"Cooking, kitchen and hearth were touchstones: mothers, grandmothers and aunts were the guardians of their heritage"by Wendell Steavenson / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Before Syrians had to flee, Iraqis fled. Before the Iraqis fled, Palestinians had to. A hundred years ago, Armenians were driven out of their Ottoman homelands by the young Turks. Waves of refugees have washed into Lebanon; many have stayed.
In May, in the Burj Hammud neighbourhood of Beirut where the Armenians settled, Armenian flags fluttered from every building and graffiti stencils of a gobbling turkey head were sprayed on the walls. It is a century since a genocide that has not been forgotten—nor acknowledged by its perpetrator. My friend Aline Kamakian grew up in a proudly Armenian household during Lebanon’s civil war. Her grandmother was nine when she escaped, rescued by a French ship from Musa Dagh, a region where the Armenians bravely resisted forced deportation. During Aline’s childhood, “Everything revolved around food. At breakfast we discussed what we would have for lunch. At lunch it was ‘what’s for dinner?’ This was our culture.” Cooking, kitchen and hearth were touchstones: mothers, grandmothers and aunts were the guardians of their heritage.
“It was not a question of assimilation into Lebanese culture. It was survival. We had to protect our language, our culture, our identity. Food was the focus, meals where they could gather and remember and talk. It was about feeling and memory, about belonging, soul, nostalgia. Sometimes the smell of a certain dish would make my grandmother cry.”
It was Aline’s father’s dream to have a restaurant where he could serve his friends real Armenian food. Aline and her cousin Serge opened Mayrig in Beirut in 2003. It is a favourite of mine from when I lived there 10 years ago—here I first tasted sou boureg, a delicate cheese pie-lasagne made of layered dough and three kinds of cheese. It is “the most complex Armenian dish because it is time-consuming and detailed.” During the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, I would come back from the bombed-out south to calming bowls of pastel-coloured ice creams flavoured rose, wild cherry, or marzipan; meghle (a rice pudding with cinnamon, carraway and anise); or ashtalieh (a pistacho milk dessert).