This week on The Trip podcast: Greeting Lebanon’s revolution with culinary hero Anissa Helou.
Good morning—early morning—from Beirut. It’s dark out in the Hamra neighborhood, a beautiful little fist of city that pushes down into the Mediterranean. It’s dark up here but the muzzeins calling the prayer and the roosters calling to no one at all are well-caffeinated and already firing. Good morning. Good morning from Beirut. Wake up. Wake the fuck up. There is a new day out there, just beyond your horizon. There is a revolution going on in Lebanon. That’s why we’re here. They started gathering months ago, at the Egg, an odd concrete derelict landmark in the heart of downtown Beirut. They are still there, camped out, peaceful but very urgent, resolute that they will stay until the goals of the revolution are met. And already I can tell you that this revolution is the same revolution that is going on almost everywhere.
I didn’t even know it, it doesn’t have a name, and in some places it’s still just a feeling, a question, maybe a twinkle in the eye of arsonist. But I saw it in Appalachia, I saw it Kurdistan, I saw it from Thailand to Tijuana. It is the revolution for decency, for justice, for joy, for government that respects our lives and ambitions. More than anything it’s a revolution against corruption, which has all of us in its grip. So they’re banging pans in Santiago, guarding servers in Hong Kong, marching into the batons of the Hindutvas in Delhi. And you might think that it is powerless to in a world where the worst among us are the ones who get to throw rockets and reapers. But I am a real American, the worst kind of optimist, so naïve, so much power. Let’s point the power at Beirut, let’s give their revolution the stage. We’re going to start with one of my culinary heroes, a woman who lost both her countries, Lebanon and Syria, but is back in Beirut for a moment to greet the revolution, to see her mother, to feel the revolution, to eat good things that are here and nowhere else on earth.
It is Anissa Helou, and she is making us Arak, a Levantine aniseed distillate that is cloudy to the eye and crisp on the tongue and freeing to the mind. We’ll talk about her life in exile, about how food brought her back to her childhood, and what she wants for Lebanon. But in the background you’ll hear it from time to time, that call to prayer. Just take it as a motif throughout these five episodes. It’s an alarm, a wakeup call. Wake up. Wake the fuck up.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Anissa.
Nathan Thornburgh: How did you get into becoming an interpreter of the Levant, and food culture generally?
Anissa Helou: It was really by chance. I was in the art world for as my first serious career, for 20 years, and then I was working and buying art for members of the Kuwaiti royal family and the Gulf War happened. At the same time I was starting to think about writing. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but my initial ambition was much more elevated—to be like a Simone de Beauvoir kind of novelist. I was thinking about writing about collectors who collected the way I did—with relatively little money ahead of the curve, anticipating markets, buying things that people did not want that were really beautiful. And I got myself a literary agent, who introduced me to a Lebanese friend. At dinner they were discussing cookbooks. It was 1992 and the beginning of the trend. I was listening to them and thinking, there isn’t a Lebanese cookbook that is user-friendly for those not familiar with the cuisine. And at the same time I was thinking my mother is a great cook, and I could write down her recipes. So I flippantly said, “Oh, maybe I should write a book on Lebanese food.”
I wanted to produce a cookbook for all the young Lebanese who were displaced because of the war.
Thornburgh: This was in London, right after the end of Lebanon’s civil war? So you would have been talking with people who were not in Lebanon anymore.
Helou: Exactly. And I hadn’t been to Lebanon for 10 years or so.
Thornburgh: It wasn’t just a market opportunity for you. There was also this hole in your heart about that food.
Helou: Yes. I also wanted to produce a volume for all those young Lebanese who were displaced because of the war, and did not have the fortune that I had of seeing everything made at home—seeing my grandmother prepare kishk, or my mother make pickles. So my Lebanese friend immediately said, “Oh, why would you want to do that? There is already a Bible.” The Bible was a book that was published in 1958, in which where a recipe for chicken started with “Kill your chicken, pluck it, then put a ton of butter on it and roast it.” So I thought, that’s not the Bible—certainly not for the 1990s. But my agent, interestingly, said she had a publisher who was looking for somebody to write a Lebanese cookbook.
I said, “I’m your person!” knowing nothing about cookbooks, not having any respect for cookbooks, because I didn’t think they were a literary genre, or any kind of genre. What I knew about myself is that I was a good cook—I mean home cook. That I knew about food because I grew up in a food culture and I lived in Paris. I didn’t cook, because I didn’t want to be domesticated, but I cooked for friends.
From thinking that I could write the book in three months and having it take no time at all, I ended up going to the British library, sitting with my mother and making my mother write her recipes—even though her measures were, “A handful of this, a teacup of that, a coffee cup of that, and cook until it’s done.” “Mom, what does it mean cook until it’s done?” “Well, you need to just test it.”
What I ended up wanting for myself was the exact opposite of what would have been expected of me as a good Lebanese girl.
Thornburgh: Tell me about this dynamic of not wanting to be domesticated—that you had been running away from cooking because you didn’t want to be trapped by it. What was that about?
Helou: It was about me being a feminist, or wanting to be a feminist from when I was 16. I started to read the French existentialists, and in particular a book by Simone de Beauvoir called “L’Invitée,” which was about, not quite free love, but detached love—not living with the man nor being married. So what I ended up wanting for myself was the exact opposite of what would have been expected of me as a good Lebanese girl. The idea of me cooking for a man or for a family or for anybody on a daily basis seemed to me like being trapped. I just saw it as a drudge. I didn’t see it as pleasure.
My grandmother and my mother and my aunt were very wedded to the kitchen and to cooking. They didn’t resent it, but it was something they did on a daily basis. I never saw that as something that I would want for myself. In fact, I don’t do that. I have never done that.
Thornburgh: Your cookbook, “Lebanese Cuisine,” ended up being the first of nine books and counting, and the ambitions go far beyond geography or a single cuisine. Does that have something to do with your own heritage? Your father’s from Syria, your mother’s Lebanese. Did it make an impression on you to be a bi-cultural child?
Helou: Absolutely. Because we used to spend summers at my aunt’s in Mashta al-Helou, in Syria, which at that time was the family place. Then it was only us. I wouldn’t say village, because it wasn’t even a village. It was a hamlet, and there was one big house with a cute courtyard and rooms all around that. My father had two rooms, my aunt had one, cousins had others. There were two or three, I think, three beautiful stone houses and that was it, and then fields everywhere. We had fruit trees groves. So it was very very beautiful. When I was really young, my aunt didn’t even have a bathroom, we had to go outside. She didn’t even have running water, so we’d be bathed in a kind of copper bar top in the kitchen. It was very exciting and for, me even more exciting because I could pick my own fruit, and I could watch my mother and my aunt make bread, and watch them make butter together. It was fascinating and enlightening, because I learned a lot without knowing that I was learning things.
Thornburgh: How is your relationship to Beirut these days? How has it changed over the years?
Helou: It hasn’t changed much. I have a love-hate relationship Lebanon. I love it because I love my mother, and my father when he was alive, and my family and my friends, the food and the sea. Now, Beirut is very ugly. Before it was ugly, but not as ugly as now. But the idea that there’s a certain dolce vita here—when I was growing up it was more noticeable. We’d go to the beach, to the Saint Georges which was very glamorous—the beautiful 1930s hotel that was destroyed. You still have a little bit of that feeling of Beirut, but a lot of it has gone. Hamra, which is where we lived when I was young, was full of cafes and lots of artists and it had a very nice atmosphere. Lots of cinemas. We saw all the latest films when I was a teenager. It’s different now. It doesn’t have that ease of life. Now there’s the revolution, so it’s a completely different thing. The Lebanese people are very resilient, very joyful, very life-loving, and food-loving as well. There is an atmosphere here that is very enjoyable, and I love the food. I love the culture up to a point. I hate the politics, I hate the corruption, the lack of law and order. I don’t like the materialistic aspect of Lebanese society either.
My relationship to the country is more or less the same, but I’m a bit more tolerant now because I’m older and as you get older you become more tolerant—or at least I am becoming more tolerant. So I take it as it comes, but I would never want to spend more than two, three weeks at a stretch here. After that, I’m happy to go.
I’m an orphan of two countries. Both my countries have been destroyed as I have known them.
Thornburgh. How do you metabolize what’s happened in Lebanon and Syria?
Helou: I like to say that I’m an orphan of two countries. Both my countries have been destroyed as I have known them. Syria is a lot more tragic, because it was the government that was killing its own people, whereas here, it was people killing each other and lots of different factions killing each other. Syria, for me, was more tragic because it was a much more beautiful, much less destroyed country. The heritage in Syria is just staggering. We have heritage here, but not as much as in Syria. The Middle East’s most enchanting souk, in Aleppo, was destroyed—where you could walk four kilometers of uninterrupted history. That’s gone. That is tragic. Half of the population has been displaced, and a beautiful people. The Syrians are really wonderful—beautiful to look at, beautiful to be with, hospitable, gentle. The country that had the most fabulous sites, like Palmyra, has been destroyed. Priceless architecture, historical artifacts, culture. It’s gone.
Thornburgh: You have moved to the fringes of the Islamic world, to Sicily. How did you end up there?
Helou: I went there 20 years ago and instantly thought that it looks so much like Syria. I loved it. I went back two or three years later with a friend and we drove around from west to east and it was wonderful. A few years ago I was starting to think about leaving London. I was getting bored with the grayness and the pollution, and I wanted to go somewhere sunny and beautiful—not that London is not beautiful. But I think the reason I went to Sicily is that it’s like going home without going home. The countryside, the Mediterranean, the produce is the same, the sunshine is fabulous. The people are very warm and hospitable. So there are lots of elements that remind me of where I grew up.