Part 1: Difference
Today I want to talk about hummus. That’s not hummus in my photo, that’s mtabbal, aka baba ghannouj. I don’t want to talk about mtabbal at all. I took that photo years ago to talk about “my” culture.
I want to talk about chocolate–flavored hummus. Rick Flair-endorsed, BDS-listed #SuperBowl ‘mmus. I want to talk about how my views have both changed and remained the same when it comes to this amorphous cellular cake of matter and meaning we call human culture.
I didn’t think much about hummus before I started leaving Lebanon; that’s when it stopped being a matter of fact and started becoming “a thing”—a matter of concern. Enthusiasts abroad would ask me if I made my own; I’d say no and admit that I didn’t really know what was in it; they’d express their surprise at my cultural betrayal, so I’d bristle and come back at them with questions about ketchup and black pudding and marmalade—the totemic pillars of their imagined communities. That shut that down right quick, and it felt good.
But soon I found myself just as embroiled, taking a hard line FOR or AGAINST this hummus and that tabbouli; I remember my disgust at supermarché salad laying claim to the name with a pathetic offering of mostly couscous (?!) and barely a slap of parsley. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
“The nation,” you see, “as performed by individuals, is about practice, routine, and repetition.” Thus, “food-related choices instill and reinforce an abstract, reflexive, yet particular image of what the nation is and what its boundaries are.”
The same goes for a person and their borders.
For a long while, I was a person for whom hummus mattered a certain way; I now admit that chocolate hummus is delicious. Fight me.
And I still laugh when people in Seattle talk to me about food and restaurants when they learn that I’m Lebanese. I’m gentler in my responses now; I get that making people into a paste just gets us through the awkward introductions.
So I’m grateful for what hummus can do, in that sense—neither solid nor liquid, neither universal nor particular, neither exclusive nor apolitical, hummus is the stuff of life itself. Simple, yet profound.
I want to talk about hummus because I really want to talk about irreconcilable difference. But for now, just savor this first bite.
Part 2: SEMPER EADEM
Forget Portland—for me, the dream of the multikulti 90s was alive in Leicester.
This was obviously before Brexit, though, admittedly, little Britain’s backward slide was already starting, even then. The first bricks in Boris’s bacon bap border wall were laid by the points-based visa system that Labour introduced while I was there. But we didn’t think about that; we had our cosmopolitan cohort that would have made mama Sofia Corradi proud, & it felt like magic, because we made it so.
Leicester was where I experienced something I’d read in class, though no amount of googling’s helping me track down where exactly; in any case, Leicester was my “flight from fixity,” my chance to redefine myself for myself, without the weight of history or circumstance or prior attachment pulling me down. I’d taken flight before, mind you, but this time, I really wasn’t looking back behind me.
Leicester was my boom boom pow, my ga-ga oo-la-la, and she was there from the start. She was there that night when the realities of flying solo first hit me, a black expanse of potential disaster yawning beneath. She was there through the panic and eventual glee of becoming lighter and lighter—spinning, soaring, taking up space.
I would visit Leicester again years later and feel amazed at how sad the city actually was; I’d had my first clue on my very last day there, catching the train unspeakably early and seeing brokenness I just wasn’t noticing before; we were too busy dancing, I guess.
I think we needed to dance.
It’s easy to talk about hummus and foam and leaves under the frost, but it’s a lot harder to really consider human behavior. The bitter sweetness of clinging to good stories; the dark eyes that search yours from across the room; the searing pain of being completely mistaken; the endless longing for closure—it’s not easy to talk about these.
When it was all said and done, some three years later, she told me that I’d never be happy—I’d never be happy because I‘d never let anyone make me happy.
She wasn’t entirely wrong.
Leicester’s charm wasn’t an illusion; we just had a long, long way to fall.
Part 3: Différance
Now for the denouement; the tidy little triad to make sense of it all. Here, a detail shorn of context; there, a fragment suggestive of the whole. Now for the synthesis. Now, to conclude.
We told many stories. We’d sit in the library lobby with no need for books; we talked & talked. Soon, we found conjunctions. Soon, we connected our dots into a pretty constellation. Though many things about us didn’t fit together, we told ourselves the friction made it interesting.
As I write the above, a voice interjects; some stories just aren’t meant to be told so neatly. Already, I’m imposing meaning. Soon, I’ll draw lessons—a takeaway, some personal growth. It doesn’t feel right.
Now, a brief aside. Years prior, I’d found a book in NYC. In it, was a short play called The Author’s Voice, which opens with one character surprised that the other’s apartment isn’t “cleaner, more pared down, geometric, somehow.” There’s a stage note that says his response is “curiously mechanical” when he replies: “sometimes the walls feel like predators,” etc., etc. There’s a beat. Then she says: “I’ve noticed you quote from yourself an awful lot.” The twist foreshadowed by this exchange is given away very quickly, so I’m not spoiling it for you when I reveal his secret: there’s literally a beast who lives in his closet that does all his writing for him.
What drew me to the text—to casting it & directing it—was a hermeneutic of suspicion I’d been nurturing at the time. Who writes our stories? Is there anything new under the sun? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied me; questions like these are good for developing your ideology critique and a really mean writer’s block.
So let’s try again. Let’s pretend ours were a play; I’d now turn to the audience & ask: “Is this even my story to tell? I am the antagonist. I am the bad guy, & I always will be.” The lights would dim, save for one, at the back, revealing her silhouette from behind a screen. Her voice would be heard, prerecorded:
“Si l’on me presse de dire pourquoi je l’aimais, je sens que cela ne peut s’exprimer qu’en répondant: Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi.”
But it’s not a play and I can’t rewrite the ending.