My husband, Seb, tells me it was another beautiful Beirut morning — still springlike, not too hot or humid. To me, it would have been nothing special. I was getting ready for just another day at the university, another day with a little part of my mind given over to where it was ok to go and where it wasn’t, but nothing very strong as at that time, things had gone relatively quiet for us, the native Beirutis. I don’t think I had much of a notion that for the odd little crowd of foreigners who had descended on us a few months earlier, it was all becoming a touch too scary and intense. Seb — the young Englishman I’ve already mentioned, who was very much not my husband at the time — had had supper with two older friends at their flat a short time before. He remembered discussing the latest appalling 1980s Dylan album with them and a dangerous diners club that some of the old hands liked to frequent in fading, ornate restaurants still hanging on in no-go areas with photos of long lost jet set days. The day after, there was no sign of them. Their dog barking wildly made the neighbours think something was wrong. It was. Their bodies were discovered outside Beirut shortly afterwards. They’d been shot. Seb and the two colleagues he shared a beautiful old Ottoman house about fifteen minutes walk on beyond my apartment block knew it was time to move. They were too exposed in an area that was disputed between different militias. A visit from three gunmen one evening, who tied them up and hit one of them with the butt of a pistol, was a further encouragement. But it was too late. The next morning, Seb tells me, he was woken early by movement in the house. It was Brian Keenan, getting ready to walk to the university. The three had agreed only to go in together, but they had different times they needed to be there. To leave the house, Brian had to walk through Seb’s bedroom, into the kitchen and then out into the pretty garden with its pond. Seb thought of saying something, but didn’t. But he did go into the kitchen and watch Brian from the window, still thinking there was time to call him back. Through the dusty glass, he saw Brian stop by the pond and peer benevolently at the fish. He was moving slowly and calmly. Finally, he reached the garden gate. Seb remembers watching him pause there and then move down into the street. As the gate closed behind him, he simply stepped off the face of the earth, as far as any of us were concerned. It took a while for it to become clear that there was a serious problem as the hours ticked away and Brian didn’t show up at AUB. I have to say that for many of us, it took that long to take it seriously, too. We had teased Brian and the others so much about what might happen to them that it seemed quite unreal that it actually had. And I remembered how very nearly the last thing that I had said to him was a playful threat to have him kidnapped if he gave us too much work. Days went by — there were more kidnaps and threats. There is quite a saga to tell of how the other foreigners reacted and what happened to them. And for me, of course, there is a big story to do with the young Englishman that I ended up marrying. But that is for another time. What I remember about Brian and his disappearance was how it shocked and mobilised my friends and me in a way that we never had experienced before. We missed him not just as someone who had become our friend, but as a revelation of just how far our city had fallen. We were so proud of ourselves and being Lebanese and living in Beirut, despite everything. But that now seemed hollow and false. This funny group of foreigners had appeared out of nowhere — a little spaceship dropping its crew of aliens down among us — and had shared what we had been going through for years. Their being there, for me at least, made me aware of just how strange our lives had become. Until then, it had just been habit — all that I knew. We felt grateful, I think — rightly or wrongly — that they had come. And how had we shown our appreciation? By taking one of the nicest, most eloquent, most charming men I had ever met and burying him away in some unknown and frightening black hole. For the first and only time in my life, I joined in protests as we staged a sit-in on the steps of AUB demanding that everything possible should be done to get Brian freed from whatever hell he was in. It was a time when Hezbollah had started to make itself felt — some of the students and guards used to amuse themselves making the foreigners jump by whispering the word menacingly at them. We were beginning to see thick beards inside and outside the campus. But even they stood with us, too — or so it seemed at the time. We had banners with Brian’s name on them and pictures of our protest appeared in the local newspapers. For a moment, I thought it might achieve something, but it didn’t. No one cared about our outrage or our sadness. By then, the foreigners he had shown up with were all gone, evacuated across the Green Line to East Beirut, then to Cyprus by boat. That brief time was over. It was only years later that Brian finally reappeared. I was living in England by then and remember seeing the pictures of him on television bright-eyed and slim, smiling from ear to ear as he emerged from the plane that brought him back. He returned with the conviction of a man who has won a rare wisdom from the deepest wilderness. I met him some time later at the launch of his exceptional book about his time as a hostage. It was lovely to see that he was still the man I had met before he was kidnapped, although there was a new, impressive aura about him. We embraced — and I was flattered and amused that he still remembered me as the “wild one”, who used to wind him up. And as far as I could tell, he didn’t hold me personally responsible for his captivity. It was a happy story after so much pain, so much darkness. It was years after that that the man who had unknowingly brought us all together was himself made to pay the price for having tried to reassemble the broken fragments of my country — however imperfectly. Rafik Hariri was blown up just down the hill from my old home. Our windows shook with the impact. His statue now looks out of the bay from there in what seems a strangely ill-fitting suit. I only met him once, but when I pass the statue on my visits home, I look at him fondly as if there is a shared memory between us. I will always be grateful for what he tried to do for my lost generation and for bringing us all together for a while. It changed all our lives utterly — mine, the young Englishman I married and Brian too. As a tiny tribute, let me raise a huge glass full to bursting of one of Lebanon’s sweetest, warmest — and for me most nostalgic — of dishes. Ameh Maslouk — boiled wheat laden with nuts, fruit, sugar and orange blossom water. It’s a dish for feast days; my family up in the Bekaa would gorge on it after the harvest, taking the boiled wheat from the great cauldron that my uncle would stir for hours. It’s also known as sneinieh — teeth in Arabic, which is self-explanatory if you look at it closely. But its teeth are so much softer and sweeter than those of our memories, which go in deep and leave marks that can never be erased.
300g of wheat, buy it from the Arabic shops, ask for Ameh Majroush, meaning the outer layer of the wheat has been removed, peeled.
6 glasses of water
2 teaspoons of orange blossom water
50g of sugar
50g of pistachio nuts
1/2 pomegranate seeded
50g of desiccated coconut
You can also add the following if you prefer
50g of pine nuts
50g of walnuts
50g of seedless raisins
Wash the wheat a couple of times and soak overnight
Next, put the wheat in a large non stick pan, add water, cover with lid and bring to boil
Reduce temperature and leave to simmer for 45 minutes
Just 5 minutes before the Ameh is ready, add 50g of sugar and orange blossom
Leave to simmer for few minutes.
Meanwhile, soak all the nuts in separate bowls for half an hour
Once ready to serve, put one scoop of wheat including the sauce in a serving bowl
Add sugar if you like your dessert sweeter, sprinkle a few of the mixed nuts and raisins
Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and coconut shavings
This dish should be served very hot