There is a commotion around the table as everyone scours for a plastic chair to sit in. I find mine, two places away from the host. I figure I want a piece of the action but, then again, also some distance as I invite my husband into the seat between us.
He’s earned it. Seeing his brother for less than a month every three years does take an emotional toll on him. I know so. It transpires every Saturday in Houston when he reminiscences of meals such as this one. Today, however, is not even the weekend and here we are, fifteen of us, ready to share our first meal of the day.
I’m suddenly drawn back to the task at hand by the aggressive, yet friendly voice of my sister-in-law ushering me to dig in before the crisp morning wind ruins it all. I stop counting spaces for the children, aunties, uncles, and mothers-in-law and survey the feast. There are black olives from the local vendor and green ones from my sister-in-law’s plantation. I take one of each to study the differences, then follows a brief conversation on the rich lands everyone has inherited and the old days when the entire town would join in to harvest them.
“Nowadays, Lebanese are too posh to pick up fruit from their trees, they leave that to Syrian refugees or Ethiopian maids,” my husband affirms. I know he is right and I know he’s a tad saddened by the ways in which his people have changed, not to mention annoyed by those things in which they haven’t. Every time he comes here, his heart aches a little for the days gone by.
“The pessimism still lingers, but it has lessened,” I whisper to myself. I noticed it the first time I came here ten trips ago, in the late nineties, as the country emerged from years of civil war and Israeli occupation. People’s priorities have shifted since then. Before the war, the Lebanese were connected to the earth and took pleasure in the little things, like family picnics in their own gardens instead of fancy beach side resorts. When people worked their own plantations and when the grandfather planted his own jasmines in the old house, there was less of an impulse to one-up your neighbor and absolutely no need to check Whats App every 5 seconds. Those were the days in Lebanon. When shepherds were still a common sight and people, rich and poor, shared the bounties of the land.
I briefly study my reflection in the steamy teapot. Behind me are the azure skies and the white, peeling columns of the veranda. Beyond that, laying low on the horizon, the foamy, turquoise waves of the Mediterranean Sea. At times, Lebanon could pass for Italy or Greece, or the other way around. The thing is, the sea knows no borders or man-made wars and would care less about this pessimism, this by-product of war in the Lebanese psyche, was it not for the trash.
“But, they are coming out of it,” I reassure myself quietly, “change is coming.”
I’ve seen the garden behind the building, the one with more than forty-five citrus trees, enclosed by cypresses. They are brimming with palm-sized lemons and limes, plus the many more littering the ground with no one to pick them up. There is also a young fig tree and a mulberry giant on the other side of the building that gets me all rallied up, old and neglected as the building itself. This time of year it must be bursting with tiny, white clusters of sweetness. It’s just unfortunate I was unable to reach them through the junk someone decided to stack on the way there.
“Well, go on habibte! Mange, it’s getting cold!” My sister-in-law hands me a crystal cup of sweet black tea, one with a tiny doll-sized spoon, and pushes my way the plate of boiled fava beans and chickpeas. I bathe the plate with a generous amount of olive oil, chopped tomatoes, mint leaves, and pickled cucumbers and reach for the pitta bread.
The food is splendid.
I could instantly immerse myself in the exquisite balance of flavors and freshness if it wasn't for the loud conversation around me. Another brother-in-law, rapidly speaking Arabic, is putting in his two cents. I gather what he is saying with my intermediate knowledge of the language and the whole lot of French everyone else is speaking. And we all laugh. To the untrained ear, southern Lebanese speech sounds much like punching. After twenty years of visiting, I finally know better. I know that, when they are not gossiping, they are crafting jokes. This is, in part, what I love about the Lebanese: their warm and welcoming nature and their unapologetic exuberance. If only they could go back to the earth, take charge of their health and the health of their country. If only they could take their country back. Back from foreign interests, back from commercial interest.
I shove the last piece of bread in my mouth as my sister-in-law lights her second cigarette this morning. Why on earth are people, mostly women in hijab, still smoking in these lands? It befuddles me.
“Change is coming,” I repeat to myself almost like a hymn. “I can almost smell it.” Then, I get offered a cup of Pepsi.
“No thanks. You know I don’t drink it.” They don’t cease to offer because they just don’t understand a refusal.
“But…you know Pepsi comes from America. If it was bad for your health, America would not be selling it. Don’t you think?”
Such a light comment, yet so heavy. After all these years victimized by U.S.-Israeli policies in the Middle-East, after the greedy consumerist mentality imposed on the Lebanese by American corporations, my Lebanese family still believes the U.S., their “America”, has a moral compass. The notion that American products, the real ambassadors in far-off places such as these, are inherently good and honest baffles me. It’s, in a way, both sad and endearing. The innocence, that is.
“Pepsi, Coke, white sugar…it’s all the same,” I say, “leading cause of diabetes, but...bon appetit!”
Suddenly, I cannot help but think of all the conversations I’ve had around town in the past 3 weeks, conversations of people struggling with diabetes. A little voice in my head goes off, it’s my inner microbiologist reminding me about genetic predisposition. But, I quickly shut her up because I knew the older generation, those who lived till their nineties or well-past their hundreds by eating home-grown food. Those who died at the beginning of the millennium, none due to diabetes. This, right here, is a new problem. This is the problem of those born in the fifties and sixties’, the ones who were old enough to fight the war, the ones who came out of the rubble a bit more careless, almost scared to dig into the ground. This is the generation that didn’t try to heal, that swept all the pain under a winter carpet or made it numb by drinking Pepsi and smoking Marlboro.
“Numbing wears off.” I tell myself, “Change is coming, I can almost taste it.”