JASMINE AND FIRE
RETURNING TO HER BELOVED BEIRUT
By Suzanne Packer
Salma and I met in Achrafieh last summer where we briefly discussed her book. JASMINE AND FIRE was such a compelling book for me that I consumed it in two days. Probably it was due to Salma’s honesty and focus that I felt I was walking in her shoes everywhere she travelled and with everyone she met on this amazing journey in Lebanon. I hope you enjoy Jasmine and Fire as I did.
Given that you have lived many years in USA, where were you born and/or raised in Lebanon prior to the outbreak of war? Where are your parents from in Lebanon?
My parents are both Lebanese—my mother is from Beirut and my father is from the town of Aley—and I was born while they were in graduate school in the U.S. (in Illinois). So I wasn’t born in Lebanon, but when I was two years old, my parents moved the family back to Beirut, and we stayed there until I was 9 years old.
Beirut and probably the whole of Lebanon flows through your veins, was it difficult to adapt to a life in the USA?
When we moved to Texas during the Lebanese civil war, I was 9 years old and I had a very difficult time adapting at first. I felt like an alien in our suburban neighborhood, and I missed my friends, cousins, and classmates in Beirut. I missed being near the Mediterranean Sea and having all the familiar Beirut sights around me. I also longed to be surrounded again by my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and I craved my teta’s cooking.
Your life’s journey has allowed you to enter journalism. Tell us about falling into food writing and what are your great memories of the Lebanese cuisine?
I knew ever since my high school years that I wanted to become a journalist. I’ve always loved writing—about a great many subjects, food being one of them—and I felt lucky to get my first job as a food writer at Time Out New York magazine. From there, I went on to write about food and travel for Food & Wine and for O, The Oprah Magazine. Coming from such a food-focused culture as Lebanon’s gave me an early passion for all things culinary.
What are you favourite foods?
Growing up eating a freshly baked man’ouche (zaatar bread) for breakfast in Beirut, and enjoying dishes like luscious lamb kibbe covered in homemade yogurt for lunch, has led to my lifelong obsession with Lebanese dishes and flavors.
When did you arrive back in New York and when was your year in Lebanon?
I returned to Beirut in the summer of 2010 and lived there until the summer of 2011. I moved back to New York in July 2011.
JASMINE AND FIRE was the product of your stay there – are you aiming to have this book launched globally?
Currently the book is sold in the U.S., Australia, and Lebanon, and I would certainly love to have publishers in other countries distribute it widely as well.
What prompted you to write about this experience and call it JASMINE AND FIRE?
I have been wrestling with the question “Where is home?” for my entire life, ever since my family left Lebanon to escape the civil war. I’ve always felt that I left a huge part of myself back in Beirut, even as I acclimated to life in the U.S. and grew to appreciate the relative safety and comfort of it. Part of me felt American, and part of me was still haunted by my attachment to Lebanon. So I decided to move back to Beirut, to see if I could answer the eternal question: “Can you go home again?” The title “Jasmine and Fire” was inspired by a lyric from a song by the Lebanese singer Fairuz, in which she juxtaposes the sweetness of Lebanese life with the constant threat of fire (i.e. war, destruction, political tension).
Is your book available in Australia?
Yes, in Australia, Jasmine and Fire is published by HarperCollins.
Might you grace the shores of Australia one day in particular Melbourne as it is known as the Gourmet Capital of Australia?
I have been so eager to visit Australia, and I have heard such wonderful things about the food in Melbourne. In fact I was about to visit Melbourne last summer, but a work-related conflict kept me from going—but I look forward to doing so in the near future.
What an exciting “job”. How amazing has travel and food writing been for you?
I feel fortunate to have found a career that combines some of my biggest passions: writing, food, and travel. But what many people don’t realize is that it’s also very hard work. For instance, on a travel assignment I am often dashing around from early morning until late at night, day after day, since writers are rarely given as much as time as they’d ideally need to travel and to research, report, and write an article. After a trip, writers are often faced with a very tight deadline, so the work can be nonstop for many days or weeks on end. But even though it can be exhausting, I still absolutely love it.
What are you reading at this moment, favourite movie and favourite music?
Currently I’m reading “Crescent,” a terrific novel by the Jordanian-American writer Diana Abu-Jaber, as well as a collection of short stories by Daniyal Mueenuddin, set in Pakistan and called “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.”
I have so many favorite movies, but I’d have to count “Annie Hall,” “Goodfelllas,” “Raising Arizona,” “Belle de Jour,” and “Il Gattopardo” among the films I can watch again and again.
As far as music, I love the Lebanese band Soap Kills (they disbanded some years ago but their songs are unforgettable: moody, haunting, and sung in Arabic). I also listen to lots of rock (old and new), funk, hip-hop, and soul music.
After the often hectic print media world, what hobbies or outlets does Salma like to pursue?
I love to go for a run in Prospect Park, an enormous, gorgeously landscaped expanse of green space near my home in Brooklyn, New York.
I also enjoy window-shopping for beautiful furniture and textiles to furnish imaginary rooms; sometimes I indulge in a great find, if I can make space for it, but mostly I fantasize!