Waking every morning to the perfume of sweet and savory spices and the scent of fresh fish in the salty ocean air, I would try to wipe the glaring brightness from my eyes. I was fifteen years old and on the other side of the world, in an old Mediterranean city filled with family, fishermen, and Roman ruins. I was in Tyre, Lebanon.
Immediately finding the generosity and humility of the Lebanese relatives I grew up with embodied here, in Lebanon itself, in my cousin Mario—a man who only knew kindness—I was treated like an old friend as he introduced me to his culture.
Out for a meal one evening, we found a small café lit by a single soft light. We were to enjoy a dish of slow-boiled fava beans, garlic, and olive oil called Fūl m’Dammas.
We sat at a wooden table dressed with fresh Lebanese bread, a dish of salt and pepper, sliced onions and lemons, a small bottle of olive oil, and the always present carafe of water. The carafe had a small spout on the side, and everyone in my family—except me—has mastered the art of drinking from it. As they extended their arms and the carafe a foot into the air, the water always flowed from the spout to their mouths, not a drop lost.
Two bowls were brought to our table, and I began to tear at the bread, dunking it into the soft paste of beans before shoveling it toward my taste buds. It was astounding.
This simple meal burst with richness and layers of intense flavor. It may have been peasant food, but I was a king. My taste buds had been liberated after fifteen years of oppression! Having found bliss, I ate half the bowl without rest in only moments.
I watched Mario reach for the small bottle of olive oil. “Special, very good, you eat.” He poured out a teaspoon of the yellow-near-orange syrup and looked at me, his voice as serious as I had ever heard it, concern washing his face. “Only little. This very big. Little, eh?”
I was feasting like royalty! Only a little? Ha! I grabbed a piece of bread and soaked up all that was offered on the table, quickly chewing it. Mario nervously laughed, his face a mixture of shock and worry.
Suddenly I was in a world of silence, with taste and smell vanishing too. Then I saw it in the bottle of olive oil. A small chili, laughing.
A high-pitch pulse burst into a loud guttural thunk that reverberated throughout my skull. A scream began inside my brain, crying out, in this moment of stunned paralysis, “You’re a stranger, a naive child trying too hard to claim his place!” My senses crashed back to life as I simultaneously tried to leave my body.
I had done more than swallow fire. The sun itself had exploded in my mouth. The chef, a man with a toothy smile, had captured the fury of a star and distilled it into this ferocious syrup. My eyes watered as if they could extinguish the heat, my teeth melted, and my muscles seized. My arms flew out in hope of finding salvation.
But, wait! The carafe would save me! That damn carafe that I’d never been able to use! But this was my moment; this was when all in the universe would align to save me from this birthing star!
My mind screamed “Pour from the spout! No, no, the top! The spout! The top!” I chose neither and begged for grace. The water crashed around me, mostly finding the table, snaking through the wooden slats and onto my jeans, swimming into my bowl, drowning the bread, drenching my face and hair, with little finding my lips.
The laughter came from all sides—they could see I wasn’t from here. All I could do was wheeze and scramble for bread as my cousin poured me a glass of water, handing it to me quickly and patting me on the back, still gently chuckling.
I burned with mid-pubescent embarrassment. I hated him, I hated the chef, I hated the people smiling at me, speaking a language I was lost in. I hated the food and the trip and every moment. He was laughing. I wanted to claw at him. I wanted to hide in the dark hovels of the surrounding streets. I wanted to…I wanted to…I realized—my reddened eyes looking at their wide grins—that I just needed to laugh.
My cousin’s eyes weren’t mocking; no one’s were mocking. The room held no ego or spite or anger. They weren’t laughing for their own enjoyment but because they were witnessing something so familiar.
Had I listened to him from the first, I would have avoided pain. Had I held onto my pride, I would have suffered embarrassment and a damaged ego. It was my relative’s warmheartedness, not any particular strength of my own, that enabled me to put ego aside and relish and embrace not only that night of camaraderie but my entire immersion in the culture of my family.
Throwing his burly arm around me, he proudly proclaimed “Lebanese, eh! Lebanese!” He had appreciated my eagerness to join in. I had tried something dangerous and survived. I later found out that everyone started their use of that oil lightly, growing their tolerance over a childhood. I had played catch-up just a little too quickly.
Continuing to chuckle, he reached for the olive oil. “Just little. Very big.”