Read It Forward: Why did you want to move back to Beirut, in your 30s, after spending your adult life in the U.S.?
Salma Abdelnour: I felt it was my last chance, in a way, to figure out why Beirut was still on my mind, why it kept nagging at me after all these years. My family had moved to the States when I was 9 years old, but part of me had never really left Beirut.
RIF: What was the most unexpected part of your journey in Lebanon? The most rewarding?
SA: The most unexpected part of my time in Lebanon was how little the country has changed since I moved away many years ago – and also how much it’s changed in some ways.
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Lots of details are still exactly the same as I’d remembered them: the same grocer and his wife running a shop on the corner of my street, the stationery shop down the block run by the same owner who has been there more than 40 years, the old hookah cafe overlooking the sea.
Those some-things-never-change moments are comforting, and in some ways shocking after all the country has been through. Some villages around Lebanon are still, thankfully, rural and quiet – not prone to the same kind of glamour-obsession or rampant overbuilding that can plague Beirut.
RIF: What role does food play in your personal and professional life, and how did food impact your search for home in Lebanon?
SA: Whenever I take walks, or travel, in any city in the world, I always have some kind of food adventure in mind. That’s been the case for as far back as I can remember, and since long before I became a food and travel writer for a living.
Hunting down a specific bakery I’ve heard about, or a particular dish or street-food vendor, gives me something to do when I’m traveling or just walking around, and gives me a way to connect with a place I’m discovering or rediscovering. It’s an excuse to wander off on a quest, to interact with a city and its people, and of course to treat myself to something delicious or fascinating in the process.
When I moved back to Lebanon, I found myself doing just what I do in New York or anywhere else: Going off on long walks, around a city or a village, often with a food-related end point in mind. The walks and the food adventures I went on in Beirut and smaller villages in Lebanon helped me find my way around, geographically and, in a way, emotionally too.
Read the full Q&A with Salma Abdelnour, author of Jasmine and Fire