The smell of meat is in my house — lamb shanks that are halal, the lack of blood reminding me of what put me off when I was young. It’s the hottest day this year. Everyone has been told to stay inside – driving through the streets that clearly isn’t the case. Perfect timing if ever there was, my mother-in-law edging to ninety, fell in the street three weeks ago and broke her hip, putting her in hospital for a week. Now she’s back in the only house she doesn’t believe is hers – her own. We are on our way to give her carer a brief respite. My mother in law opens her arms for an embrace she never wanted before just as all such contact is curtailed. Her dog and mine swiftly reach an understanding that they wish to follow suit. If it weren’t for the fall, we’d be sticking to the rules and staying dutifully at home. Not just through a sense of responsibility, but also with a tinge of relief. Above the sky is startlingly blue – and released from the pressure of holding still for the noise and vapour of the restless planes. What clouds there are lie reflected along the river where three barges sit against the bank — also keeping their distance. In one, a couple face each other all day long – for breakfast, lunch, playing cards, on their laptops – while the last one has a single man sitting on its bow while smoke rises behind him from his stove.
At dusk, almost nothing is moving, except the wind along the river and the sudden cold. The lights provide the only warmth – each offering a child’s sense of what home should be. The loss of that comfort is what plagues my mother in law endlessly. For the rest of us, home is no longer where they have to take you in when you have to go there – but where you have to go when they tell you. By the river Thames, it’s hard not to sink into the solace of cosiness – a shield against the darkening water and the shadow of the wild wood – that in the long summer of the years before the Great War conjured up Ratty and Mole as they dreamt of finding harbour at one far flung port after another but chose to snuggle back down at home instead.
This is our harbour now – mine after thirty years in a country I once couldn’t have found on a map. Back in Beirut – my original home — the air you breathe is chaos and cacophony. You plunge into it each day with the confidence of a trawler on the high seas. No matter how buffeted you are, it is the element you know, the risk you understand. It’s only when it all goes quiet that you start to worry. Like everyone in Lebanon, my brother who stayed and made his life there has been startled and shaken by the sudden stillness – first a vast clot damming up the veins through which trading, the lifeblood of the country, flows – and now this… The streets that were a theatre of revolution for four months are deserted. The corniche – along which people ran even where there was war and kidnappers lay in wait like kaak sellers – is for the first time clear of life as great clouds brood in the distance above the Mediterranean.
And you can hear birds singing above the overpass at Cola.
Taking shelter at home is not something with which I am unfamiliar. During the war, by the Green Line, we were often forced to go underground for days. Our refuge was the printing press that my father ran beneath our six-storey apartment block. Back then, our top floor flat had uninterrupted views across the Mediterranean with the Holiday Inn standing sentinel to the right. But we did not benefit from the view when we gathered in the basement to avoid the snipers, shells and bombs. I seethed with adolescent rage then at the limits on my life – even though they were all I had ever known. And I vowed not to be submerged spiritually as well as physically not just by the fighting above, but by the battle between my divorcing parents and the undeclared war against me as a girl growing up in a place where women were demeaned by distances that we didn’t create and then sudden invasions of our space that we struggled to resist. As ever, I took refuge in action, not ideas. Working to pay my way at university – a miniature revolution and escape from my parents’ ideal of quarantining me not just from the terrible danger surrounding us but from the threat they saw from within – the trouble an adolescent girl could create by following her own will and not bowing to that of anyone else. A tiny fist in the air that I held up all those years ago and was finally embodied this winter on the streets of Beirut.
Here I am now – more Wind in the Willows than Waltz with Bashir. But I snuggle in my not entirely unwilling self isolation with a book I’ve recommended to my Book Club. I confess to an agenda here – it’s the memoir of the hostage Brian Keenan who once taught me at the American University of Beirut and lived before he was kidnapped with my future husband in a very cool but – as it turned out – unwisely chosen villa. I never understood what possessed either of them to be in Beirut at that time. The concept of choice in such a tomblike disordering of normal life made no sense to me. Not that I don’t understand all the guff about adventure and testing yourself — which all seems so vital before you step into a reality quite beyond your own and discover how insubstantial it is. I was imprisoned by circumstance not by choice – our hostages in Lebanon vanished by the thousands, obscure and unknown. No books, no films commemorate them. But there’s always a tiny crack in the darkness opened by irony — reading Brian’s visceral evocation of entrapment while I lie temporarily confined in my big soft bed with the sound of foxes and owls clear in the undisturbed night adds another surreal element to this strangest of times. And returning to the present, now that we are living in the UK with the terrors appearing unannounced on our doorstep from which we felt immune – we no longer feel the need to live them vicariously through the customary prism of far off conflicts, as so helpfully provided by my homeland. If the curly-headed teenager always made up for a party to which she was never invited knocked on my door now, would I understand her any better than I did then?
Chances are I would do what I always have done — throw together a dish that matches my mood and whatever I have in the cupboard. I may once have done it through compulsion when there was nothing else to do – and it may be that I will have to do it that way again. But that long gone teenager and I are not fooling anyone – we do it because it’s who we are and have always been. Spring is in the air now – that’s what brought people out onto the streets today, despite everything — just as it once enticed Mole out of his dark and cosy sanctuary into the risky but intoxicating wider world. Even my mother in law felt it, momentarily breaking her cycle of anxiety and confusion to stare in almost wonder at the sky. To capture this freshness, you need something verdant and exuberant, with a host of courgettes stuffed with meat, rice and spices – a crown of green to hold the line against the invisible corona that’s temporarily imprisoning us all – as I once was, as Brian was, as all the Lebanese once were. Now, my view is from the top of my house and not the basement – at a blazing sunset that is the dramatic backdrop for our evening meal in lockdown.
10 small white courgettes and 10 baby aubergines
120g of basmati rice, washed
100g of minced lamb or minced Quorn (for vegetarians)
1 small tomato, washed and diced
1 small onion, peeled and diced
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
For the sauce
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and diced
4 small tomatoes, clean and diced
1 teaspoon of tomato paste
1 lemon, juiced
1 teaspoon of dried mint
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of salt
4 glasses of water
Wash the courgettes and aubergines, cut the top off and leave aside.
Core the vegetables, using a courgette corer, or a Lebanese mana’ara – this might be tricky the first time, but don’t worry practice makes perfect.
Just don’t make holes in the vegetables – otherwise the stuffing will escape.
Put the rice in a bowl and wash couple of times with fresh water, drain, then add the minced lamb, or quorn, then add the diced tomato, diced onion, turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, salt and vegetable oil and mix well.
Stuff the courgettes and aubergines with the rice mix and line them all upwards in a medium size pot.
Pour 1 small spoon of fresh water inside each stuffed vegetable. Make sure they stand up so the rice doesn’t spill out during the cooking process.
In a small bowl, put the crushed garlic, tomato juice, the tomato paste, lemon juice, dry mint, cinnamon, pepper and salt, mix well and add to the courgettes and aubergines.
Add 4 glasses of water to the vegetables and make sure they are covered half way up with water.
Cover the pot with the lid and put on the hob at high temperature.
Once the sauce starts to boil, reduce temperature to minimum and leave to cook for 30-40 minutes or until the rice is cooked and the vegetables outer skin is soft.