SSoP Podcast Episode 50 — Lebanon: Surrender to the Call of the Mijwiz

SSoP Podcast Episode 50 — Lebanon: Surrender to the Call of the Mijwiz

Monday, 17 April, 2023

This is a transcription of Episode 50 — Lebanon: Surrender to the Call of the Mijwiz.

David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.

David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.

David: I’m David Humphreys.

David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful music]

David: Hello! Before we get started, we need to do two things. First, we need to celebrate something. You are about to listen to our 50th episode. [celebratory music] We launched the podcast in January 2020 with an episode about our adopted hometown of Prague. And since then we’ve told you about 273 books that we loved on this show.

Melissa: I’ve also reviewed and recommended another 200 or so on the website.

David: And your blog work.

Melissa: I’ve written 609 blog posts and 169 weekly newsletters filled with photos and stories and recipes about destinations around the world.

David: I have lied to you 50 times, but only with the most noble of intentions.

Melissa: In the context of Two Truths and a Lie.

David: We’ve also produced 47 episodes of the Library of Lost Time in the last year.

Melissa: Which means we recommended another 94 books for your TBR.

David: So whether you are joining us for the first time right now or you have been with us since episode one, thank you so much.

Melissa: We are thrilled to find ourselves among people who get as excited as we do about great books and who are delighted by the exciting, surprising things that are out there in the world.

David: The second thing we need to say is that we could really use your support if you enjoy what we do and you can afford to do so. Please consider supporting our Patreon.

Melissa: Strong Sense of Place is audience supported. We can’t make the show or the website without the support of people like you. And whenever we get a new patron, we literally shout ‘new patron,’ and then we say your name and we thank you out loud. That’s true. For real. We shout from our desks on opposite sides of the living room.

David: If you want to join our Patreon, there are three levels. Our accomplices at the $25 level are an advisory committee to us. We include them in our discussions about how strong sense of place will grow. That’s the business side. On the fun side, every quarter we get together on Zoom for a book club or an in-depth discussion of a destination and other fun stuff that we’re doing.

Melissa: There’s usually food involved.

David: Sometimes gifts.

Melissa: Sometimes costumes.

David: They are a lovely group of people. We really enjoy spending time with them and we think you would too. Our middle tier is our abettors for $6 a month. They get access to bonus blog posts and photos and a more personal peek inside of Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: They are also lovely people.

David: It’s true. Finally, as an aider for just $3 a month, you can show us that our podcast and website are valuable to you. It’s a cliche, but I’m going to say it anyway. Three bucks is less than a cup of coffee, but that three bucks literally keeps us going.

Melissa: Our aiders are lovely people.

David: They are. So if you’d like to support us on Patreon, please visit us at

Melissa: Also, when you join us on Patreon, you become a patron of the arts.

David: It comes with a top hat.

Melissa: It’s so posh. Plus your Patreon support gives us the time we need to make this show.

David: Yeah. So basically you give us a few dollars a month and then we spend about every waking hour figuring out how to make sure you know about amazing books.

Melissa: And fun travel stuff to put on your ‘I need to try’ that list. Again, thank you so very much for being with us on our pretend trips around the world, we read every email you send us, sometimes out loud to each other, and all of the comments on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, and they are the fuel that keeps us going.

David: This is also a cliche. I’m still going to say it. I’ve really enjoyed this project and the best part about it has been getting to know the people who listen. That means you. Thank you. And now let’s do episode 50.

[cheerful music]

David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Lebanon. In two truths and a lie. I’m going to tell you about a house in Beirut built with one very strong emotion in mind. Then we’ll talk about five books we love.

Melissa: I’m recommending a family saga that weave stories within stories. Within stories. Within stories.

David: A fractal story. I read a book written by a woman who rode 7000 miles on a bicycle through the Middle East.

Melissa: Wow.

David: Yeah, but first, I was going to bring us up to speed with the Lebanon 101.

Melissa: Today, before we jump into orientation and history, I want to tell everyone about my great-grandmother.

David: The Lebanese lady.

Melissa: Yeah, the nice Lebanese lady. What I remember of her, which isn’t much because she died in 1974 when I was only six. What I remember is that she wore her hair in what looked like a really old-fashioned style to me. And now when I see photos, I’m like, Oh yeah, accurate. It’s very 1940s, coiffed kind of pageboy. And she always wore flowered house dresses. Very simple. No collar, no waist, just flowered fabric with pockets. And she was a tough broad. Family legend says that she used to take pies out of the oven with her bare hands.

David: It’s hard to imagine.

Melissa: I’m going to tell you a story later that’s going to confirm that.

David: Okay.

Melissa: She also liked to smoke cigars on the porch while she had stuff cooking on the stove.

David: That’s awesome.

Melissa: Her name was Edith, but I call her Sitti. That’s the Arabic word for grandmother. Sidney was born in 1899, in the village of Toula in northern Lebanon. But back then, it was just the Ottoman Empire. No borders around Lebanon.

David: Right? So she wouldn’t identify herself as Lebanese.

Melissa: Her immigration records say Syrian because the part of the Middle East that she came from was the province of Syria within the Ottoman Empire. But my family always said we were Lebanese. So somewhere along the line, they decided. Toula, her village, sits in the mountains above 3000ft high.

David: Yes, high in the mountains.

Melissa: In the summer it’s hot and sunny. Tomatoes, apples, pears, apricots, grapes, and anise grow. The soil is supposed to be very fertile, but in the winter it snows so much, the roads are impassable. That fact is very important to my family in an unusual way.

David: Okay.

Melissa: One day in 1914, my Sitti’s mother, Mary, was on the roof, sweeping off the snow. I can only imagine it was one of the many household chores she had to do that day. Maybe she was distracted. We don’t know. What we do know is that she fell from the roof and died. My Sitti, without a mother to take care of her, had to emigrate to the United States. The idea was that she would be reunited with her father, who had already made the trip, and she needed to get married.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: There was a big wave of immigration from Lebanon and Syria to the United States in the early 1900s. So Sitti made the long trip to Ellis Island. She was just 15 years old when she arrived.

David: Aw, imagine stepping out on the dock at 15?

Melissa: From a tiny village in the mountains.

David: With little to no English.

Melissa: She got married. She had four children, but only three survived. She sometimes worked as a cook. In 1930, she went to the dance at her church where she won a set of Depression- glass dishes and was among the people who played cards. Euchre and Bridge started at 8:00 that night and dancing went until midnight. In 1939, she was president of the Lebanese Syrian American Auxiliary, and she organized a bus trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania.

David: How do you know these things?

Melissa: I know these things because of old clippings on, which I spent way too much time reading. The description of the church party is delightful. I know what color the decorations were: pink and white, in case you’re curious, I also saw an airline manifest dated August 17th, 1956. That’s when she flew from New York City to Rome. That was her first stop on a long journey back to Toula for a visit.

David: So this is 40 years later?

Melissa: Yeah. When she returned to Pennsylvania, she had mixed feelings about how easy and modern her life seemed in comparison. Her friends back in Toula were still storing milk on the countertop in bowls and using donkeys for transportation.

David: Right.

Melissa: Sitti, meanwhile, had developed a reputation for being a wild driver. [laughter] She liked to drive on the left side of the road when there were no other cars around. Six decades after leaving Tula, in 1967, she attended my parents wedding, and one day, not too long after, she taught my mom how to make Syrian bread in a big yellow mid-century Pyrex bowl, which is legend in our family. It’s called the Sitti Bowl. The following Christmas, she posed for a photo holding tiny me wearing a miniature Santa Claus onesie. I was seven months old. By all accounts, Sitti was a character with a capital C. My dad loves to tell me stories about her. One is wilder than the next, but like I said, I don’t really remember much. I was only six when she died. The only proof that I have that I met her are these photos. But I do feel like I’ve met her. She’s right there every time I smell cumin or start a pot of rice pilaf by browning a few broken sticks of spaghetti in olive oil. This episode is dedicated to Edith Farhat, my awesome Sitti.

Melissa: Now let’s get oriented. Lebanon is in the Middle East, on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is to the south. Syria is to the north and east. And it’s a pretty tiny country. It’s only about a third of the size of Belgium or a third of the size of Maryland.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: It’s the smallest country on mainland Asia. The population is about 6 million people, and that includes 1.5 million refugees from Syria and Palestine.

David: Wow. That’s a chunk.

Melissa: The name Lebanon comes from the Semitic word lbn. That’s L-B-N. Why put pesky vowels in there? Who needs them?

Melissa: Lbn means white, and that’s a reference to the snow topped mountains of the Mount Lebanon range.

David: The snow that killed your great great grandmother.

Melissa: Maybe it was a yeti.

David: [laugher] Maybe!

Melissa: In the fantasy novel I write about this experience: Yeti.

Melissa: The cedar tree is a big deal there. It’s a symbol of national identity, strength and resilience. It’s on the Lebanese flag and it shows up in literature, art and music. My dad is not a jewelry guy at all, but he has a ring my Sitti gave him with a green stone and a gold cedar tree. The Lebanese national anthem includes this line: ‘The cedars are her pride, her immortality symbol.’

David: Wow.

Melissa: I mean, they do smell really nice.

Melissa: The official language is Arabic. French and English are also taught in schools, so a good chunk of people speak both. French is used on currency road signs, car license plates and public buildings along with Arabic. And we’ll get to why in a minute.

David: Okay.

Melissa: The capital of Lebanon is Beirut. If you’re around our age, mid 50s or younger, then you probably only know the Beirut of terrible news reports.

David: Yeah. Yeah. Dateline Beirut usually doesn’t go anywhere good.

Melissa: Exactly. Smoking buildings, lots of rubble.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: All of that is because of the civil war and ongoing conflicts with Israel.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: But just after World War Two in the 1950s and 60s, Beirut was the Paris of the East. It was a seaside playland for the jet set. Very cosmopolitan. Imagine the Saint George Hotel. Five storeys of rooms with balconies overlooking the Mediterranean. There was a sparkling swimming pool lined with flags from 20 countries. There were colorful boats docked on sun bleached piers with umbrellas and an enormous Air France sign. Famous guests who went to the hotel at the time included Brigitte Bardot, Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, when he was taking breaks from filming Lawrence of Arabia. King Farouk of Egypt. And you know Kim Philby?

David: The Spy?

Melissa: British MI6 agent who spied for the Soviet Union. He used to drop by every afternoon for cocktails.

David: So it’s kind of the hotel of your dreams?

Melissa: Pretty much, yeah. Spies and movie stars.

Melissa: I’ll be talking about a book by the Lebanese author Rabih Alameddine, later in his novel, An Unnecessary Woman. He wrote, ‘Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities. Insane, beautiful, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.’

David: That’s a really good line.

Melissa: It really is. So Beirut in particular and Lebanon in general were a swanky place to be after the Second World War. But then things got bad. I’m just going to hit the highlights of Lebanon’s long history. In the six hundreds, Lebanon was conquered by Arab Muslims, and in the 1500s, it became part of the Ottoman Empire. Remember, like, Lebanon didn’t really exist then. There were no national borders. The area now known as Lebanon, was in the Ottoman province of Syria. Now seems like a good time to take a little sidebar to talk about religion because it will dovetail into what I’m telling you.

David: Okay.

Melissa: About half of Lebanon’s population is Muslim. That’s split pretty evenly between Shia and Sunni with a small Druze minority. Druze is like the local flavor of Islam. It’s a sect found mostly in Lebanon and Syria. About 40% of the total population is Christian. This includes Orthodox and Catholic Maronites.

David: Okay. So they’re a strong minority.

Melissa: Yes. This is important because it plays out in the government today. The law dictates which religions are attached to each government position. So according to Lebanese law, the president must always be a Maronite Christian. The prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim. Then seats in parliament are split between Christians and Muslims and then divided among the different denominations within each religion.

David: Wow. So I have to imagine that’s to intended to keep from one religion getting significantly more powerful than another, but it also kind —

Melissa: Codifying representation.

David: Yeah, codifying representation, but it also really strengthens up the US versus them.

Melissa: Yeah.

David: We’re on this side. They’re on that side. We’re in the same country, but we’re different.

Melissa: Right. Which is a really important point. As we return to the overview of the history. In the 16th century in the Ottoman Empire, no one would describe it as idyllic — but generally speaking, once the Ottomans conquered you — they were very brutal during the conquering bit. But once they conquered you, they pretty much left you alone. It was relatively peaceful.

David: Yeah, we’ve seen that a few times. The Turks come in, terrorize everybody badly, but then everyone sort of begrudgingly puts up with whatever it is the Turks are doing because the Turks let you do whatever it was you were doing before. You just pay them taxes now.

Melissa: Yes, exactly. Jews and Christians had to pay higher taxes, but they weren’t persecuted or expelled. The journalist Anthony Shadid described it like this, ‘The Ottoman Empire bound together a remarkable tapestry of ethnicities, religions, nationalities, and languages that unencumbered by borders comprised a culture far greater than its individual parts. It survived as it did because of its pluralism and its own notion of tolerance.’

Melissa: That all changed after World War One. In 1920, the Ottoman Empire was broken up and the Syrian province came under French control. The French drew boundaries, and in of the books I read, they literally went out in a wagon and dropped spikes in the ground, marking the new boundary.

David: Right. In a way that made no sense to the local people.

Melissa: Absolutely not. And suddenly, Lebanon and Syria were kind of divorced. There were boundaries where there were no boundaries before. In 1943, Lebanon gained its independence. It grew its economy. It had political stability. It became a tourist destination. It was pretty nice. I mean, it’s beautiful there on the Mediterranean.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: But all of that changed in the 70s. From 1975 until 1990, there was a civil war with different factions fighting each other — Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, left-wing groups all got involved. Syria and Israel got involved.

David: Messy, tangled knot.

Melissa: Then in 2006, there was another conflict. You might be familiar with the name Hezbollah from the news. That’s a Shiite political party and a militant group that’s backed by Iran. But it holds a lot of power in Lebanon because it’s an actual political party. In 2006, Hezbollah crossed the border into Israel, killed two soldiers and kidnapped three. In retaliation, Israel launched airstrikes against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. That lasted 34 days. It killed about 1000 Lebanese civilians and 160 Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Melissa: So sadly, when I googled, ‘Is it safe to visit Lebanon 2023?’ The answer was pretty much no. The US Department of State says that Lebanon is a high-risk area. As of February 1st of this year, they advised travelers to, quote, ‘reconsider travel to Lebanon due to crime, terrorism, kidnapping, and the embassy’s limited capacity to support US citizens.’

David: Yeah, I read a little bit about that, too. And there is that for sure. But there are also a lot of travelers who were sort of saying, well, if you avoid the border and certain parts of, you know, the countryside and whatnot, you can you can navigate within Lebanon.

Melissa: Canada’s advisory is softer than the US.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: I found this really interesting just to kind of put all of this in context. On the Global Peace Index, Lebanon ranks 138 out of 163 countries, which doesn’t sound great.

David: It’s not great. No.

Melissa: But if you’re wondering where the US is on that list, Lebanon is at 138. The US is at 129. That’s only eight spots above Lebanon and only 34 rungs from the bottom of the ladder. And since the question is probably on everyone’s mind, number one is Iceland.

Melissa: So we’re probably not going to be planning a trip to Lebanon soon. Even though it is achingly beautiful with balmy Mediterranean beaches, craggy mountains.

David: Once again, the more I learned about someplace, the more I want to go there.

Melissa: Yes. We can’t go there right now. But thanks to books, music, and food, we can all enjoy the culture from the comfort of our living rooms. We’re going to get to the books later. So let’s talk about music and food.

David: Okay.

Melissa: My favorite Lebanese music is the dabke. That’s the name for both the style of music and the dance that’s done to it. The word dabaka means ‘stomping the feet’ or ‘to make a noise.’ In the dance, people stand side by side in a line, holding hands and cross their feet in front of and behind each other, moving as a unit to one side.

David: So it’s sort of a country line dance.

Melissa: A little bit. Yeah. Only with much funkier rhythms.

Melissa: The music usually begins with a slow intro that gives everybody time to get into position, and then the pace picks up and it kind of stays just on this side of frenetic. It has a really strong downbeat and the instrumentation is unmistakable. You’ve heard this music in every belly dancing scene ever. There’s almost always an oud that’s a pear shaped lute with a short neck. And the mijwiz.

David: The mijwiz.

Melissa: The mijwiz. That sounds a little bit like an oboe. And it looks like two flutes that have been tied together.

David: The mijwiz sounds like a mouse that has a smoking problem. [laughter]

Melissa: The drum — the tabla — is a small hand drum. And the dull thudding sound that you kind of associate with Middle Eastern music is made by the daf. And that’s like an oversized tambourine.

David: Yeah. Big round with a skin.

Melissa: So while that’s playing in the background, you can feast.

David: Oh, okay.

Melissa: If you’ve eaten hummus or chicken shawarma or baklava or falafel tucked into pita bread, congratulations. You have eaten Lebanese food. If you were to be lucky enough to attend a Lebanese feast, preferably made by my dad, maybe with an assist from the ghost of Sitti, there would definitely be lamb either grilled as shish kebabs or minced for kibbeh. Kibbeh is sort of like Lebanese meatloaf. There might be kofta sort of like Lebanese meatballs, only they’re football shaped instead of round. There would be lots of dips like hummus and baba ganoush, which is really fun to say and is like hummus, but it’s made from roasted eggplant instead of chickpeas. There would be lots of salads, including tabbouleh. That’s tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, and mint mixed with bulgur wheat. So it has kind of a nutty taste to it.

David: Yeah, it’s got a surprising tang to it.

Melissa: Lots of lemon juice.

Melissa: There’s also fattoush. That’s the same vegetables as tabbouleh, but instead of bulgur wheat, it’s got toasted bits of pita bread mixed into it. Lebanese cooks are also very big on stuffing things. So there would be grape leaves or whole squash or zucchini stuffed with rice and meat. And along with all of that, there’s olives, dried apricots and dates, lots of fresh, hot pita bread. The smell of garlic and cumin and mint and cinnamon would be wafting over the whole thing.

Melissa: [sigh] That’s the 101 on Lebanon. I hope it explains why I have a visceral reaction to the sound of the mijwiz and why garlic cooking in olive oil smells better than perfume to me.

David: That was awesome. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?

Melissa: I am. I feel like I’m going to learn new things.

David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. One: Every reader owes a debt to a beautiful seaside city in Lebanon. Two: There is a house in Beirut that was built out of spite.

Melissa: Oh, that’s definitely true.

David: And three: A US man was once asked to rob a bank in Beirut. And he did it only to later realized that he had robbed the wrong bank. [laugher]

David: So statement number one: Every reader owes a debt to a beautiful seaside city in Lebanon.

David: That is true. We need to talk about Byblos.

Melissa: Byblos?

David: Yeah. Byblos is a small city on the Mediterranean. It has been continuously inhabited since 5000 BC.

Melissa: Whoa.

David: Let us imagine the attics of Byblos. 7000 years of people. Byblos has been a part of Egypt, Phoenicia, Assyria, Persia, and the Roman and Ottoman Empires.

Melissa: All the greatest hits.

David: Yep. Each of those civilizations left a little something of themselves in that city. As a result, Byblos has ancient architecture thrown around like kids tossing their toys in a yard. It also has a beautiful port and some fine restaurants. There’s a sandy beach. It all looks very pleasant. I would happily find myself in Byblos. Byblos should also have a place in the heart of every reader. The story is that about 3000 years ago, a team of people in Byblos produced a technological advantage that nobody else had: an advantage that made trading easier, allowed communication across vast distances, and improved their ability to warehouse goods. That team put together the Phoenician alphabet

Melissa: Genius.

David: The Phoenician Alphabets breakthrough was having a symbol stand for a sound. Previous attempts at writing had a symbol for every word. You can imagine how much easier it is to have 22 characters to memorize instead of a separate sign for every freaking thing. Depending on how you track it, the Phoenician alphabet might have inspired every other alphabet in the world.

Melissa: Go Phoenicia!

David: Yeah. I should also mention that Byblos was indirectly the source of the name of the Bible. The Greeks called their scrolls byblos. Probably because Byblos produced so many scrolls. Byblos came to mean book. The Greek ‘ta biblia’ — literally ‘the books’ — was used by Hellenistic Jews to describe their sacred texts. And that’s how it got to us.

Melissa: Neat.

David: Okay. Statement two: There is a house in Beirut that was built out of spite.

Melissa: I mean, I don’t know how that could possibly not be true given what I’ve read in the books about people in Lebanon.

David: Very true. It’s very true. The locals call it the Grudge House.

Melissa: Of course they do. [laughter]

David: And I’m going to tell you a story which is probably apocryphal, but the outcome is accurate. I have embellished the story for the telling. This is the story the locals tell about the Grudge House. So there are two brothers, we’ll call one Amal and the other Hareem. In the early 1950s, Amal and Hareem were gathered together. Their father has recently died and they’re together to hear the will. Now, Dad loved Amal but Hareem? He was always challenging. Always a fighter. Trouble. Trouble stalks Hareem. The will is read. Dad died with an excellent plot of land in a prime location with a view of the Mediterranean, and he divided it between his two sons. Amal gets a nice big chunk of it and some money. Hareem, and he didn’t take this well, Hareem receives a smaller share. A much smaller share. Right next to the road. Amal takes a small fortune that he inherited along with the plot, and he puts up a stately stone building three stories tall, with a commanding view of the sea. It is gorgeous. Hareem fumes about this. His plot needs to be more to hold a decent newsstand.

Melissa: Oh.

David: But then. Then Hareem notices something. He realizes that his plot, his small plot, is closer to the sea than Amal’s plot. And her team has an awful idea.

Melissa: No.

David: The next day, Hareem calls an architect. He explained what he wants. The architect says that’s ridiculous. Hareem says money is no object. Do it. And so in 1954, a building that is two feet wide at its narrowest and 14 feet wide at its widest and half a block long and three stories tall goes up right in front of Amal’s house.

Melissa: No way.

David: It is mostly a wall.

Melissa: Wow.

David: Amal walks out of his stone home. He looks to the beach, but he can’t see it anymore. All he can see is the back of Hareem’s house. Amal looks at Hareem. Hareem looks at Amal. The two brothers walk back into their buildings and they never speak again.

Melissa: For real? They never spoke to each other again.

David: I made up the part about the brothers. But the houses are true. Those two buildings stand today. The grudge house is empty. Nobody seems to know who owns it.

Melissa: Oh, my God. [laughter]

David: An architect toured the Grudge house a few years ago and said he’d love to live there. The apartments are linear. You go from one room to another and the windows are large. And it’s a great neighborhood. And there’s a sea view.

Melissa: Sure there is.

David: And at night, the ocean air comes wafting in. The locals say that new zoning laws have made it so that nothing new would go up if the Grudge House was demolished. The plot has an area smaller than you can build on, so there’s no incentive to buy it. Which means the Grudge House may stand until it crumbles into the sea.

Melissa: I halfway admire taking a grudge that far. [laughter]

David: Third statement: A man was once asked to rob a bank in Beirut, and he did so only to later realize that he had robbed the wrong bank.

David: Okay. That’s a lie. We’ve gotten that far. But only kind of. The word ‘rob’ is the lie. There it was. More like he was asked to break into the bank. Here’s the story. So Jason Street is an IT guy. He has a specialty. His specialty is that he tests security. If you are a bank, you might hire Jason to find your network’s vulnerable parts. Jason is a hands on kind of guy. He does not break into networks by booting up a terminal and surfing for open ports from a cyber cafe. Instead, he goes into a bank, and he walks in the door. And then he does two things. First, he tries to look like he belongs there, and second, he tries to look non-threatening. ‘Hey, I’m here because headquarters wanted me to update the drivers on the scanners. Would you mind if I take a look?’ He is shockingly successful at that. He will walk away with computers, passwords, and security cards or access the local network because he looks exactly like you would expect the IT guy from headquarters to look. And people don’t want to challenge somebody, right?

Melissa: They’re busy. It sounds like it makes sense.

David: Is it your responsibility if this guy gets in? You know, whatever, even in a bank. So as a professional, he’ll get in, try to compromise as much as he can without doing any damage. And then they’ll have an all hands meeting to talk about who he is and what he did and how everyone can improve.

Melissa: Yikes. Don’t want to be the person who let him in.

David: You really don’t. So Jason is hired by a bank in Beirut. An executive drives him to the branch. They want him to investigate. And the executive says, Get in there, do your thing, and I’ll come in and meet you in 30 minutes. The branch is down that street, over at the end there. Jason walks down and he goes in. He says he’s with Microsoft. He flashes a microsoft badge and he starts doing his thing. He walks around, he talks to people, and he quickly compromises the network. One of the things about this guy is it is amazing how quick he can basically own a computer. He at this point has already won. He’s already done the job they’ve asked him to do. And now he’s wondering what else he can do because that’s part of his job. And a guy walks up and he says, hey, what’s what’s going on? And Jason says, ‘I’m with Microsoft. There’s an acquisition coming up. I’m doing an audit.’ He shows them an email from an iPad, all fake. The email is from a CFO of the company. And the guy says, ‘You’re going to need to talk to our supervisor.’ And so Jason goes and he talks to the supervisor. Same thing, Microsoft. Here’s the email. And he’s thinking, ‘All I need to do now is get out.’ Right? So and there are only two options here. One is that the supervisor says, Yeah, sure looks good. Two is that the supervisor says, I’m going to need some more documentation. And Jason thinks if she says that, he’ll say he’s got more documentation in the car, and he’ll be gone. So instead, Jason encounters a third option that he had not planned for. The supervisor reads the memo and then she says, ‘This memo is for the bank next door.’

Melissa: Oh, no. [laughter]

David: ‘What are you doing here? And what did you plug into our computers?’ And Jason looks her straight in the eye, this professional, hard as nails security guy who walks into banks and goes behind the teller line with nothing but a fake Microsoft badge. And he looks at her and he says, ‘Oh, this is unfortunate. I got nothing. I shouldn’t be here.’ And his next thought is, I wonder what jail is like in Lebanon.

Melissa: Yeah, 100%.

David: Because that feels like a real possibility.

Melissa: Because he just broke into a bank.

David: Yeah, he hasn’t taken anything. But as far as they know, he’s compromised their network and he has definitely lied about who he is. So a few minutes later, the executive from the other bank, his employer, his ‘get out of jail free’ guy finds him. And for a second, Jason is like, oh, and then the supervisor looks at him and he says, Who’s this guy? Eventually it all works out. Jason is not arrested. He ends up educating both banks, but he says he didn’t feel comfortable until he returned to Paris three days later. As he put it, ‘Who hasn’t robbed the wrong bank before?’ Jason tells a longer version of this story on a podcast called The Darknet Diaries. He was also featured on an episode of National Geographic’s Breakthrough. We will put links to both of those in our show notes. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.

Melissa: What a story.

David: Are you ready to talk about books?

Melissa: I am.

David: Let’s do it.

Melissa: My first recommendation is House of Stone: A memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid. This is a memoir about the author’s experiences restoring his ancestral family home in the village of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon.

David: Wow. That’s cool.

Melissa: It’s very cool. First a little bit about the author. Anthony Shadid worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Washington Post. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice — in 2003 and 2010 — for his coverage from Iraq.

David: Okay.

Melissa: In 2006, he was in Lebanon reporting on the conflict with Israel. He visited his family’s hometown, and he came across his great-grandfather’s estate. In the early 20th century, his great grandfather, his name was Isber. He built a beautiful house. It was made of stone and had a garden with olive and orange trees. There were arches over the doorways and the windows were decorated with ornate metalwork. But when Anthony found it in 2006, it was a ruin. It had been abandoned long ago by the family and destroyed by the endless wars. The plaster was chipped and flaking. The yard and garden were overrun with weeds. So he decided to take a year off from work to restore the house — partly to honor his great-grandfather’s dream, but mostly because he was exhausted from years of covering conflict in the Middle East. He’d been divorced. He wasn’t with his daughter. His life was at a big turning point. So, he’s going to take a year off and restore the house. This book weaves the personal story of his family with the restoration of the house and the history of the region. No surprise, this Pulitzer Prize winning expert does a bang-up job of making the complex history of the Middle East interesting and understandable.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: He has a very palpable nostalgia for a time when Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel weren’t countries but were just the Levant. He calls it a ‘lost era of openness, when all sorts drifted through homeland shared by all.’ He’s a little bit of a romantic for a journalist. So woven into that, we get his stories of the day to day of literally trying to put his house in order.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: He falls in love with the idea of decorating the floors with cemento tiles. These are colorful tiles with geometric patterns on them. I’ll put a picture in show notes. When you see it, you’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah. Those.’

David: Yeah.

Melissa: The buying, transport and installation of those tiles turns into an epic saga for him.

David: Really?

Melissa: It really highlights the differences between Western and Middle Eastern thinking. Which is a problem he runs into frequently. Schedules, budgets.

David: Availability, time.

Melissa: Shadid has the insight of a journalist, but he crafts his sentences like a poet. In a passage where he’s explaining why the tiles mean so much to him. This is what he writes: ‘Cultures that may seem as durable as stone can break like glass, leaving all the things that held them together unattended. I believe that the craftsman, the artist, the cook, and the silversmith are peacemakers. They instill grace; they lull the world to calm.’

David: He is a romantic. That’s really nice.

Melissa: His town is populated with fascinating real-life characters. There’s a doctor who makes ouds and bouzoukis. There’s a cynical chef. There are craftsmen with no sense of budget or timeline. There are nosy relatives and everyone is gossipy. Wow, are they gossipy. For a long time, the townspeople think he’s crazy. Or a spy. Or both.

David: Sure.

Melissa: They assume he’s rich, and they’re endlessly curious about how much he pays for things, mostly so they can mock him for paying too much. He gets viciously teased for his inexperience with olive trees. He loves the two olive trees in his garden. He loves them. They represent his grandfather and renewal and hope and connection to the land. Everyone tells him to wait to harvest the olives. ‘You must wait until after the rains.’ But he’s impatient.

David: Oh, no.

Melissa: And every time an olive falls from the tree to rot on the ground, it causes him pain. So he decides he’s going to pick the olives immediately. But he’s going to do it his way. He’s not going to do it the way everyone else does it. They put a tarp under the tree and then shake it violently until all the olives fall out.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: But he can’t abide the idea of being mean to his trees. So he gets a ladder and he climbs the tree, and he plucks each olive from the branch one by one until his shoulders and hands ache. I don’t want to spoil any more of the story, but I will say that I had no idea there were so many ways you could botch an olive harvest. And now I have to tell you that this story has a very bittersweet ending. Anthony Shadid finished the house. He returned to reporting. He got married, and he wrote this book. It came out at the end of February 2012. Sadly, about two weeks earlier, two weeks before this book came out, he died in Syria. He was covering the resistance against the government when he died from an asthma attack.

David: Oh, no.

Melissa: He had really bad asthma, which he treated with inhalers. But he was walking to the border behind horses and had an allergy attack and died.

David: That’s tragic.

Melissa: After he was cremated, his wife buried his ashes between the two olive trees in his garden in Marjayoun and put some of those cemento tiles on top of it.

David: Aw.

Melissa: That’s House of Stone: A memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid.

David: My first book is Between Beirut and the Moon by Naji Bakhti. This is a coming-of-age novel set in a post-Civil War Beirut, maybe in the 2000s or so. The narrator’s name is Adam. He’s maybe 13 when the book starts and maybe in his early 20 seconds when it ends. The author is a little skimpy with details about time and age. Adam lives with his father, who is an idealistic journalist with a house full of books. His mother, who seems to be a good mother. She smokes too much and she worries about her kids. And his sister, who’s ponytailed and sassy when the book starts. Adam’s parents are mixed religion. His father is Muslim, his mother is Christian. The novel is episodic. We skip through time to follow Adam’s life. When the book begins, Adam wants to be an astronaut. And part of the tragedy of this time and place is not that he isn’t going to be an astronaut, it’s that he can’t get there from where he starts. Beirut doesn’t support that dream. There is no future that says astronaut. The subject matter is intense, but the book makes up for it with dark humor and charm. The best trick in this book is that the characters come across as people you’d want to know, and they’re going through hard times. Other reviews I’ve read called this book warm and funny, and it’s definitely there. Like, I can see why they would get there.

David: But for me, the overwhelming sense was sort of heartbreaking with some charming and funny moments mixed in. One of the scenes that I remember most from the book is this Adams family is gathered in a bathroom waiting for a bombing to stop, and they’ve been sitting in there for hours. So now the narrator has to pee. And that’s just the setup of that scene, right? That is the first paragraph of that chapter. And I felt every bit of that, right? The family all gathered in the bathroom, his father and his mother and him and his little sister, because it’s the safest place in the house, but it smells like toilet paper and cleaning supplies. And then increasingly, like the other people in that room, and they’ve stopped whatever they were doing and they don’t know whether they’ll be returning to whatever it was. And now they’re just waiting and they’re cycling back and forth from thinking they could die a horrible death any second to maybe being a certain kind of bored or at least restless and certainly wanting it to to end. And then you’ve been there long enough that you need to pee and you’re 13.

Melissa: Yeah. Terrible.

David: I know you don’t want to talk about that. And when do these indignities end? And somehow all of that is kind of normal for Adam. And got all of that from sort of the first paragraph of like, I don’t know, the third chapter or something.

David: There are some nice dips into Lebanese culture throughout the book. You get insights into what home life is like and what the education system is like. You get the sense of religious differences, what that means on the street or in a playground. The author introduces some language. One of my favorites was ‘mother and father,’ to mean the whole of something. Here are a couple of sentences from the book: ‘Mother and father’ is a colloquial term used in Lebanon to express the idea of something whole or complete. For instance, the weight of the explosion knocked the man, mother, and father right out of the window, as men in Beirut occasionally are; or the building collapsed, mother and father, to the ground, as buildings in Beirut occasionally do. ‘

David: I want to read you a couple of paragraphs from this book. When I read what I’m about to read you, I thought this was the novel’s thesis statement and it might be. But I also want you to hear how the author takes something pretty dark and pulls it slightly toward the light. I think the only thing you need to know here is that arak is a licorice- flavored spirit. When I was researching this, I found a video that BuzzFeed did for people who are just trying arak that made me want to try arak. Seems really delicious.

Melissa: I do love anise flavored drinks.

David: Yeah. Here’s the passage:’Many years later, long after I’d left Lebanon to pursue a higher education in London, my father would write a heartfelt article in An-Nahar newspaper. It would be his final article before he retired.’

David: ‘I curse the country,’ he would write, ‘I curse the country that bid our children farewell with a smile across its face and told them to never return. I curse the country that presented our children with two alternatives: death or immigration and instructed them to pick between the two. I curse the country that forced its parents to send their children to outer space – or worse Europe – and wave silently from afar. I curse the country that gave our children water but no future, soil but no belief, light but no hope. I curse the country that stripped our children of their parents, and us of them. I curse the country that made fools of us all and led us to believe that we would grow old watching our sons and daughters rise to greater heights amongst their fellow countrymen. I curse the country that robbed me of my afternoon Arak with my son. I curse the country that deprived me of the sight of his wispy beard slowly maturing into one which resembles my own. I curse the country that resigned my wife and I to that comfortable couch in the living room, staring past broken shards of glass into the empty void that is tomorrow. I curse the country, mother and father.’

David: ‘He passed away not long after that but by then my father had suffered through the untimely demise of his upstart publishing house, a severe, unwarranted beating at the hands of militiamen, and the sudden gratuitous disappearance of a cat called Ninnette.’

David: If you’re looking for a book to introduce you to modern Beirut and you want to go with a writer who will show you both the dark and the light, this is a good pick. It is between Beirut and the Moon by Naji Bakhti. Oh, and if you want to try it out, there’s a YouTube clip of the author reading his work. We’ll point to that in the show notes.

Melissa: My second recommendation is a cookbook: Rose Water and Orange Blossoms by Maureen Aboud. Maureen is a Lebanese American and grew up eating Lebanese food that was cooked by her grandmother, who she called Sitto.

David: Sitto?

Melissa: Sitto.

David: You called yours Sitti.

Melissa: Yes. So I looked it up.

David: Okay.

Melissa: Same idea, same word, different pronunciations, depending on the region you’re from.

David: Okay.

Melissa: In her introduction to this book, she shares really delightful stories about her family’s relationship to food, about her life-changing trip to Lebanon, and about her grandmother. She used to make weekly visits to her Sitto when she was in graduate school. Her grandmother always wore lipstick and a housedress. Never pants.

David: Sounds familiar.

Melissa: Right? They’d cook together and her sister would tease her. She describes how her grandmother took stuff out of the oven. This is a quote: ‘She’d tsk me into toughening my hands… Sitto reached in [the oven] with adept fingers that met no heat they couldn’t take… she pulled [eggplant] out with bare hands and sort of threw it onto the counter as if to say, Take that… I am Sitto, I am in charge.’ What is it with these Lebanese grandmothers and not using hot pads?

David: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, there there it’s not advanced technology or anything.

Melissa: Well, and I read that and I was like, ‘My family’s not exaggerating.’ Apparently, that’s a thing. Dear audience, if you have a grandmother who takes stuff out of the oven without hot pads, let us know about it. The author weaves family into every recipe. In this book, she tells just a really heartbreaking, moving story about her sisters arranged marriage and how she brought a yogurt starter with her from Lebanon to Michigan.

David: Oh, my goodness.

Melissa: Yeah. I’m going to read you a quote. You’re going to hear the word laban in the quote. That’s the Arabic word for yogurt.

David: Okay.

‘The story goes that she didn’t want the marriage, didn’t want to go to the United States, and didn’t want to leave the boy she was in love with in Lebanon behind. She cried rivers, but in the end entered the arrangement, got on a boat, and started a new life. I think of the laban as her safety blanket, her piece of home.’

David: Aw.

Melissa: And then that leads into an essay with practical advice for making your own homemade yogurt to kind of hold your hand through the process so that you can make it yourself.

David: That’s really hard to think about. Breaking up a young couple.

Melissa: Yeah. Teenagers. Probably first love.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: There are all kinds of helpful tips sprinkled throughout this book, like how to seed a pomegranate and how to choose the best grape leaves for stuffing. It’s all very charming. And the way she talks about sharing food with the people she loves will make you very hungry. It also makes you feel like you can do this. Like, if you don’t have a Sitti or a Sitto showing you how to do it, she will give you the confidence. All, the greatest hits of Lebanese food are here. There’s toum. That’s a sauce made with lots of garlic, olive oil, ice water, and magic. It is magic. When you make it, it becomes this like fluffy garlic cloud. It’s amazing. And it tastes good on everything.

David: So this would you might dip, like, pita bread into this.

Melissa: Yeah, you could put it on top of your tabouli. It’s a does not discriminate. It makes everything taste good.

David: Okay.

Melissa: She’s got a recipe for whipped hummus with minced lamb on top. That’s like eating a hummus cloud. There are little nibbles, like warm dates with almonds and lime zest. Potato salad with lemon and mint. She goes deep into the multiple types of kibbeh, as I mentioned before. It’s kind of like Lebanese meatloaf, sort of. It’s ground meat, usually lamb that’s mixed with spices and bulgur wheat, and you can cook it or not.

David: Right.

Melissa: My favorite when I was growing up was Kibbeh Nayyeh. It’s like Lebanese steak tartare. Raw lamb is mixed with mint, bulgur, onion, and cumin. And then you take a big piece of it and put it on pita bread and drizzle it with olive oil. If you’re wrinkling your nose at the idea of raw kibbeh, you can take that same kibbeh and fry it in butter.

David: I’ve had that. Can recommend. It’s really good. So good.

Melissa: It gets kind of like a buttery crust on the outside. She also has a foolproof recipe for homemade pita bread, which her family called Syrian bread. And mine always did, too. And I remember being little and being confused. But we’re Lebanese. Why is it Syrian bread?

David: Right? Yep. Now you know.

Melissa: Now I know. Okay. Desserts, date stuff, cookies, rice pudding with dried cherries and pistachios.

David: Love some love some rice pudding.

Melissa: And the grand poobah baklava.

David: Oh, man. Good baklava. Baklava is one of those things where like 90% of it is too gloppy, too sweet, not right, but that 10%. Now you got something.

Melissa: I like how practical this book is. The instructions are clear, the ingredients are easy to find, and her stories will make you feel like you’ve got your own Sitti or Sitto in the kitchen with you. That’s Rose Water and Orange Blossoms by Maureen Abboud. But I’m not done yet. You can think of her book as the bright, airy cafe of cookbooks. It’s got pastel colors. It’s got beautiful photographs. Now I’m going to tell you about another cookbook that I love.

David: Is this the Batman of Lebanese cookbooks?

Melissa: This is the seventh grade social studies class of Lebanese cookbooks.

David: Okay.

Melissa: This book begs to be made into a film strip. It’s Middle Eastern Cooking by Rose Dosti. It’s from 1982, and it looks it. The photos are super saturated. There’s a lot of red and orange, and all of the props look like there was a fire sale down at Ali Baba’s tent. But the recipes are legit. The author is of Albanian heritage, and she was born and raised in New York City. She was a columnist for the LA Times, and she wrote a slew of cookbooks. She was also the founder of the Albanian Human Rights Project. Her approach to this book is sort of a cultural completist. These are not personal stories, but there’s tons of info about how food and drinks fit into Middle Eastern life. You can kind of think of it as a Middle Eastern food encyclopedia. The writing is very Time-Life books, but the recipes are really, really good. There are spiced olives and a mixed herb plate that I always make for parties. I made those spiced olives for the first time about 30 years ago, and they’re a staple for me. There’s also a seven spice blend called baharat that is delicious, sprinkled on everything. That is Middle-Eastern cooking by Rose Dosti. I will put a link to that in show notes. It is out of print. You can find copies in used bookstores, on Amazon, but you can also find it on the Internet Archive. Check it out for an hour. Make a recipe.

David: My second book is The Slow Road to Tehran: A Revelatory Bike Ride Through Europe and the Middle East by Rebecca Lowe. This is a little bit of a cheat for me. This book is about many places, not just Lebanon, but there’s a good chapter on her trip through Lebanon. So I decided to give myself a pass.

Melissa: Well, and if there’s one theme running through this whole show is that Lebanon has only been Lebanon for a short time. The whole area, whether it’s the Levant or the Ottoman Empire —

David: They’re all brothers and sisters.

Melissa: Yes.

David: Back in 2011, the author, Rebecca Lowe, was a reporter in London specializing in Middle Eastern human rights issues. And she was running into the problems you might think somebody like that would run into. The Middle East is confusing and different and very specifically from a London perspective: Not here. It’s over there. And the journalism about the Middle East is sensational. It’s always been sensational. But since 9/11, it certainly hasn’t gotten any more open minded or welcoming. Lowe says the news is always, quote, ‘bombs and burqas and bigots.’ And that coverage has made the Middle East seem dangerous. So is it? And how would we know? So is seeking clarity and empathy. And then it strikes her. She needs a bicycle.

Melissa: [laughter] That would definitely not be my first thought, but okay.

David: She decides she’s going to bike from London to Tehran. That is 20 countries alone for a year. She will travel 11,000km or a little under 7000 miles. That is far. She told some people about her plan, and she got some feedback. She writes, quote, ‘we think he’ll probably die.’ [laughter] One friend helpfully informed me, looking at me with a kind of wary fondness, usually reserved for unruly toddlers or puppies that have soiled the carpet. ‘We’ve put the odds at about 60/40.’ Others were less optimistic. A family member with a particularly unfortunate sense of humor sent me a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s If, stressing the importance of keeping my head ‘when all about you are losing theirs.’ While a man in a pub described me as, quote, ‘A naive idiot who will end up decapitated in a ditch at best.’ The ride started in 2015. When it started, she was in no way ready for it.

Melissa: I was going to ask if she was a cyclist or if she was in shape.

David: No. No, she doesn’t have any training. She had just gotten a bicycle the day before, which was not fitted for her. And I’ll let her tell you what she packed. She writes, ‘At 9pm, the living room is carpeted with a colourful medley of bike tour ‘essentials’, from a mini-tripod and inflatable chair to a collapsible wine glass and silver-plated hipflask. In my ‘electricals’ pile alone, I have three cameras (a DSLR, Go-Pro and camcorder), a laptop, a Dictaphone, a solar-powered battery charger, a normal battery charger, a Kindle, a travel speaker, a satellite tracker (bought by [ my boyfriend ] and my parents as a safety measure), a mini-iPod and an iPhone 4. Beside this heap is a knotted lump of cables the size of a basketball that I feel obliged to include because I removed all the wires from their respective boxes and now have no idea which ones go with which pieces of equipment. And in the centre, perched with elegant insouciance against the armchair, sits my most prized possession: my ukulele.

Melissa: Oh, come on. [laughter] This is making me think about when we did the California AIDS ride. This is a bike ride in the 90 that we did from. San Francisco to Los Angeles. And the first year we did it, we brought paperbacks to put in the little gear bag on our bike in case we wanted to take a reading break when we were at lunch or something. And I can remember us after the first day dumping into a trash can everything that wasn’t essential because even an ounce is too much when you’re riding for 12 hours a day.

David: I was going to say, the first time you do a long ride, you’re like, ‘I’m going to bring my house.’ And the second time you do a long ride, you’re like, ‘What can I give away?’

David: So she packs all that stuff and on her bike and she leaves.

Melissa: Does she have panniers?

David: Yeah. She runs into the kinds of things you think she might run into. Her tires go flat, her ass hurts. She has to search for clean water and decent accommodations. Roads seem to just vanish. Some men are horrible to her. She has to back up one with a knife. Some border crossings are difficult. She passes out from the heat while riding her bike in the Sahara. But then she’s rescued by some locals in a donkey cart. And language is an ongoing challenge. But Google Translate goes pretty far for her.

David: But she loves that trip. She loves that trip. People were warm and welcoming and open to her even when she presented herself as an unmarried, agnostic woman with no children. She found that people welcomed her for who she was. In Iran, which she found particularly hospitable, she writes, ‘The deeper inland I ride, the safer and more serene. I feel as if rolling myself up in a giant feather duvet. Kindnesses eddy and flow around me as pervasive as the summer breeze. Having lost my pump, I’m given one. Having broken my sunglasses, I’m gifted a pair. On the road, so many drivers stop to offer me wonderful, utterly impractical food. Watermelon, loaves of bread, bags of cucumbers. That much of it, to my dismay. Must be discarded.

David: Along the way, she writes about the histories of the countries that she visits. She is a specialist in human rights issues. So there’s an education about human trafficking and refugee camps. She frequently talks to locals about their politics. There are footnotes. There’s a solid bibliography, a word which, by the way, we get from Byblos. She is reminded there there is a strong division between people in politics — that the country’s residents shouldn’t be confused with the people in power, which strikes me as something that everybody gets locally, right? Our president doesn’t necessarily match our values, but some people need help with it when it gets further from home. Lowe has a TED Talk. We’ll link to it. In it, she talks about the misrepresentation of the Middle East in the media, and she talks about her journey, which she says freaked her poor mother out. When Lowe announced what she was doing, her mother sent her an email that included the words devastated, dangerous, reckless, juvenile, and foolish. But Lowe ends the talk by encouraging others to travel to the Middle East by bike if possible. And she ends that talk by saying, ‘And I promise if you do that, your mother will forgive you eventually.’ That’s the Slow Road to Tehran by Rebecca Lowe.

Melissa: My final recommendation is The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine. This is a family saga that I mentioned earlier that weave stories within stories within stories. The title Hakawati means storyteller in Arabic. It’s right there in the name. In an interview with NPR, the author described it like this, ‘At some point… hakawatis were the primary form of entertainment. They could tell a story and expand it for about… six months to a year. They could go on and on and on. Basically they were paid on whether the audience wanted them back or not. If they weren’t able to hook an audience, they went hungry. And if… God forbid at one point if they couldn’t tell a good story, they were beheaded.’

David: Whoa.

Melissa: Taking storytelling very seriously.

David: So the story of Scheherazade has root.

Melissa: It absolutely does. She saved her skin by telling an irresistible story for 1001 nights. So here’s the setup of this book. A youngish man named Osama al-Khattar returns to Beirut in 2003. He thinks he’s going to celebrate the holiday of Eid al-Adha. But when he gets there, he learns that his father is in the hospital again and probably dying. The extended family is in and out of his hospital room, gossiping, bickering, supporting each other. And now Osama is reunited with all of them and with his father. As he sits at his father’s bedside, he narrates his family’s story all the way back to his great-grandparents and to his grandfather, who was a hakawati. If that’s all we got, it would be really good. Robih Alameddine is an amazing writer at both the storytelling level and the sentence level. But he’s kind of a hakawati himself.

David: Okay.

Melissa: So into this family story, he also weaves two Arabian tales. There’s the legend of Fatima. She was a brave servant girl who turns into a fierce warrior. And the tale of Baybars, a slave prince who defeated the Crusaders. All of these stories twist together and dance around each other. While I was reading, I kept imagining a table with cups of tea and the steam rising from them and kind of swirling together.

David: Right.

Melissa: This book is filled with magic. There are demons and djinn and witches and horses with magical powers. There are battles and beheadings, seductions and heroics, pigeon wars, poetry, braggadocio. Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, marches into the underworld, beds a powerful djinn, and becomes the mistress of a group of imps who do her bidding.

Melissa: There are also beautiful stories. Omar’s uncle is telling his mom the tale of a poet attacked by brigands. The poet was carrying scrolls of papyrus. They were all of his poems. And he’s carrying them across the desert. When he was attacked, the poems were caught by the wind and blown away and scattered across the dunes. And Omar’s mother says, ‘Imagine, poetry still hovering over the skies of Baghdad or buried under the desert sands. Someone drills a well in a rock and out gushes poetry instead of oil.’

Melissa: Isn’t that nice?

David: That’s really lovely.

Melissa: There are also stories of family run-ins, both loving and difficult. Fathers and sons have a really rough go of it in this family. The women are fierce and outspoken, but that doesn’t always work in their favor. There are family secrets and sniping. No one keeps their opinions to themselves. But there’s also so much love. And of course, the shadow of the civil War kind of hovers over everything.

Melissa: There are some really great set pieces when the family gets all together. They have an epic celebration of Eid al-Adha in the hospital. The feast is wheeled into the room on an extra gurney.

David: Whoa.

Melissa: There’s a funeral with men reciting poetry and singing. And then the women who are all dressed in black start wailing and lamenting. Who will replace him? How will we live with such sorrow? And an aunt tries to climb into the coffin with the deceased yelling, ‘I’m going with you.’

David: Aw. A little heavy on the drama in that family.

Melissa: A little bit. At a wedding, there’s a feast and dancing. And a poetry duel.

David: A poetry duel?

Melissa: Yeah.

David: It’s like a rap battle.

Melissa: Kind of. Yeah. At weddings, poets competed in praising the bride, the groom, and the other people attending the wedding. They also dueled and entertained the crowds by engaging in boasts and insults and composing verses on the spot. Poets were guaranteed invitations to every wedding, and the good ones got paid. There’s a lot to love about this book, and I was really enjoying it. And then at about the 80% mark, I read a line that made me say out loud, ‘Oh, no.’ I distinctly remember that moment at breakfast and a bunch of dominoes that had been lined up over the course of like eight hours of reading so far fell. And that’s when I was just like, Oh, this book is so good. I mean, it was good before then, right? But this was the moment.

David: Where it ties it all together.

Melissa: The characters in this novel use storytelling for all kinds of reasons to entertain or distract from painful circumstances. As currency. To understand the world, to teach a lesson, to enchant, to remember. The way I say I love you is by saying, ‘Let me tell you a story.’

David: Aw. That’s nice.

Melissa: That’s The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine. If you enjoyed stories within stories like I do, this would make an excellent pairing with Disoriental by Négar Djavadi or Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri - both set in Iran. Or The Tiger’s Wife by Lea Obreht, which is set in the Balkans.

David: Those are five books we’d love set in Lebanon. I know I say this every episode, but you really need to come by our show notes there at We’re going to give you recipes and videos and see the grudge house.

Melissa: One of my favorite things I found was an article about all of the hotspots in 1950s Beirut. If you like nostalgic photographs of jet set era you want to see this article. Also, there’s great dabke dancing videos which will be in show notes.

David: I’ve got a video of Byblos too, that I want to share. Mel, where are we headed for our next episode?

Melissa: We’re grabbing our bumbershoots and brewing a cup of tea because we’re off to London town.

David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Khaled Bakkora/Shutterstock.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

Yes, Lebanon has a troubled past and tricky present. But there's so much to recommend this tiny Mediterranean country: idyllic beaches, fragrant cedar forests, slinky music, and some of the world's tastiest food.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.