By Sheana Ochoa
The motif of home and more specifically "the Return" (Al-Awda in Arabic) recurs throughout world literature. Home as a place (as opposed to a state of mind or of being) comprises the central conflict in Salma Abdelnour's memoir, Jasmine and Fire, a Bittersweet Year in Beirut. Abdelnour was born in the United States of Lebanese parents, but returned to Lebanon when she was two, the summer before the 15-year Lebanese civil war ignited. After six years of war, the family decided to move back to America. However, Abdelnour's conscious memories of childhood, her sense of home, remained in Beirut.
After years of nostalgically entertaining thoughts of returning to the Lebanon of her childhood, Abdelnour decides to test Thomas Wolfe's axiom of whether one can ever really "go home again," by embarking on a year experiment living in Beirut. The most fascinating aspect of Abdelnour's attempt to build a life in Beirut is that it falls on the eve of the Arab Spring.
In the introduction she explains: "Just as everything in my New York life was miraculously clicking all at once, and for the first time ever—work I loved, an apartment I adored, friends I cherished, a romance I'd rekindled—I decided to move back to Beirut." Abdelnour finds that she associates a busy, diverse sprawling city with home and no wonder she chose New York to build a life and career. Unfortunately her skills as a food and travel writer work towards creating a travelogue rather than a provocative memoir. Her prose (a life that's "clicking," a romance that's "rekindled"), while appropriate for magazine writing, fails to illuminate the author's conflict and the very reason for writing the memoir.
The significance of the historical setting still reverberating in the Middle East today is blunted by Abdelnour's focus on Beirut's food, restaurants, hot spots, geography. The political background is wasted as a conduit for creating a tense narrative or original perspective. To Abdelnour's credit, she admits that, "As much as I wholeheartedly support the uprising, I don't want to be anywhere near the mayhem. I guess there's a reason I'm not a war reporter...the danger makes me want to bolt, not pull out my notepad." The setting therefore becomes a backdrop, not an integral part of the narrative, which the back of the book's synopsis insinuates.
There is one exception, which is handled as a sort of afterthought in the penultimate chapter of the book. Just before Abdelnour decides her life is in New York after all, which is as predictable as the reconciliation of the love interests in a romantic comedy, she decides to visit Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp near the northern edge of Beirut. It is a brief visit, but raises the poignant idea of Al-Awda, which doesn't come from the author herself but from the son of a family who gives her a tour of the camp: "He tells me he and his siblings and friends in the camp grew up thinking of Lebanon as temporary, and thinking of Palestine as their real home. But it's strange to think of your home as a place you've never actually been, Walid adds after pausing for a moment." By comparison, the fact that the author has the luxury of choosing a home presented in contrast to a people displaced from their home offers a satisfying conclusion, in a literary sense, to her year in Beirut.
The scene in Shatila would have been the perfect opportunity for Abdelnour to comment on what Danny Rubenstein, an Israeli writer, observed: "Every people in the world live in a place, except Palestinians, the place lives in them."
On the last page of the memoir, Abdelnour includes a note in italics that she had "jotted" to herself: "In the world there are people who will ease your way and others who won't. And you'll ease the way for some and not for others. You'll eventually forget about the ones who froze you out, and they'll forget you. The world is for you and for the ones who roll out the carpet, even if it's tattered. They're scattered all over. And if you look carefully, they can help you find your way home, wherever you are." This would have been a nice ending, and is the best piece of writing in the book, and yet the next sentence reads: "That sounds too much like a self-help pep talk." The writer negates a legitimate attempt at defining what she has spent the entire book looking for, and simply falls back on her glossy, practiced magazine verbiage.
What Jasmine and Fire does best is what any great travel article will do: It makes the reader want to travel through Lebanon. It provides a narrative while offering the reader ideas on where to go and what to eat. At this Abdelnour shines, brilliantly sustaining the reader's attention further than the length of a typical magazine feature. In doing so, Beirut becomes the love interest of the story, and a more fully developed character than the real love interest in Abdelnour's life back home in New York. Read as a travelogue instead of a political memoir or the exploration of Al-Awda, Jasmine and Fire works as a light, entertaining read.
Visit Salma Abdelnour's web site.
Sheana Ochoa is a writer in Los Angeles. Her forthcoming book is a biography of acting legend Stella Adler.