You can’t argue with history. Well, in Lebanon you can. With our academic history books reciting contradictory storylines, the Lebanese narrative is made to be argued. So the use of history to create a common base for our national growth is futile. We should look for something else to unite us, and I believe that should be zaatar. We’ve all been there, toddlers craving and/or force-fed that enchanting mix of ground dried thyme, sumac, and roasted sesame seeds, promised to be an elixir of brain functionality, of better action – better consequence. We’re all there, trying to forgive bakeries for tripling the price of the basic zaatar manoushé. It’s a nostalgic benchmark, just like history, only more solid than our nation’s.
The first time I bought a bag of zaatar after moving out of my parent’s house 10 years ago (slightly exaggerating for dramaturgic purposes) was last Thursday, and it didn’t taste like zaatar. Branded as “local zaatar,” I felt cheated by a bag of spice. Of course it can be argued that I could have opted for a better brand, but that’s what my local grocer was selling my neighbors and me. That meant that at least a chunk of lower Achrafieh was eating bad zaatar if they’re not going through the luxury of procuring their zaatar in more alternative trajectories. I would argue that this imbalance of what has become luxurious is what is wrong with us. We are not short on zaatar as a nation, but we are short on accessibility to everything that is basic.
Everyone is entitled to accessible, astounding zaatar, just as everyone is entitled to be spared of the pedestrian phobia of cars, parked and moving. We have been informed last week of seven cars, along with their descriptions and license plate numbers, which entered the country. These cars are bomb-installed and ready to explode. They can be anywhere, and it’s up to us to find them. Interesting is the least to be said about this. Hunting camouflaged explosives that could be anywhere is an interesting addition to the “full-option” life of a Lebanese citizen.
So it is luxurious to move from point A to point B. I, the adventurer, still partake in such activities as moving. I take the cab, as I can’t afford a car, and I won’t add another vehicle to Beirut’s already cluttered streets. I discuss zaatar with cab drivers, literally and figuratively. I overhear backseat conversations that start with “Don’t tell anyone,” to which I become more attentive, “Ah, don’t worry. I know someone in the ministry, and the order is already made. We won’t pay for a thing, and in five years, we’ll have a vineyard.” The lady in the backseat had just told her friend on the other end of the line her solid five-year plan that started with her stealing quality grape seeds from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Somehow I know I can’t blame her. When zaatar is a luxury, stealing grape seeds from the Ministry of Agriculture to plant your own vineyard could be the sane thing to do. So do it; seize the day! Make wine and sell it, all I can hope for is that it will taste good and that your enterprise would last this long. It’s tough to look forward in Lebanon and see anything but static. Today looks static, as a matter of fact. Leaving a cab, thinking whether the crowd in a space qualifies as a “crowded space” – the healthy presence of fellow citizens becoming a threat rather than a sign of vitality.
It’s crowded, and I pierce through to have a coffee with a couple of friends. All of us, once proud of how we have become immune to this idea of constant threat, have lost this luxury along with that of zaatar. We discuss places to immigrate to. We lament our shallow existences. We converse about the ‘situation,’ trying to overcome these contemporary natures of luxury, at least in our minds, but the static remains. Looking around, there are no means for us to make sense of anything. There are no indicators of a nation to cling to. I tell them about my zaatar theory. We laugh.