In June of 1973 I left Beirut, that beguiling city perched on a cusp of land at the far, blue end of the eastern Mediterranean, confident that I'd be back in a year or so. As it turned out, it was 25 years before I could return--years of unparalleled brutality for Lebanon, as the country fractured into civil war. Throughout that time I held in my mind the image of the sparkling white city on the edge of the sea with the snowcapped, cedar-fringed peaks of the Mount Lebanon range rising behind. Often people would ask me where, of all the places I'd lived, I most wanted to go back to. And always I replied: "To Beirut, in 1973."
In the years I was there, studying archaeology and raising a family, Beirut was a dynamic entrepôt, a commercial, political and cultural hub where Middle Eastern, European and North African currents created a froth of ideas, causes, scandals, fads and fashions. In essence, that was the reason I was there: I was the wife of one of the many journalists who covered the region from Greece to Iran and from Libya to Turkey out of offices just off Hamra, the Fifth Avenue of west Beirut.
It's hard to say what I loved most about the city: the sound of the Mediterranean crashing on the rocks below our apartment terrace, the aroma of wild thyme from the sun-drenched countryside after a spate of autumn rain, the cries of the orange-juice and green-almond peddlers as they made their way down our lane. I loved the medieval bustle of the souks, where we bought exquisitely fragrant, beautifully shaped vegetables and fruits from the Bekaa Valley and the janoub, the south. I loved the smells of the city: mud and dust and rotting fruit for sure, but also roasting meat and cardamom-scented coffee and bakeries with crisp, buttery croissants lined up in glass cases next to syrupy, flaky, nut-crusted Arab pastries. It was my first sustained encounter with the richness of the Mediterranean and of the Mediterranean kitchen, and I was like a love-struck teenager.