As the 10 a.m. sun blazes through closed windows, Em Suheil sits in the middle of her living room and works on her morning crossword puzzles. She’s just finished reading the day’s news from the expansive pages of Annahar and is now on to the second item on her list. She squints her eyes and licks her lips once or twice, in speculation. She leans back in her long, burgundy velvet robe, with her glasses arched exactly at the tip of her nose and her head tipped back just enough to read the paper.
Just as her morning show is coming to a close, the clock chimes at exactly noon, letting Em Suheil know that the real work of the day is about to begin. She switches off the TV, silencing the background noise, and plants her frail hands on the chair’s handles to gently push herself up. Her son, Suheil, is out this morning on errands, buying her fruits and vegetables from their local village, just over an hour and a half from Beirut, because his mother cannot stand the taste of Beiruti vegetables.
When she’s back up on her feet, she folds the paper exactly in half, tosses it on to the arm of the couch, puts her pencil back in the pencil case on the couch-side table, snags her slippers on, and heads on over to the kitchen in a semi-crouch, semi-crawl like walk.
Around her neighborhood, she’s known to everyone as el tabakha el sett, which roughly translates to the chef Madame. Not everyone has met her, but many have heard of her: a brilliant cook disguised in the body of an 80-something-year-old woman, in an apartment somewhere in Ras Beirut.
Indeed, an 80-something-year-old is what I encountered. Her thin grey hair hugs her scalp , and the skin on her white face is unwrinkled, but age has taken a toll on her neck and hands. Her eyes are a distinct light hazel that sparkle when she turns around in the sunlight. Her fine mouth is seemingly always turned up in a semi-smirk, as if she keeps a secret to herself about the world.
Em Suheil cannot begin before her station is all laid out. Draped in her long robe, she makes her way into the farthest corner of the kitchen and starts taking out rice and spices, and tells her housekeeper to fill a pot with water. Right before she’s about to begin, she takes off her wedding band, places it inside her bra, and starts preparing her station.
You’d think she’s preparing to go live on some TV station, but really, that’s just the way she’s done things. She sets everything down neatly, in descending order, from the biggest pot to the smallest spoon. Underneath her station, she lays out old newspapers, to minimize the mess she is about to create.
In a few minutes, she’s gliding over the ingredients, tossing, turning, and fetching from the refrigerator, in a sort of ballet she’s choreographed. Although she can barely walk at her age, she manages to move as swiftly as a dancer, gliding and turning from one point to another.
After she’s set the food on the stove or in the oven to cook, she quickly begins cleaning her mess. Sauce stains, dispersed spices, spilt water, split condensed cooking cream all disappear under her sponge as she wipes the countertop. She gives the stains a good minute of scrubbing, just in case they come back to taunt her again. She likes to get it out of the way as soon as possible, before anyone barges in and sees the crime she’s committed. She picks up her bowls and spoons, tossing them over to her housekeeper, as she packs away all her spices and cleans her kitchen counter free of any wet newspapers and mushroom slices.
Every day, she follows the exact same routine, waking up in the early hours of the morning, and working the rest of the day away in a mix of crosswords, newspapers, and cooking, before retiring to bed early at night.
“I don’t like sitting around all day. It makes me worry. Besides, if I sit down all day, who’ll cook? How will anyone get fed? How will anything be done? I can’t ever picture myself sitting down, purposefully,” she says.
Em Suheil was born in 1932, in the Northern Lebanese village Qarnayel. She was named Samia, after her grandmother. Her father, a beik of some sort, owned more than half the village’s lands and operated farms all round their village. Em Suheil had seven sisters and brothers, some of which are still alive to this day. They all live on the same street she grew up on in Qarnayel, and while she finds it hard to go back, they experience the exact opposite: a fear of leaving, she says. She got along well with everyone, but her favorite sibling was her fifteen-year-old sister, Saria.
On weekdays, she attended the local school for girls, and on weekends, while all her friends were taking over the streets with their foot balls and bicycles, she stayed in and watched Saria bake. Some memories escape her, but she’ll never forget the way Saria’s soft long fingers pinched vanilla, tossed it into a bowl, and started stirring. Em Suheil still recalls Saria’s famous cake:a rich, chocolate fudge cake, with just a hint of orange shavings.
Picking up after her sister, Em Suheil grew a fondness for the kitchen.
“Ever since I was young, I loved cooking. It was my hobby, and as I grew up, it became something I could not let go of,” she says.
On her eleventh birthday, Saria gave Em Suheil her first cookbook. She had managed to buy a recipe book from one of the village’s elders, and by the time Em Suheil was thirteen, she had nearly every recipe in it memorized, down to the measurements.
“I would say Saria did this to me. She got me obsessed! I miss her. She promised that when she got engaged, I would bake the cake, but that day never came,” she tells me, trying to hold back faint tears.
The year Em Suheil turned fifteen, her sister, Saria, passed away in a tragic accident. One of Saria’s habits was to lie down on the floor during the evening and knit, but one day, she kneeled down a bit too recklessly, and poked her knee with a needle. As medicine was behind its time and the village had only a handful of doctors, the needle caused an infection that would take her life three days after.
After seventy years, Em Suheil has still not recovered from Saria’s death. At the blissful age of fifteen, she had hoped to acquire more knowledge from Saria, to make her proud in one way or another, and to bake her celebratory engagement cake. Em Suheil still says she could never perfect it as well as Saria.
The year she graduated from high school, Em Suheil found herself unable of pursuing a bachelor’s degree, instead she longed to go to culinary school. Unfortunately for her, it was not a time for women to pursue such dreams and not be met with many obstacles. Heartbroken, she decided to settle for her father’s kitchen and her recipe book.
Her father had died when she was around 19 after acquiring malaria on one of his many business trips to Africa, leaving her mother a widow. Her mother kept the family running smoothly, despite the despair the family deaths of her husband, mother, and father had caused her.
She told Em Suheil she had promised her to a distant family cousin, but Em Suheil firmly refused. At the age of twenty-five, she met her now deceased husband, Kamel, and had fallen in love. With the many heartaches she had experienced over the short period of time she was alive, she decided that letting go of her love would cause another one she simply could not tolerate.
Within the next year, she and Kamel would be married and already building their own household in Aley. They owned an opulent mansion there, as a result of her husband’s growing business. Like her father, he dabbled in the business sector in Africa, and after every trip, he brought Em Suheil an ivory souvenir.
She mothered his five children, but their happiness would be short-lived, as her husband passed away in his mid-40s due to a sudden seizure. Time has given her enough time to heal, but unless she is cooking, Em Suheil still does not take her wedding ring off to this day.
By the time her husband died, she felt as if enough deaths had worn her out, and so she would not permit that to happen to her children. Her fortune remained intact, her husband had made sure of it, and so she depended on it for quite a while. Her children grew up with a stable shelter, income, and food to sustain them long enough, until they grew old enough to work.
Currently, her eldest child is in her mid-60s, and her youngest in her mid-40s. While they have all moved out, her only son, Suheil, has moved her in with him so he can keep her company. When he graduated from university, he took over his father’s business in Africa, sustaining the family for quite a while and adding funds to their bank account, which they would later use during the civil war.
Even after moving out, Em Suheil’s children frequent her household at least five times a week.“I thought they’d never leave, but here again they come, and I have to look after them! My god, they even bring their zghar with them. Ah, what can I do! I love them too much,” she tells me with a chuckle.
When the youngest two graduated from high school, the entire family moved to Beirut, so they would be closer to the American University of Beirut, where her two daughters would pursue their bachelor’s degrees. Em Suheil’s apartment spans the length of an entire floor in a modest pink-colored building on a corner in Ras Beirut. In her words, this is exactly where she imagined herself at 80-something.
During the civil war, they had moved there from the neighboring building, which was nearly bombed during their time there. Those days, she would go up to the roof with her children, dangerous as that may be, and look around for fighter Israeli planes.
Some days, they were lucky enough to enjoy a sunset and watch their fears dip into the ocean with the brightness of the red rays, but one day Em Suheil and her children almost experienced death themselves as they saw a building, not more than two streets away, collapse in front of their very eyes.
For a very long while after that, Em Suheil found herself slowly discarding the books in their large library. To her, they felt like they would tumble down and surround her like the rubble of the building she watched collapse. She could not bear it, nor could she let herself make peace with it. She slowly gave away almost the entire library, but as much as Em Suheil hated the feelings she held towards the library, she knew she’d hate getting rid of her husband’s books even more. Unable to part with the memory they held, Em Suheil kept four and a half shelves of her husband’s most precious books intact. But even today, she cannot be in a space with long stacks of books panning her every side. That fear, she tells me, has overtaken her dreams so often, she barely gets any sleep.
About seven months after the incident, Em Suheil started to think she was losing her mind.
“I started to panic. I couldn’t help but think a bomb would fall right on my children’s heads. I wanted to go back to the mountains. Damn the day I ever left! But of course by then, the road was too dangerous. You see, it passes right by the airport, which they had finally gotten to, those bastards!” she tells me, her frail hands shaking the newspaper tightly. After leaving the food to prepare on the stove, she sets out back into the living room with me at her heels. Seemingly having forgotten my presence, she grabs the newspaper once again, yet somehow continues the conversation as she completes the crossword puzzle.
Em Suheil’s only shelters were unreachable, so instead, she moved to the building right across the road. A move across the street does not really amount to much during a war, but Em Suheil felt the house had become imprinted with memories of trauma, fear, and anger. In hopes of starting anew, she packed her bags, and along with her children, they carried the luggage across the street.
“Let me tell you: it’s true it was close, but our things were heavy! We moved an entire home on our own!” she says.
During the next few years, the situation in Lebanon only escalated. The fear of death grew stronger in Em Suheil’s household, and she could not find ways to keep the family occupied for long. For a little while, she thought she would seek refuge in reading what few books she had kept.
Outings were forbidden, and since the newspapers were on hold then due to inability to print, she read her deceased husband’s business books. Out of panic and boredom, her children picked them up as well. To her own surprise, she still remembers the principles of demand and supply, which she can recite word for word.
The situation only got worse from there. After a while, the books became insufficient to free the family’s minds of trouble, so Em Suheil developed a routine for everyone. She would cook, and the kids would take turns cleaning, watering, playing, and reading all throughout the day.
As food became increasingly rare, Em Suheil loaded up three closets in her home with food supplies so she’d never run out. Most neighbors were not as smart, so they often found themselves living on foul and bread.
“I couldn’t see that in front of me. I had so much food, and they barely had any. It didn’t seem fair to keep away their source of life. 3ayb! I just couldn’t do it. Before, I already had to cook for six: my son Suheil, and my daughters Nada, Lina, Rola, my granddaughter Tania, and myself of course. But at that time, I started cooking for around twenty people at once. Imagine leaving Leila and her daughter without food!” Leila and her daughter, it turns out, were two neighbors she had during the war.
She spent an awful lot of time in the kitchen, cooking, baking, with her little helpers cleaning all around. She fed four or five houses a day, and once, she managed to feed up to seven. She describes it as the proudest day of her life: she woke up in a rush at 5 a.m., and finally set out plates at 2 p.m.
“That’s exercise, habibti! Riyada!” she laughs.
Em Suheil soon became known for her exquisite flavors. She sent food out of generosity, but, she gained fame in the process. Somehow, she made everyone believe she had a secret ingredient, but the secret she tells me, is how she does it.
“I never do a dish unless I can fully commit time to it. Baamela men afa eede yaane?” she says, taking off her glasses and staring at me unwaveringly.
Her days of cooking for seven households are over, but to this day, Em Suheil’s flavors are still notorious around the neighborhood, leaving everyone anxious for more. New and old neighbors still come to her door on Sundays to taste her kechek, and on weekdays to taste her riz 3a djej, kousa, and her most famous dish, freekeh.
“I thought after the war, I wouldn’t have to cook for anyone else except my family. But people still came asking, and honestly, I enjoy it. Even if they’re not dependent on me like before, I still make them food, just to keep their bellies full!” she says.
Unknowingly, Em Suheil had built herself a reputation. From the local shop-owner to her closest neighbor, nearly everyone in the neighborhood knows of her cooking. She turned into a legend of Ras Beirut, and people still find themselves craving the freikeh that only her hands could make.
“You know, my husband was a very respectable man, so all my life, I was known as his respectable wife. When I hear people knocking at my door, giving back my plates with wide smiles, it makes me feel like, for once, I’m known for something else,” she says.
Today, Em Suheil did not make her signature freekeh, but instead made beef stroganoff, and with her children all at work, I am her only guest.
Instantly pushing the air particles away to claim its stage, the aroma of pepper, beef, and steamed rice filled the air. I wait for Em Suheil to assume her seat so we can eat together, but she beckons me to try it, perhaps as a means of confirmation of her legend.
I pick up my spoon, scoop an even amount of sauce, beef, and rice, and blow on it a bit so as to push away the steam rising from it. Em Suheil is eager to get me to try it, so she instantly dips in with a spoon and hands it to me so I can steal a taste. The dish was still incredibly hot. Yet while the steam danced off into the air, so did the aroma, and I cannot wait another second before I shove the hot spoon of food into my mouth for quick judgment.
I must say, while it is true that rumors are over-exaggerated, the ones surrounding Em Suheil were anything but: her dishes live up to expectation.
She lays out three plates: one for me, one for her, and one for the housekeeper. Before even dipping into her own plate, she echoes the words I know to be her catchphrase.
“Yalla habibti! Kele, kele!”