A few days ago I baked for a friend’s birthday- vanilla fairy cakes cut in half, filled with jam and cream and dusted with icing sugar, becoming mini Victoria Sponges. We ate them after lunch in the Spaghetteria Italiana, borrowing the waiter’s lighter for the candles, pink, purple, blue, while outside the rain fell grey, grey, grey.
It reminded me of the last time I baked for a birthday, a few weeks ago, when it was still oven hot; when Beirut felt like another city, suspended on a thread; when I started a blog post but never finished it… until today. Here it is, almost a month old:
We are invited to a party.
I bake fairy cakes- little vanilla cushions laced with lemon icing, studded with jelly bean jewels and four bright yellow candles.
I put on a pretty white dress, frothy at the collar, given to me by the concierge’s wife (one Saturday evening when I had gone out to buy a last minute melon and come back with the gift instead).
At just after 7pm we go downstairs to the two roomed house on the ground floor where the concierge’s family live, all 7 of them.
We sit on the floor around a table cloth of newspaper, spread with plates piled high with kousa and batanjane (stuffed courgettes and aubergines), and deep dishes of yogurt. There are no knives or forks, but there is no need, as we all use disc-dishes of bread to scoop, roll and wrap the food, some more expertly than others.
The baby sits between us, suddenly hungry for a second dinner, sucking fat green grapes or chewing her own pale strips of bread and playing a game of pass the teaspoon with the family’s only son.
We are celebrating the eve of their third daughter’s birthday, born in Syria 4 years ago, when it was another country.We are laughing and learning each other’s languages; how to use your whole body to say ‘yes'(head down, hands out) and ‘no'(chin raised, eyes up) in Arabic.
I catch sight of a headline and Obama’s face on our newsprint table cloth and think how, somewhere far away, it is still morning, and people who weren’t born there are discussing what to do about Syria. Is it yes or is it no?
Now we know the answer, but then when we didn’t, all that mattered in that moment was sharing an occasion, sharing food, sharing words, one mouthful at a time.