Back in the kitchen Miriam has been working for the last hour preparing the lunch. In a way it’s good that Samir is late since it affords her the opportunity to catch her breath a bit and focus on the task at hand, even through she was worried when he’d called to say he had to meet with his editor about a recent piece. His boss was almost as much of a creep as hers and she was worried he was in trouble again. It didn’t seem so serious this time, at least. Another disgruntled artist with connections. But every time he has a run in, she seems to pays the price, not him. She’d been passed over twice for promotions despite having more experience and earning the new Arab CPA certificate. And she has an impeccable work record and only missed a few days when Samir’s mother died. Amal had gotten the last promotion despite having only worked there for two years, and she’s a sloppy bookkeeper to boot. Now she runs their small division at the Ministry and tends to treat the others as beneath her. Miriam knows it’s best to ignore it – that’s what Samir always says – but it rancors within her and she cannot let it go. Not every time.
Samir may think of himself as the artist in the family – the journalist, writer, and sculptor – but Miriam, despite her accounting skills and precision, or perhaps because of them, sees herself as an artist in her own right. And not only an artist in the kitchen. How many times had she heard that at work, or from relatives and friends: “Miriam al-Tabbakha! Miriam the Chef!” She is sick of that. Sure, she takes pride in her cooking and spends a lot of time scouring books and websites for new recipes and techniques. She also sees herself as a sort of culinary oral historian, gathering tidbits of kitchen magic from her mother, aunts, and elderly neighbors – when they deign to share their closely guarded family treasures, that is. It reminds her of the brouhaha surrounding the enforcement of the intellectual property rights laws in Syria and how the Ministry has had a hard time handling the enforcement of copyright laws for older recordings, paintings, and other things that people just assume are their tradition, and therefore public property. In the same way the old women jealously protecting their artistic rights, and Miriam has to resort to all sorts of ploys to get at their trade secrets, cajoling, begging, and sometimes outright stealing to get what she wants. She has a great memory for detail and is always making mental notes.
Above all Miriam sees herself as a Time Artist, juggling her job and her household responsibilities without cracking. It doesn’t help that Samir takes this magic act for granted. That she expected. He’s a Syrian man, after all. They don’t live in one of those American soap operas where the men cook and clean and the women run around shopping or hanging around on their sofas talking. Or worse. She lives in the real world and has very few delusions. It is more that she feels obliged to do this eternal juggling to remain sane. Some of the unmarried girls at the Ministry bring little lunches with them, or eat out a lot. The married ones don’t last more than a year before leaving: “retiring,” as one joked. For Miriam, the tradition of sitting down for lunch en famille is sacred. She remembers lunching with her parents, four siblings, and aunts almost every day, running home from the Laïque School, tossing her book bag on the sofa, and rushing to the kitchen to help her mother and sister get the dishes ready while the boys fooled around in the small yard behind their apartment building. Like her own mother she loves the challenge of making it seem effortless, the meal as an act of love, of transubstantiation. In this city you need such small miracles just to deal with the daily indignities: the packed sirvees, the peeling paint in the Ministry halls, the petty office gossip, her overbearing boss, and above all the general situation, like a leaden blanket hanging over their lives. Then Samir gets in trouble every so often because he can’t keep his mouth shut. His problems easily become her problems too.
At least Samir takes her out from time to time, even if the outings are usually work related – an opening at one of the new galleries, a concert at the French Cultural Center, a lecture, or a dinner in honor of one visiting foreign artist or another. They’d gone out to dinner at the Sheraton a few times, and even enjoyed weekends up in Zabadani (taking the old small-gauge train once), or with her sister in Ma’loula. So that helps. But still.
Miriam shakes her head as if to clear the distracting thoughts, looks at the countertop, and focuses on the magic she has to enact today. The menu is simple, but as ever imprinted with her special touch. They’ll start with some tabbouleh, mtabbal, and fresh za’tar salad in olive oil, then they’ll taste a little of her famous shanklish with pomegranate seeds. They’ll finish things off with kefta bil-karaz, grilled meats with roasted cherries – – a new addition to her repertoire borrowed from a visit to Bayt Wakil in Aleppo when Samir had gone to review an exhibit in Aleppo.
The Time Artist has already prepared much of the meal in advance. Last night she’d roasted the eggplant on the stove top and set it aside to marinade in some of her secret spice blend. She’d carefully peeled open the pomegranate and emptied its seeds into a bowl of dibs ruman and ma’ ward: the pomegranate molasses and rose water were an innovation taken from her neighbor’s mother, who had mistakenly invited her into the kitchen during a visit a few months ago. Nothing escaped her eyes, or her palate. Shanklish with pomegranate? It was unorthodox, to say the least. But why not? She’d picked up the cheese on the way home from Abu ‘Adel’s in Sha’alan. Fresh za’tar, baqdunis, and kuzbara grew in small pots on her balcony – store-bought thyme, parsley, and cilantro just weren’t the same. She had also picked up some sumac and the special dried za’tar mix as well from that little shop next to Abu ‘Adel’s. The lamb for the kefta was already ground and waiting in the fridge, and she had roasted the cherries last night to save time. Khubz? Check. Dried figs, almonds, and dates? Check. Water, juice, and soda? Check. ‘Araq? That was Samir’s department. Fresh fruit for dessert? Check. She is all set. Everything is in its place. Except the music. She realizes that Samir has turned off the Fairouz CD in the salon – why does he always do this? – so she puts on the little iPod she keeps in the kitchen and selects her Fairouz playlist. She cannot cook without Fairouz and believes that the sweetness of her voice infuses her cooking. Fairouz hasn’t failed her yet.
The tabbouleh is always the first and longest preparation. Some of her friends have taken to using food processors to chop the parsley, but Miriam knows that this is a disaster. Instead, she prepares it fresh. Out comes the old wooden cutting board with the round depression in the middle, then the long, curved chopping blade that her grandmother had used until she died some years ago. Miriam remembers sitting next to her on the kitchen floor watching the blade go back and forth, the agile hands chopping the parsley and at the same time scooping it into a small wooden bowl off to the side. Artistry. She repeats the motions, then drains the bitter juices and then adds some chopped tomatoes, some fine burghul, a little chopped mint – not too much, as it gets bitter too – and mixes it slowly with a little juice squeezed from a lemon. She then adds a pinch of sea salt, and a small amount of olive oil. It doesn’t need to be so oily. That was her grandmother’s way. She mixes it in a bowl then scoops it into another already lined with fresh leaves of lettuce. A little lemon wedge on the side gives it a nice touch.
Mtabbal is easier. She had already placed the roasted eggplant spiced with baharat out on the counter to warm when she’d arrived. Now she just has to blend it with some tahineh, a little laban, chopped garlic, a dash of sumac for a little lemony taste, and olive oil. She scoops this into another bowl and adds a swirl of olive oil and a dusting of dried za’tar. To prepare the other salad she rinses and tosses some fresh za’tar leaves in a bowl, throws in some excess parsley from the tabbouleh preparation, a little chopped red onion, and a splash of olive oil. Then she slowly drizzles some of the dabs ruman-ma’ ward mixture and a little ground chili pepper to give it some zing, then sets it aside. Stepping back she sees that the first course is ready. Fairouz sings Marmar Zamani, and Miriam is content. Happy, even.
She arranges the dishes on a serving platter, plops a few loaves of khubz that she’s heated up in the toaster oven in a wicker basket, then, removing her headphones, brings it all out to the salon and places it on the coffee table. George has already poured the ‘araq, Majid has his soda, Samir smokes – he was supposed to quit this year, but it doesn’t look like it will happen – and David sits back listening and tentatively sipping on his ‘araq. Miriam likes David, even if George gives him a hard time about his interest in Islam. Why should she care? It’s his life. Plus he always brings some sweets when he visits – especially baqlawa – and is always so polite, if a little shy. Samir enjoys his company, or rather his being an audience. Samir always enjoys an audience. She clears a space for the bowls, places them around the table, and sits with them for a moment.
Seeing Miriam come in, Samir sits back but says nothing. David admires the feast and Majid leans forward to sniff the cheese. “What’s this, ‘Amti?” he asks. “It’s shanklish with pomegranate, habibi. Try it.” So Majid takes a piece of bread and dips it into the bowl, then touches it to his tongue. “I don’t like it!” he proclaims, and George says, “You didn’t even try it! Yallah, Eat some!” But Majid sits back on the sofa, crosses his arms, and says “La!”
“Faddalou!” says Samir, gesturing to David somewhat grandly with his outstretched arm. “Sahtayn!” adds Miriam. She retreats to her kitchen and her Fairouz. And the small glass of ‘araq that George had poured her before taking the bottle into the salon. She’ll leave the men to their politics, plus she still has to make the kefta bil-karaz. The artist has to focus on her craft.
Back in the salon they eat with gusto. Not only is the food delicious but being rather late in the day, they are quite hungry. The shanklish is a bit of a challenge for David, let alone for Majid, because it combines the saltiness of the aged and dried goat cheese with the somewhat sour yet sweet taste of the pomegranate and rose water. It’s hard to place. He’s never tasted anything like it before. Samir and George don’t seem to mind at all and scoop it up with pieces of bread in between long sips on their tall glasses of ‘araq, which George remixes from time to time with alchemical precision.
The television is tuned to al-Jazeera, as usual, and now the program features headlines from the region: explosions near the Green Line in Baghdad; another scandal concerning the American occupation forces; strife in Sana’a; protests by unemployed university graduates in Rabat; allegations of fraud in Egyptian parliamentary elections; an American drone crashes in Afghanistan; UN nuclear inspectors leave Tehran after a stalemate with the president over access to sites. And so the world turns.
Normally Samir would offer a running commentary on these events – how they fit into the larger Western conspiracies in the Middle East to secure dwindling supplies of oil and control profits from drug and arms trafficking. But tonight he seems subdued, distracted. After a few desultory comments about how the world is kharban, messed up, he turns off the set and instead they just eat and talk about David’s work, his translation projects, and Arabic poetry. David mentions his having read some Nizar Qabbani, and George interrupts him to say, “You should translate him instead of wasting your time on Sufism.” Samir holds his right hand out to George in that classic Arab gesture with the fingers pointing up and touching, meaning “hold your horses!”
“Tawal balak, ya George! Let him eat,” he says, so George acquiesces and, raising his glass, says, “li-sahat Nizar! To Nizar’s health!” David can drink to that.
David thinks of Marina and how she and George shared the same antipathies toward his interests in religion. The two would get along all right. Nidal, when they’d spoken of his work on Ibn ‘Arabi, never said much of anything but had just nodded her head quickly with a slight look of incredulity on her face. He is an anomaly in her world. George, sensing Samir’s annoyance, turns the talk to music (avoiding Fairouz), what TV programs David has watched, and if he’s gone to the cinema at all. David has only attended one showing at the fancy Jasmine Hotel theater. Otherwise he mostly stays home and reads. “You should come watch some with us!” offers George. “We have the Harry Potter movies! You’ll like them.” Majid perks up at the mention of his hero and asks, ” Can ‘Amo Hari come over to watch movies tonight!?”
“No, Baba, we have plans, but maybe he can come visit the house later.” They agree to head to George’s house after lunch to see the renovations he’s been doing, and maybe watch Harry Potter another time.
George turns back to David and asks about the school where he teaches, how the students are, if he’s paid enough. David isn’t exactly enthusiastic about the school, or its director – especially after the friendly little interview he was subjected to at Internal Security just to get the job. But it does allow him to stay in Damascus, and while teaching English is a lot harder than he’d thought, still, he enjoys it well enough, and some of the students are interesting and he’s learning a lot from them, too. Samir feigns interest in David’s projects, asking perfunctory questions and nodding knowingly, but mostly just sits and smokes.
Majid, having had his fill of mezze, hops up and runs to the kitchen to join his aunt. He is her favorite nephew, polite and handsome, and she loves to spoil him. She sees him come in and turns off Fairouz and holds him to her in a quick hug. Then she pops a roasted cherry dripping with sugary juice in his mouth. His eyes widen with delight at the sweet and sour taste. She has just finished chopping the onion and cilantro. She places the herbs and ground lamb in a bowl and mixes them together with her secret spices. Then, wetting her hands, she forms the kefta into little logs. But instead of moulding them around skewers, she places them in a George Foreman grill, one of the compromises with modernity in her kitchen. But it’s faster and the heat more even. She invites Majid to turn on the grill and turn the kefta when they get brown, then remove them with aluminum tongs.
Miriam has prepared a platter with some warmed bread slathered with sumac, za’tar, and some chopped parsley. She instructs Majid to lay the meats on the bread, interspersed with the roasted cherries, and then to cover them before they get cold. He is eager, even proud, to be helping “‘Amti” in the kitchen. When it is done, she brings the platter to the salon. Majid joins her and proclaims, “Look what I cooked, Baba!” and they all laugh. Samir tussles his hair, says “Bravo!” and they settle in for the meat course.
David has been a vegetarian for some years, but it has proved hard, nay impossible, to continue in Syria. So he decides to go with the flow and takes a piece of kefta and a few cherries and puts them on his plate with some of the bread. Miriam clears off the salad bowls, places them on the platter, and returns with them to the kitchen.
The kefta is extraordinary: the tender and juicy meat enhanced by the rich, dark cherries. Samir and George grasp the meat and cherries with pieces of spiced bread. Politics seems far away as they revel in the tastes. David thinks back to the Saturday lunches he’d share with his parents at the local Lebanese restaurant. After his grandmother had passed away, his father, who had not learned to cook the dishes, would take him and his mother to the al-Homsi restaurant in Paterson for fattoush salad, kibbeh nayyeh, and fasulia bil-zeit. It was their monthly ritual, until his mother got tired of it and declared that she would rather just eat “American food” on the weekends. It later became a special father-son treat to sit over a platter of raw kibbeh – “Arabian Steak Tartare,” his father had called it – and talk about anything, everything, and nothing at all. His father didn’t seem to have acquired the taste for ‘araq but loved to order elaborate fresh-squeezed juice concoctions. David did as well.
The silence at the table is a bit awkward, but David senses that Samir is preoccupied and not only hungry, so he says nothing. They finish the kefta, Miriam clears the table with the help of her assistant Majid, then they return with a platter full of fresh fruits. Peeling an orange is a philosophical endeavor for Samir – he concentrates on the motion of the knife, making sure the cuts are even, then portioning out pieces of the fruit to Majid and David, a slight smile on his lips. When they’ve had their fill, Miriam comes back with a pot of tea and the box of sweets that David had brought – minus the baqlawa, of course, which she had set aside for herself and already eaten – and though stuffed they do their best to sip the tea and munch on a few sweets.
Sitting back in the sofas, George look over at his son and says, “Yallah Baba. Let’s take ‘Amo Samir and ‘Amo Khairy to the house.” Miriam decides to stay home and rest. It’s about 4:30 when they rise and get their jackets and shoes on. Samir fiddles with his mobile phone, David thanks Miriam once more, and the four of them depart.