April 17, 2024
Cooking with Umm Hassane

In this excerpt from her delectable memoir “Day of Honey,” the American author Annia Ciezadlo writes about the challenges of cooking in Beirut for — and with — her Lebanese mother-in-law.

She dominated our living room. She occupied the couch all day and left it mined with wads of used Kleenex when she retired at night. She commandeered the guest bathroom, took the pump-top bottle of hand soap, and crushed it in her fist to extract the soap. We would come home to find her reclining like a pasha, surrounded by relatives from Bint Jbeil, headscarved old hajjis and tiny old men who sat stiffly in straight-backed chairs pulled up around her as she regaled them with tales of The Operation. She got more phone calls than both of us put together. Most mornings, I’d shuffle into the living room to find her already on the phone trading condolences with some relative.

In early July, a newspaper assigned me a story on the “Playboy Plotter,” the spoiled scion of “good” Beirut family who had contacted al-Qaeda linked groups over the Internet and expressed a desire to carry out bombings in New York City. When I called the plotter’s mother, she answered right away, as if she’d been waiting for my call. I asked her why she thought her son had become an Islamic militant.

“Shu yaani?” she cried out, bewildered.

I repeated the question in Arabic, although she supposedly spoke English, but she remained mystified.

Finally I figured out it wasn’t the Playboy Plotter’s mother at all, but an old auntie from Bint Jbeil who was already on the line, calling for Umm Hassane, when I dialed. Even our phones barely belonged to us anymore.

But food was the real battleground, and here the rhetorical question was Umm Hassane’s most powerful weapon. In response to our simplest questions, she would fire a rhetorical salvo that rendered us, her assailants, impotent.

“Umm Hassane, are you hungry?”

“How can I have any appetite?”

“Umm Hassane, what do you want to eat?”

“How can I eat with all this pain?”

“Umm Hassane” — realizing that we would have to resort to specific questions if we had any hopes of an answer — “Do you want salad and potatoes?”

“If you’re making some, maybe,” — then, flinging up her hands in deprecation. But not if you’re making it for me!”

If we asked her “Biddik shi?”’ — Do you want anything? she would answer back, despairingly, “”Shu biddi? Shu biddi akel?” What do I want? What can I eat?” Mohamad called this her “not-so-subtle attempts to tell us we don’t have anything to eat.”

Most of the time, she would just say “Shu baarifni?” Literally, it means, “what do I know?” But like a teenager’s whatever, or a wiseguy’s fuggeddaboudit, the phrase shu baarifni contained a multitude of shifting meanings. In her mouth, it meant: Leave me alone; Don’t leave me alone; I don’t know what I want; I want you to know what I want without me having to ask, or even knowing what I want myself.

Her other favorite expression was ma btifru maai, “it makes no difference to me.” This meant that deep, violent opinions were being suppressed through superhuman exertion on her part. All these expressions contained a depth of passive-aggressive mastery that impressed me greatly, no matter how frustrating, and I started to think Umm Hassane could make millions teaching corporate communication seminars.

In the end, most of her rhetorical tricks just meant yes. But not simply yes. They meant, Why aren’t you eating? Why aren’t you eating what I eat? Why aren’t we all eating together, the same thing, at the same time?

The food wars came to a head one Friday, when I asked her if she wanted a cucumber-and-labneh sandwich. Apparently it was one thing to serve an arous as a snack, and quite another to offer it for lunch.

“I’ve been eating nothing but labneh,” she wailed. “I ate it yesterday, I ate it this morning. Azit nafsi”– my soul, my appetite recoils.

“She was insulted that you offered her that,” Mohamad whispered to me in the kitchen. “It’s for babies.”

“So what the hell does she want?”

Mohamad went into the living room to investigate. After the usual “What, me eat?” formalities, she presented him with a list of grievances: we had no salad, no meat, no bread. Worst of all, we lacked the most essential oil of Lebanese kitchens: Mazola. She lamented the madness of cooking with nothing but olive oil — it was not for cooking, as everyone knew, and how could we live like this?

Mohamad trotted back and forth, a reluctant ambassador, while I waited in the kitchen to find out what she wanted. Finally, after some wheedling, she consented to a shish taouk sandwich.

I asked him to find out if she wanted garlic, hummus, and pickles, the traditional accoutrements of such a sandwich. He got an Umm Hassane answer: “What do I need with hummus?”

“She’s being insolent,” he muttered, back in the kitchen, where we were both hiding from her wrath. “They’re all pseudo-martyrs, my whole family.”

We loved having her. We would have bought her anything she asked for, but she refused to ask. Somehow this woman, the scourge of greengrocers and agriculture students, could not say what she wanted in the privacy of our home. She was trying so hard to stay out of our way, not to be a burden, that she ended up driving us half-insane.

I was confounded. I loved to feed people, but I couldn’t cook for Mohamad because most of the dishes I knew how to make relied on ingredients he wouldn’t eat. And I couldn’t cook for Umm Hassane because she refused to tell us what she wanted. I finally had the kitchen I’d been longing for, with a real stove and a real refrigerator and a real kitchen sink. But I had no idea what to cook.

“I have an idea,” I said to Mohamad one day, as we stood in the kitchen.

What she really wanted was to be fussed over, to be coaxed and taken care of. But Umm Hassane was from my grandmother’s generation: brought up to put others first, never to acknowledge their own desires, except in the context of being denied. They showed their love by cooking and complaining. For these women, the kitchen was one of the few places where they could be the undisputed queens.

I outlined a plan: I would ask Umm Hassane to teach me how to cook traditional Lebanese food, under the pretext that I needed to learn how to prepare food for Mohamad, like a dutiful wife. Instead of the fancy fusion stuff I made only for myself, she would teach me how to make Lebanese peasant food — mlukhieh, sayyadiyeh, burghul wa banadura, kebbeh nayeh. I would learn something new; she would have a mission, something to make her feel appreciated. And if it made me look like an obedient wife, that was a price I was willing to pay.

* * *

The day we planned to make mlukhieh, I stumbled into the kitchen late. Umm Hassane had been awake since seven a.m. rehearsing each bit of prep work. Next to the sink, a raw chicken lay spread-eagled on the counter, waiting for me with naked accusation.

“Wash her!” she commanded, hobbling into the kitchen and pointing to the chicken.

“Make coffee,” I muttered, heading for the kettle. I could barely communicate in English, let alone Arabic, until I’d had my coffee.

Clearly I hadn’t understood. Drawing herself to full height, Umm Hassane pointed toward the sink and repeated her orders: “The chicken! Wash her!?

We hadn’t even started cooking, and already we were hurtling toward one of those clash-of-civilization conversations where people kept shouting Arabic nouns over and over –”WATER! WATER!” — thinking I was deaf as well as simple-minded, but never explaining exactly what they wanted me to do with the goddamn water. Meanwhile, I would stand there, choking on basic verbs, and thinking, This is just a taste of how it must feel to be a taxi driver, a busboy, a chambermaid, any of the starter jobs immigrants get in America while they’re learning English. These encounters usually deteriorated into something like this:

“Make coffee!”
“Wash chicken!”

Then I remembered an old habit of my grandmother’s. Whenever she was craving something — a hamburger, a cigarette, a beer –she would say: “You want a beer, don’t you? Don’t you want a hamburger? You want me to roll you a cigarette?”

At the time it drove me crazy.”No, Grandma, you want a hamburger,” I would say. Why couldn’t she just admit that she wanted a beer? She ran the kitchen; why couldn’t she just take what she wanted? That my grandmother’s life revolved around other people’s hungers –that she needed to justify her desires, even to herself –was something I didn’t figure out until after she was gone.

“Umm Hassane,” I said. “Don’t you want a cup of coffee? You like coffee, don’t you?”

Thus was born our morning ritual of cake and coffee. That morning, before making mlukhieh, Umm Hassane and I sat out on the balcony eating chocolate cake and drinking coffee. From then on we did it every morning. We would hold blunted conversations and watch the city perform its morning rituals: pigeons wheeling in the sky, traffic jamming on the Corniche, maids beating carpets on balconies. She would stretch her legs and luxuriate in the sun. Normally, she might disapprove of such idleness; a person should be off cleaning houses. But since it was part of my cooking classes, that made it okay. Really, she was doing it for my sake.

One morning, as we sat looking at our sliver of Mediterranean water, she swung her legs down and scooted her chair closer to mine. She leaned forward, fixed me with an intense expression, and commanded:

“Bring me a baby!”

“But we have a cat,” I said. “Who needs a baby?”

“A cat! What’s a cat?” she said, angrily brushing aside this evasion.”Bring me a baby!”

How could I explain to her that our lives were still too unsettled, too unstable? That war correspondents don’t just go gallivanting around the Middle East having babies; or that even now, as we began to tentatively settle down, we still didn’t know where we wanted to be? I definitely didn’t have the Arabic — or even the English, this hour of the morning –to express the array of emotions this demand evoked.

“I want a baby,” I told her, all innocent shrugs, “but Mohamad doesn’t.

This was another trick I had learned in Umm Hassane’s school of culinary and rhetorical arts: whenever she wanted something her way, she would claim, piously, that Mohamad Ali likes it this way or Mohamad Ali wants this. But I should have known better than to try to wield the master’s sword against her.

“Mohamad doesn’t want one?” she growled, flicking aside his opinion with a toss of her chin. “Who cares what he says? Bring me a baby!”

Annia Ciezadlo was a special correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Baghdad and The New Republic in Beirut. She has written about culture, politics, and the Middle East for The Nation, Saveur, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and Lebanon’s Daily Star. Her article about cooking with Iraqi refugees in Beirut was included in Best Food Writing 2009.

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