From Beirut to London in 100 Dishes

Eating with Iraqi Nuns in the Lebanese Mountains

DSC_0497This is a celebration of Lebanese food and culture.  But there are some things that can only be celebrated for their awfulness.  What I am thinking of is a diet of rancid milk, raw egg and blackened rice that I endured one summer when I was about eight.  I had been sent away from Beirut with my younger sister.  My parents were both busy with work and felt that it would be better for us to spend a few months in the mountains.  Where we ended up was a convent, all but deserted for the summer holidays.  Outside, the sun was blazing — inside it was dark and cold.  Besides my sister and me, there were four other girls who’d been left there for the holidays.  The setting was stunning, magical, I think the most beautiful I had ever seen.  Deep into the mountains over in the mainly Christian part of Lebanon where the Maronites inhabit their postcard perfect red-roofed villages on the crests of cliffs and crags.  DSC_0371_2In the valleys, ancient monasteries and convents are built into the sides of the mountains.  Our dormitory in the convent was right up against the side of the mountain.  We could hear rocks and stones crumbling and falling at night.  The huge building was empty except for us six girls and the nuns, who were from Iraq if I remember correctly.  In term time, it would have been full of the daughters of the Christian elite.  But now it was just us who sat at breakfast, lunch and dinner staring at out plates in horror and disgust.  We had never seen anything like it.  At home, we were used to my father ensuring we only ever had the very best and freshest food.  Now, on the first day, we sat staring at a raw egg that the nuns had told us to eat.  Two of the girls, slightly older than us, who had been left stranded for the summer in the convent, had already warned us about the nuns. They took us under their wing almost immediately as veterans of the convent, who knew what we were in for.DSC_0370_2We were not allowed to get up until we had finished all our food.  That was hard enough at breakfast with the raw egg and congealed, sour milk.  Perhaps, we hoped, lunch would be better.  But that looked, smelt and tasted as if the nuns were serving a boiled member of their own order who had rotted away and died.  Chicken and rice was what it was supposed to be.  We sat there and sat there.  For two spoilt little gluttons from the city, it was as if the nuns were trying to explain the concept of hell or purgatory through the medium of food.  Not that we had any problem with any of that religious stuff.  We may have been born Muslims, but we barely knew it.  Yes, we would watch our mother cover herself and pray.  But we didn’t think it applied to us.  We went to a nuns’  day school a short walk from home in Rue Clemenceau.  But we didn’t quite fit in there — we weren’t allowed to take the Eucharist, which really irritated me.  I wanted to try it so badly.  I had hoped that this experience in the convent would at least allow me to do that.  I had plenty of time to think about it as I sat at the table, unable to take another mouthful. DSC_0412_2The privations that the hermits and anchorites had ecstatically suffered in their caves scored into the mountains around us seemed a sensible lifestyle choice if this was the alternative. It took us a while to work out a strategy.  But what we came up with in the end was brilliant in its simplicity.  As one of the older nuns sat with us, we gradually stuffed our pockets with the food.  When we could, we threw it over the edge of the mountain.  We did this day after day, aided and abetted by the two older girls, who’d taken pity on us.  Of course, we were discovered in the end, although we did get away with it for several weeks.  The other thing that drove us crazy there was when my father drove all the way up from Beirut with delicious treats for us — after we had begged him and begged him.  There were sweets and chocolates and water melons amongst the feast he delivered.  But we never got any of it.  The nuns — who for some reason I remember as being fat and not at all lean and ascetic — took it all.  So, as revenge, we sneaked into their rooms and pilfered biscuits that they all seemed to keep in their little chests of drawers.  They found that out, too.  I burst into tears and begged forgiveness, but I don’t think I meant a word of it.  Oh, and I did get to have the Eucharist.  It wasn’t easy.  We would be woken at five in the morning to join the nuns in their prayers.  DSC_0450_2We had to walk several kilometres down a narrow, winding road leading to the bottom of the valley where there was a chapel.  Then, the nuns would argue amongst themselves over whether my sister and I were eligible to have the Eucharist.  One of the nuns — who was nicer and more sympathetic to us — won the argument.  So, I did finally get to taste the Eucharist.  It was all we had for hours so I cherished it all the more.  I remember something else from those long walks. On the way down, we would sometimes find new born birds that had fallen from their nests.  We picked them up and hid them in our cardigans.  We would struggle back up with them after the mass in the now burning sun.  When we got back to the convent, I would hide the little bird in my drawer.  I felt protective and proud, as well as gleeful at pulling one over on the nuns. Of course, the birds didn’t benefit much from this. I used to feed them grass. They either disappeared somehow or died.  I sometimes fed them the pustulent rice we had been hiding in our pockets. Thinking back now, maybe that’s what killed them.

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