Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2020
Do you ever wake up and crave a certain dish? Perhaps a glazed donut, a milkshake or some savory meals, where cheese melts into your mouth. Or maybe some waffle fries or a warm piece of pizza. Well, I woke up this past morning craving Kebbe bi Laban, Koussa, Loubiye, Waraa Enab, Taouk, Kafta, Toum and every single Lebanese dish that has ever been put on our mezze table on Sunday afternoons. The list goes on, and on and on, not forgetting the dessert table …
When I woke up, I hoped to walk to the kitchen, barefoot and half asleep, as the scent of chopped onions, minced beef and Mediterranean herbs dragged me by my pajamas to taste the meal in the making. Except there was no sign of the Mediterranean atmosphere or festivity and rejoicing. I wished I could teleport my body to Lebanon, to the dining room, to the chair on the right side of the door, to the texture of my favorite entrees and the sugary aftertaste of our traditional desserts.
If not for COVID-19, my mother would have flown to California and filled my fridge with Lebanese pastries and traditional snacks. Instead, I carried bits and pieces of them in a corner of my heart and left, unable to look back, unable to forget how many times my parents’ visa appointment got rescheduled and declined: somewhere close to four. I was determined to search for a place that offered food like home.
I walked, searched and collected a list of restaurants that varied from Mediterranean to Turkish and Lebanese. You would catch me grinning or slightly jumping at the sight of a new place I discovered because it meant that I was one step closer to home. As the list grew, my taste buds were ready to embark on the emotional journey back home, ready for an 8 p.m. home-cooked Kafta with potatoes and tomato paste, for our mint salad and Tabbouleh.
For a time, I would try to taste one new restaurant to scratch it off my list. Some days they were good, somedays they weren’t as good, but overall, I was not disappointed. They certainly played with the names and the scents of the dishes, but, truthfully, the Americanization of products is not an innovation of today.
I tested a variety of products, but something was always missing. In the midst of a delicious bite, I did not feel complete. There was something more to it, something I couldn’t recognize. But as time passed, I began to understand the caveat that kept on teasing me on the inside, a feeling that could be compared to missing the last piece of a puzzle and not finding it, being so close to completeness and yet so far away.
Today, I take a step back and as I am visualizing the situation, I now understand why I failed to find what was missing. I left it behind on Sept. 6, as I reached terminal 2E. It slipped from my hands while the airplane engine was starting. It was the Lebanese warmth that I was yearning for. The happy rose trees of downtown Beirut. The crowded sidewalks of Saifi Village. The irresistible smell of all types of food on Gemmayze Street. The succulent Lebanese dishes on every corner of Ashrafieh streets. I missed sitting at the rectangular kitchen table, sharing a variety of meals with my family. Looking back at my daily Lebanese lunch routine, I realize that I did not appreciate enough the little moments that became so frequent, that I mistook for being always available. The kitchen at work that I used to dislike because its cooking smell spread everywhere, always leaving its perfume on my shirt or on my hair. The grains of flour that were left on the shelf after cleaning a dozen times… I realized that everywhere I went, everywhere I discovered, everything I tested, I was constantly searching for the missing pieces of Lebanon, perhaps in a scent, in a smile, in an Arabic word, in a song or in a whole new world.
The truth is, you leave your country to chase your dreams, and along the way, you live your dreams to chase the lost pieces of your country, in the hopes of rebuilding your safe home. As damaged, chaotic and destroyed as it may be, Lebanon survived and now breathes in every corner of the place you settle in, because it is immutable, immaculate and immortal. At Stanford, I am always proud to walk around with my Lebanon flag face mask, because I want to show what it means to be Lebanese: it means aching to the core but still managing to spread positivity. It means surviving but yet knowing how to live fully. It means rebuilding your country with your own two hands. It means missing your childhood neighborhood in the suburbs of Beirut and yearning for your mom’s home-cooked meals on a Sunday afternoon.