Sunday, June 3, 2012

Author Spotlight: Salma Abdelnour

Little known fact: I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. My father's employer transferred us from the States to Beirut in the middle of the 1960's. I grew up there, attending the American Community School until we left the country in 1975 when the Lebanese civil war first exploded. I've lived on three continents and been blessed with the opportunity to travel all over the world, and yet my blissful Beirut memories are in my thoughts every day of my life. Decades later and even though separated in some instances by seas and oceans, the friends I made in Beirut remain among the most priceless treasures I have.

There's something about that city that never leaves you, even years after you leave it.

So the Gazalapalooza brain trust was duly thrilled when we got the chance to shine the Author Spotlight on Salma Abdelnour. Born in the States to Lebanese parents, then raised while young in Beirut before the resurgent civil war forced her family to return to America, Abdelnour always felt slightly out of place as a child in Houston, a student in Berkeley, and an adult in New York. Nonetheless, she forged an admirable career as a writer and editor in New York, including stints as travel editor of Food & Wine magazine, food editor of O, The Oprah Magazine, and restaurant editor of Time Out New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as the New York Times, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, and ForbesLife, and she has appeared on travel and food segments for CNN, CNBC, and the Fine Living Network. And yet all the while, a piece of her heart always tugged at her from Lebanon. The end result of that tug is Abdelnour's new book. It's an eloquent, sharp and passionate memoir about the year she recently spent living in Lebanon after the better part of a lifetime away from it. It's titled Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, and this is a book well worth savoring.

We see Abdelnour has already seated herself comfortably in the hot blaze of the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight, bright-eyed and eager to proceed. She looks calm, cool and collected -- not a drop of perspiration to be seen. Perhaps all that spicy food immunizes one against the klieg lights' burning glare. We'll see. Without further ado, let's get this Spotlight underway.

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Abdelnour:    Fiction: Middlemarch, because it's long enough to keep me company on a desert island, and because I still haven't read it. Also, I have a feeling that once I do I'll want to read it again, and maybe again. Non-fiction: The Tao Te Ching. Possibly the opposite of Middlemarch. Or the very same. 

Gazala:    Your new book, Jasmine and Fire, is a delightful and engaging nonfiction story chronicling the year you recently spent living in Beirut, Lebanon. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Jasmine and Fire, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Abdelnour:    Any potential readers who might wonder if life is elsewhere, if a city or country they're longing for might be a better home for them than where they are now, can live vicariously through me with Jasmine and Fire. After wondering for years if I had the guts to follow that fantasy and see where it would lead, I finally did it. I picked up and left my New York life behind, put it on a shelf for the time being, and moved to the place I'd been daydreaming about. In my case that place happened to be Beirut, my former hometown, and one of the most challenging cities in the world. But it's also one of the most incredibly vibrant and dramatic places on earth. Following my journey back to Lebanon in Jasmine and Fire might convince readers to do what I did -- live out their own fantasy of moving away somewhere, or going home again -- or they might take my story as a cautionary tale. Either way, I hope anyone who'd like a more nuanced feel for life in the Middle East nowadays will come away with a deeper and more vivid sense of it. And I hope all the scenes of Lebanese food in the book will make readers hungry.

Gazala:    What are books for?

Abdelnour:    Going somewhere else, by sitting still

Gazala:    Anais Nin said of writing, "We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Abdelnour:    Nin's quote reminds me of a recent trip to Florence, where I noticed so many travelers just standing around taking pictures of everything. They'd take a few snaps, move on to the next site, then take some shots there, and move on. I couldn't help sensing that all those cameras were keeping people from actually experiencing those moments, tasting life, as Nin might put it. Writing is harder to abuse in that way, I think. You might stop and jot a few notes in your notebook, then go back and fill in the details you'd left out later on. It seems like a less reflexive, and less frequent, interruption. I have no argument with photography -- in fact I love it -- but if the camera is just there to experience the moment for you as a traveler, something seems to be lost. 

Gazala:    My cup runneth over, and I'm the only one here right now to clean up the mess. Ask yourself a question, and answer it. 

Abdelnour:    Q: What is travel for? A: Partly, it's about finding out if you need a tune-up of some kind. The answer is nearly always yes -- for me, anyway.

Clearly, I'm not the only author in the room continually enchanted by Beirut's magic, much less by the joys and challenges of exploring intriguing places and exotic foods. If you'd like a taste of Abdelnour's adventures, you'll find your very own copy of Jasmine and Fire here. Enjoy.

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