whether they would like an egg for breakfast. She didn’t tell them that she wanted the egg, no—this was an important thing to point out in the story—she merely asked if they would like it, and if so, whether she could prepare it for them. Only after everyone had declined did she make the egg for herself. That was a girl: She asked permission. She used her voice only to offer a service. She kept her own desires secret. And she certainly didn’t eat more than a single egg for breakfast.


My father didn’t live long enough to appreciate how he had managed, despite what he thought, to impart these lessons on me. While I had trouble with the last (always eating more than I should), the others found their way to the deepest reaches of my intestines and remained there, coiled like a snake ready to strike from the inside the minute I tried outwardly to break one of its rules.


I don’t mean to put sole blame on him; that would be too easy. Rare are the lessons one learns from a single source alone.



*


My father loved the good life: food, drink, and making merry. He was fun to be around; he told amazing stories. Everybody loved him; his door was always open. He was, what they call in Arabic, ’ayyeesh—one who truly lives. Without prior notice, he would often come home with five or six people in tow, and off my mother would go to the kitchen to whip up something from whatever we happened to have while the men poured out the whiskey and set up the card table. No matter how bare the fridge or the cabinets, my mother managed to return from the kitchen with something. Once, having run out of olive oil, she dressed the hummus with pomegranate molasses, and the men raved about it for weeks afterward.


“You’re a lucky man!” they’d tell my father. “You did well.”


After they had all left, after she had gathered up the empty plates from the living room, scraped all the leavings into the garbage, and done all the piles of dishes, she would sit down with an audible groan and put her feet up on the coffee table. I remember so vividly what they looked like, swollen and red, the varicose veins around her ankles a map of her state of agony. Once, massaging them for her, I looked up to see her face streaming with tears.


“What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” I asked, suddenly close to tears myself.


She shook her head and tried to smile.


“It’s nothing,” she said. “It’s just—they really hurt so much.”



*


My brilliant, talented mother wanted to be a writer, or rather, this is what she was told she could be, should be, by a number of teachers and mentors. She had a knack for it, a skill, they said, a real shame to waste it. But there were many things in her life working against that goal: a childhood spent moving between countries and schools and languages, a war, a marriage, children, immigration, widowhood, bankruptcy. Above all, however, there was her own reluctance to speak out, to name those things that dwelt in her soul.



*


Mama asks me, wordlessly, as is her way now, to go over to the neighbor’s house and borrow another empty dish. I only ever have to see her face, drawn with yearning, to understand exactly what it is she wants from me.


I do not want to go to the neighbor’s. I do not want to have to see the neighbor girl, her smirk as she opens the door and turns halfway into her neat, well-scrubbed house, calling out, “Ma-ma!” in a tone meant more for me than for her mother.


Even though she was younger than me, she had already abandoned the neighborhood games of scabbed knees and fading bruises. She kept more and more to the indoor world, to the company of her mother and her mother’s friends. Skinny as a ribbon, she was the sort of girl who wound through the women’s morning sit-downs with ease, threading herself into their conversations, gathering scraps of talk she would later weave into—



Most likely into her own persona. (Or rather, in keeping with the metaphor, her own dress, appropriate and admirable; arraying herself piece by piece in the rightful vesture of womanhood.)


The story was full of such overwrought or overextended metaphors. Way too many adjectives. Symbols that didn’t quite work, that were, as the few readers I dared to show it to told me, unintelligible. Comparisons so minute they made little sense.


For example, as the daughter, the narrator of the story, listens to the neighbor argue with the mother, or rather, berate the mother (for the mother never speaks a word throughout the entire story) for the stink in the building, she sees an ant crawling up a door jamb. The door is the one that divides the private interior of the house (its bedrooms and bathrooms) from its more public exterior (living room, dining room, kitchen), and inside the daughter’s bedroom there is a small, passport-size black-and-white photo, preserved beneath the glass atop the nightstand, of a dead older brother (the many references to bullet holes and the crumbling house are meant to lead us to the presumption that he died in the war). The beautiful, well-fed face of this boy, who was the first, best-loved fruit of the mother’s womb, bookends the daughter’s monotonous, self-same days; it is the first face she sees in the morning, the last she sees at night.


Already we have forgotten the ant, but here it is again: crawling up the wall, struggling to carry a large crumb in its mandibles as it climbs. The daughter spends an interminable few sentences observing this ant, its slow, laborious progress up the wall toward a crack in the wood, its perfect hourglass figure, nipped in at the waist as though wearing a corset (the reference to the corset I remember very clearly), the way the burden of the crumb threatens to tip it backward, but how it continues on, bearing nourishment for its hive, despite all odds and gravity. And then, suddenly, the daughter is moved to crush the ant beneath her raggedy, bitten-down nails, twisting her finger over its body until she has ground it down to powder (the way her mother pulverizes pods of cumin and cardamom with her mortar and pestle). Then she flicks that powder, like fairy dust, in the direction of her neighbor, as though she wishes to cast a spell on her, to take her slender, well-dressed figure, framed perfectly in the doorway of the house, the figure of someone stingy with the food they allow into their body, and someday wear it herself.


This was back when I thought that there were only two types of women: those, like my grandmother, who performed their roles admirably because they understood the limits, and hence the domain, of their power; and those, like my mother, who floundered, who saw those same limits and hence only the extent of their powerlessness. That it was possible to cross these limits never fully occurred to me. That women did so every day, in subversive and transgressive acts both big and small, had yet to become clear.


And this was also back when I thought each thing I wrote needed to carry the burden of everything, everything, everything I’d ever wanted to say. I’m not sure I believed I would be allowed, would allow myself, to write enough stories to more evenly distribute the weight of that burden. No wonder these stories never found their way to any sort of end.


All that work and nothing to show for it—only these bare bones.



*


Not only strange and lonely: The kitchen always seemed a place of drudgery. An unhappy woman went in, and then these magnificent, aromatic dishes came out. The praise given in return, no matter how sincere or emphatic, seemed such paltry compensation for the labor that had produced such generous offerings. And yet it was clear that as a cook, you always had to serve others first and above all. It was impossible not to conclude that the approval of others was the goal, the most important thing.


“Let me teach you how to cook,” my grandmother would say. But I would always refuse.


I finally learned, in fact, for a man. We were living together at the time, mostly subsisting on take-out or fast food, because what parents we had left were living across the seas and could no longer feed us. At one point, we discovered a place called Mama’s Kitchen that made the home-cooked stews we were both craving, but it shut down after only a few months. One day he was waxing rhapsodic about koussa b’laban: zucchini stuffed with meat and rice and cooked in a stew of creamy, tangy yogurt, sharpened with garlic and brightened with flecks of dried mint.


The first time I made it, it was a disaster. Half the koussas broke as I tried to core them, the yogurt curdled and came apart as it boiled, and the stuffing was all wrong—it didn’t taste like my grandmother’s. But I wanted to win his love, parsed out in such small doses that I shook with need of it like a junky, and much of my mind was occupied with dreaming up offerings I might give to earn it in return.


I called my mother overseas hoping to receive clear instructions. I learned that the length of the koussa must first be measured out against the corer, with a finger placed precisely to mark that length so you never went deep enough to pierce through the bottom. I learned that the yogurt must be thickened with a tempered egg and stirred, stirred, stirred in one direction at a very low heat for all the hours it took to boil. But when I served it, though I received the praise and gratitude I had been craving, and though that pleased me for a time, the stuffing, the stuffing was still wrong—it didn’t taste like my grandmother’s.


“Hmm,” said my mother. “I’m not sure what spices she put in it. Did you remember the white pepper?”


But it wasn’t white pepper, or black pepper, or allspice, or seven spice. There was still something not quite right.


I had to sit, close my eyes, try to remember, to reconstruct from memory. I conjured up my grandmother, her prim, collared dresses, her short, neat nails, the powdery smell of her skin. The way she read to me from Kalila wa Dimna or Sindibad or Grimms’ Fairy Tales as I curled up in her bed, the stories in her voice continuing to drift into my dreams. The way she put orange-blossom water in her Nescafe, the way, when I first experienced my feet falling asleep, because I had been kneeling on a chair to reach the sink while doing the dishes in her house, she told me that invisible ants were crawling up my skin, otherwise why would we use the word m’nammal to describe the feeling? And then how she laughed and laughed when I tried to brush them off in a panic, took me in her arms and told me she was only joking, that the word was more like a metaphor, something that so looked or felt like something else it was more truthful to call it by another name.


Remembering her like that made me long for her desperately. Absorbed in that task, I forgot the initial reason why I had wanted to learn to cook—to receive love and praise. It faded to a pinpoint in the vastness of this longing. I wanted only to bring my grandmother back to me, to resurrect her anew, to experience some small measure of her presence again, even if doing so was fraught with unspeakable pain.



*


Why this story? Why is “Mama’s Kitchen,” above all of the others, the one lost story I cannot fully let go of? Perhaps because it was one of the first, and because it was one of the few, unlike the countless other unfinished stories, for which I had imagined a proper ending. I knew where I wanted it to go, I just never got there.


It needed to end in the kitchen, which the daughter, and hence the reader, never fully enters until the end of the story. In the last paragraph, the daughter would step into the kitchen—to ask her mother for money to buy maxi-pads, having just gotten her period for the first time—and finally actually witness her mother engaged in the act of this mad, misguided creation. There would be the sound of cauldrons bubbling on the stovetop, mentions of potions and powders, steam wreathing the mother’s face and distorting her features, a frenzied whirling inside her tight circle of space.


And the daughter, finally, for a small moment, is moved enough to set her shame aside, the shame she has been floundering in for the entire length of the story. This makes some room for her to feel compassion for her mother and her mysterious task. A compassion, though I would never say so outright, which would more aptly be called pity. And then that pity would harden into dread. Because the daughter sees her own future in her mother’s endless labor unthanked, in a self so consumed by servitude it has been lost, become a soul entrapped by an evil spell, a spell that compels the body to work, work, work, to give and suffer even when the outcome of that work is meaningless. For what could be more meaningless than food no one would ever eat?


It would be like a story unread, just so many words on a page; they might as well have never been written.



*


I knew very well how capable my grandmother was at sating the hunger of others—she has been dead almost twenty years now and still people speak of her vine leaves, rolled tight and even like cigars. Of her own appetites, however, I knew very little.


I remember once, late at night when I was sleeping over at her house, she dished herself up a plate of yakhnet el-loubieh along with some rice. She never made it with tomatoes; she stewed the green beans only in a well-spiced meat stock until they were creamy and yielding beneath the tongue.


She served herself very, very little, just a few mouthfuls, patting her belly—always just shy of perfectly flat—in explanation.


And then she opened the fridge and placed a dollop of mayonnaise on the side of the plate. I had never seen her do this before, though yakhnet el-loubieh was one of her specialties and often made. She began to eat in slow mouthfuls, dragging the beans through the mayonnaise until they were coated in it and then loading the end of her fork with a few grains of rice.


“Mmm,” she said, “mmm,” with every mouthful, closing her eyes in delight. I don’t know why this scene has remained lodged in my memory so clearly for all these years. Perhaps because it was one of the rare occasions in which I witnessed my prim and proper grandmother indulging herself with such abandon.


How sad it was that we lived in a world where women cook and cook and cook, but aren’t ever really supposed to eat.


At the end of her life, when she couldn’t remember any of us, when she could barely recall the Arabic of her life and so often spoke in the English she had taught in various schools across the Arab world, she would hoist herself up on the edge of the bed, paper frail, paper thin of skin and limb and gasp: “The pain, ah yes-ah the pain.” Sometimes she would say this apropos of nothing; sometimes she would be sitting in her armchair, looking out into the distance at something no one else could see and whisper it quietly to herself: “The pain, ah yes-ah the pain.” It was the latter example of this that grinds my heart now to recall, for it allowed me to see how all her life, my grandmother had used the various aches of her body to complain about the anguish of her soul. A metaphor for that which she couldn’t allow herself to name.



*


My mother gave so generously that she allowed me, having barely turned eighteen, to leave her and return, alone, to the Beirut I longed for and loved. She allowed me to do what the men did in the stories I loved best, to “go out into the world and seek my fortune.” I can safely say that had my father still been alive at the time, my fate would have been to stay exactly where I was, where I belonged, in the care of my parents, who knew better.


“Generous?” says my mother with a snort of disdain when I present it to her this way. “I gave you only what I wanted so badly for myself. The power to choose my own life. It’s what most mothers want for their daughters, what they try their entire lives to teach their daughters: How to choose a life better than the one they had.”


What I chose, I think from the minute someone read me my first fairy tale, was that I wanted to become a writer, and that knowledge remained a beacon for me through any floundering and confusion about the other components of my life. Time and again it brought me back on course, though the course was rarely clear and certainly never direct. The journey away from shame, toward the perceived audacity of putting my work out in the world, was long and treacherous and slow. I still feel pulled into whirlpools of such intense self-doubt and self-loathing that I am tempted to give in to them, to leave whatever I happen to be working on mid-sentence and be done with it. But then I remember all that lost work, all those years and years of work gone in an instant.


If it had happened in a fairy tale I was reading, I would perhaps understand this loss as a punishment for the girl’s unwillingness to let her voice be heard. Perhaps her words were taken away from her altogether to teach her that there are worse things than daring to speak and asking others to listen.


“Remember,” my mother said to me, when, in the middle of packing to leave, I was struck by dread of the unknown and wished only to stay where I was: “You’re one of the lucky few who gets to decide on her own story. Think of all the women in your family who came before you, who were never able to do such a thing. Try not to forget what that means.”



*


Writing, for me, is nothing so much as a form of recollection. “Write what you know,” they say, and I have always understood this to mean not that you should write only from the things you have experienced, but that you should write from a core of emotional truth. Your knowledge of the world comes to you first through what you feel—by recalling that first feeling, you can crack it open wide enough to contain any number of experiences.


But this recollection is often torturous and fraught, filled with uncertainty; you are consumed with longing for something that seems to remain always just out of reach. Hours of labor can be lost to chasing one elusive little idea, as again and again you try to fish it out of the muck and jumble of images and thoughts and things you’ve taken in and ingested over the course of your life, from stories you’ve read, from people you’ve loved or observed, from scraps of conversation and experiences that seem insignificant, except they’ve remained lodged inside you deep down somewhere for some obscure reason you’re desperate to try and understand. You clean it off, try to boil it down to its essence so that, ironically, it might become something people can sink their teeth into. Often times you have to throw everything out and start again: there is too much of this, not enough of that.


And then, sometimes, miracle of miracles: It all comes together. Sometimes, by some mysterious alchemy, all those disparate ingredients, all those dollops and pinches and dashes and glugs create something that has been transformed from the mere sum of its parts. And it feels like—because it is—pure magic. But, like all magic, it brings both gift and curse.


The curse is this: that you, the writer, will never know its true taste, for you are too full of everything from which it has been made.


The gift is this: the experience of that exact moment, which takes place only in the utmost privacy and solitude, when you understood you had the power to create something, no matter how small.



*


After many trials and errors, years after the man and I were no longer together, I finally learned what it was: a few sweet whispers of nutmeg. And there was my grandmother, lucid and whole, speaking to me finally through that one missing ingredient.



*


A brief history of the world: The man is the breadwinner.


But it was more often the woman who measured, mixed, kneaded, raised, and baked the bread.


In some dialects of Arabic, bread is ’aish, life.


From flour and water and salt and yeast and women’s work: life.


But: what of the woman’s life?



*


Recently, I was visiting my mother, staying in her small, bright apartment, where the light filters through the riot of flowers and plants that adorn every windowsill. It is like a little glen, an enchanted forest clearing that she has made entirely by herself, for herself.


She was sitting in her armchair, knitting a scarf for one of my brothers, and somehow we got to talking about cooking.


“You have to admit,” I said, “that when you look at it in the context of the household, you can qualify it as an utterly futile activity. A perfect encapsulation of labor under capitalism, all that exhausting work consumed in a matter of minutes, and then nothing to show for it but an aching back and a stack of dirty dishes.”


“Sure,” said my mother, in a voice that was anything but. “You could see it that way.”


A pause, and then she looked up at me from her knitting, over her purple reading glasses so different than the staid ones she’d worn when I was a child.


“I’ve always loved to cook. Hated the dishes, but loved to cook. It was one of the rare times I could be left alone to think.”


Much later that day, when we were in her tiny kitchen preparing dinner, trying to keep our elbows out of one another’s way as we worked silently side by side, she turned to me suddenly with a start.


“Can you imagine,” she said, “all those generations of women trapped indoors, all those potential architects and writers and painters and scientists, unable to ever find out what they were capable of? How many of them poured their creative energy into their cooking so that they didn’t go mad?”



*


Long ago, when I was writing “Mama’s Kitchen,” my perspective, and thus my sympathies, lay firmly with the daughter. With her confusion at her mother’s inscrutable actions, and her embarrassment at their repercussions, social and personal. I saw her mother’s labor through her eyes: as work voided of any meaning, performed completely by rote. Her mother was meant to nourish, and if she didn’t nourish, then what she did could only be perceived as madness, could only elicit pity. But passion always looks like madness to anyone looking in from the outside.


I see now that in addition to all of the other unspoken instructions on womanhood given to me by my mother and grandmother, there was the lesson that love and care, performed for their own sake, could be ways of transgressing the bounds that held one in place, to a tight circle of movement in which there was very little room to maneuver. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf writes of a love that, “like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain.” And any creative act, any labor imbued with love and care, infused with the nafas of the creator, cannot be for nothing, cannot be meaningless, because it had meaning for the creator, and, if nothing else, went out into the world to become part of the human gain.


At least this is what I choose to believe, the story I now choose to tell about all those women, in my family and outside of it, who labored in solitude and spent their lives in service to others: that their work would be more truthfully called love.


And I see that I knew this long ago, even if I didn’t understand what it was, even if the idea was still hidden among the muck and jumble I’ve ingested over the years. In my own clumsy way, I was trying to articulate it long before I understood it.


For what could be more transgressive than making food no one would ever eat? Making it just to make, just to create, just to experience, again and again, that moment when it all comes together?


In a way, it is taboo to speak of, or even speculate upon, the joy that shoots up amid the wastes of suffering; it is too easily misheard as a joy that comes from suffering. To dilute the purity of that sort of pain seems to excuse the conditions and limits that created it, to intrude upon the exclusive property of pain. But what of the person trapped within, occupied, as any person is, always in the task of finding meaning for her life, for herself alone? Are we not allowed to give her that at least? To acknowledge the private and unreadable joys that must have moved her soul, helped her keep madness at bay?


If I rewrote “Mama’s Kitchen” today, I would certainly adjust the ending I first had in mind. Again, the daughter would step into the kitchen at the end—though perhaps having just gotten her period is a little too on the nose. She would finally actually witness her mother engaged in the act of creation. There would be the sound of cauldrons bubbling on the stovetop, mentions of potions and powders, steam wreathing the mother’s face and distorting her features, a frenzied whirling inside her tight circle of space. And then the daughter would step into that circle and wordlessly begin to bunch some parsley, sort some lentils, core some eggplants, or stir a sauce. And it would be clear that she is doing this not because this is the fate she chooses for herself, but to lend her mother some measure of dignity, to say, “even if I don’t understand, I will grant that this somehow has meaning for you, and that this is enough.”


At the very least, she would offer to help with the dishes.



*


These days, I find cooking to be the perfect antidote to writing. What better way to unwind from being totally lost inside your own head than to throw yourself into the clear, step-by-step tasks of a recipe? Into the sensory pleasure of picking out and preparing ingredients? How do you know that coriander is fresh? That garlic is sharp and pungent? That the spices are still good? Smell, taste, color, texture.


It is a creative act that comes together in an hour or a few, as opposed to months and years. Look, here is the result of my labor: visible, edible, joy-giving, immediate. You can smell it and taste it. It has texture, color, form. It is the opposite of abstract. But it also offers concrete lessons on writing: sometimes, unlikely ingredients deepen one another’s flavors in ways you could not have foreseen. Sometimes, you have to trust yourself and follow some wild impulse, willing to make mistakes. Sometimes, mistakes can prove serendipitous. And if a dish should end up truly unsalvageable, destined never to be eaten, well, at least it taught you how to be a better cook.


But my least favorite part of any dinner party I’m hosting remains the part where we all sit down to eat. When I sit down I become aware of the throbbing pain in my back and my legs, and ma illi nafes to eat after all that work. I can never really tell anyway how it actually tastes; I am too full of the smells of which it has been made.


As people drift off into conversation, I feel slightly set apart. A strange and nameless sadness overcomes me; I feel depleted, exhausted, and the praise, no matter how effusive, is never really enough.


But still, I keep having dinner parties, and I cook as often as time allows. I’ve been told that, like my mother and grandmother before me, I have the nafas for it. But more importantly and above all, it turns out, in the end, that I really love to cook.



Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator living and working in Beirut. Her work has appeared in LiteraryHub, Bidoun, Warscapes, The Berlin Quarterly, and Chimurenga. She was a literary fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany and a UNESCO-Aschberg literary fellow in Brazil. In 2017, she was an invited speaker at the PEN World Voices literary festival in New York City. She has translated, from Arabic to English, short stories by Chaza Charafeddine and Mazen Maarouf, as well as the novel As She Once Was by Hassan Daoud.