Growing up in Alhambra with the name Nasrin Aboulhosn has not always made for a simple introduction. In a city packed with foreign names, substitute teachers would still always stumble over mine. Even the barista at Starbucks always asks, “I’m sorry, Jasmine, was it?”
Indeed, as one of the handful of Lebanese in the city, I got used to answering a lot of strange questions:“Do you speak Lebanese?” That’s not a real thing.
“Are Lebanese people from Libya?” What?!
I decided to spend some time in Lebanon this past year to reconnect with my roots. Little did I know that as soon as I said I was staying with my grandmother in the mountains, a whole new set of questions would start flowing:
“Are you in a tent?” No, I’m in a large house.
“Do you have to cook by the fire?” No, we cook on a stove. You know, like you.
“Do you pee outside?” What?!
So I decided to write a letter from abroad to help clear up some of the misconceptions and hopefully give some of my friends from home a clearer picture of my life in Lebanon.
Dear great citizens of Alhambra,
I’m freezing in the Lebanese mountains right now, but before I begin, let me explain that I don’t mean Heidi-style living in the Alps or the remote Himalayas. I’m sorry to ruin the romantic image of me rolled up in a sleeping bag counting the stars, exhausted from my daytime hike to fetch water, but Mount Lebanon is dotted with fairly developed villages. Let me also explain that when I say developed, I don’t mean buildings and malls. I mean two gas stations, a grocery store, a hair salon run by a middle-aged man and 63 toy shops. I’m staying in Btekhnay, a pine-tree shaded village of red-roofed Mediterranean houses. And it’s not actually freezing. But at times I can see my breath in my bedroom. Not to worry, my grandmother has provided me with a gas-tank powered behemoth of a heater that instantly warms the entire room with the strength of a raging fire. It’s not my fault I need this: evolution has adapted me to a land of sunshine and warmth.
If there were a Starbucks here in the mountains, I’m sure the barista wouldn’t have nearly as much trouble with my name. Almost all the village’s nearly 1,000 residents are named Aboulhosn. My parents emigrated from here in the 1970s, in search of better employment opportunities in the United States. Many of their peers also left, but some of their relatives stayed behind and it’s one of the few areas left in Lebanon that belongs to a single family.
Living in a place where every passerby is a relative has its pros and cons. Being able to stop by any house for a large, buffet-style lunch at the drop of a fez – pro. Walking to the convenience store on a bad hair day and coming home to find that your great aunt called your grandmother and recommended a hair stylist – con. Being able to dip into a large network of helpful people whenever you need it – pro. Having to then listen to them recommend an eligible bachelor in return – con.
But living around so many excellent cooks definitely makes up for any negative aspect of such a tight community. My daily mountain routine consists of waking up, doing a bit of writing and then eating home-cooked meals. My favorites include vats of fresh hummus (not the type you get in the supermarket), tabbouli salad and kibbeh, delicious little football-shaped bulgur patties stuffed with lamb. Yum, yum, yum.
Although Beirut is trying to enter modern times with its luxury shopping malls filled with shoppers snacking at McDonald’s and KFC, that type of development has yet to hit the mountains. If, for whatever insane reason, you don’t feel like partaking in a home-cooked all-you-can-eat buffet, you can visit a small one-room restaurant, where a man will grill you some chicken, beef or lamb and wrap it in a pita pocket with French fries and tartar sauce. Think the Hat, but instead of world-famous pastrami, you get village-famous shawarma. Fast-food dining at its finest.
The mountain villages, although charming and welcoming, can also be dangerous. Not because of the threat of war or civil unrest, like many would expect when discussing the Middle East, but because of the one thing we all do every day: drive. In fact, nothing scares me more than my grandmother saying, “Will you take me to the store?” Getting behind the wheel in Lebanon, especially in the mountains, is perhaps the most dangerous thing you can do. Other than, of course, being a single woman over the age of 20. However, the blind turns, steep declines and careless drivers are not a fear for most of my relatives. Any hair-raising car ride is always accompanied by conversation about how I am too “American” and need to get used to the carefree attitude of the Middle East. Those are the snippets I’ve caught, anyway, over my screaming.
Life in the Lebanese mountains has certainly shown me the luxuries I take for granted in Alhambra: anonymity, 24-hour electricity, traffic lights. Still, I’m definitely going to miss the charming antics of my Lebanese relatives and this simpler way of living when I go home. I guess if I ever get too nostalgic, I can always go to Wahib’s.
And, before you ask, no, we’re not related.
Love to Alhambra,