I place the demitasse of thick coffee on the small table. Its steam curls up in soft wisps, seeking out and carrying my salutations to the land of the dead, in the spirit of burning incense in ancient Egyptian temples. My words are a silent prayer, invisible tendrils that stretch from my mouth and into the shadows of afterlife that hover nearby and palpable, in the days that followed my father’s death.
Today it is coffee. Tomorrow it may be a small plate of aromatic rice and chicken with pine nuts, or semolina cake with rosewater. On very bad days, when grief sits sharp and heavy like a rock in the pit of my stomach, these cups of strong coffee with cardamom are the only thing which binds me to the person who no longer is—who is now referred to only in past tense. Wary of explanation, I hide these small gifts away in the corners of rooms, under chairs and tables, tucked out of sight. I do it often enough that sometimes I forget them and am surprised to stumble upon their greyish, tepid remnants days later. Even then I am fiercely protective of the liberty they provide me: the unforgiveable sin that is not letting go.
My father’s spirit or soul, roh in Arabic, was extinguished in the early hours of a summer day in June. His physical form was reduced to ashes several days later. All this I witnessed and understood to be true. What I could not accept and had not anticipated was the fact that his death would in time absorb all memory, wearing away even the echo of his heavy gait on the stairs, the resonating timbre of his voice when he spoke my name, leaving behind a vacuum that weighed heavy in the space around me, threatening always to pull me in.
Before sickness wasted his body and quelled his appetite, my father loved to eat. And the dish that he missed the most from his childhood was freekeh, a kind of green wheat which is roasted then threshed. It is sturdy, coarse and filling. The first time I tasted freekeh was in Palestine, where my mother-in-law, prepared it with fragrant spices in a broth with chicken. When cooked, freekeh has a texture somewhere between brown rice and barley, but its flavour is nutty and more complex. It is considered “peasant food” because of how cheap and easy it is to prepare and because a bowl in the morning will keep your belly full well into the afternoon.
After my father died, there were days when I was consumed by a brutal and merciless sense of guilt. Among my many regrets was the fact that I had never learned to make freekeh. While he was alive, I never felt the need for anything more to bind him to me than his presence. Once he was gone, I yearned for anything that might bring him closer—if not back—to me.
There is a recipe for freekeh in a cookbook I own. Food from the Arab World was published in the 1950s and is a loving testament to the friendship between an American woman and her Lebanese friend. The cookbook captures a sentiment that seems impossible nearly seventy years after it was written: that of a Middle East that is relatable and human, if not somewhat exotic. The tone of the book in its explanations of traditional cooking techniques and the cultural rituals which surround them is approachable and strangely intimate. When I read it, I picture the American woman seated on the floor of a small, tiled kitchen, feverishly taking notes while her Lebanese friend, hair tied back with a scarf, pauses in the middle of filling marrow squash with rice and lamb to ensure that the author has correctly captured the balance of spices in the stuffing, or the thickness of the tomato slices which line the bottom of the pot.
The connection between food and the dead is well-documented throughout human history. In ancient Rome, family members were known to honour their deceased ancestors by visiting their graves and leaving offerings of cake and wine during the festival of Parentalia. The Mexican Dia de los Muertos, which predates Spanish conquest and is traced to an ancient Aztec ceremony, similarly involves the commemoration of the dead through food and drink. And in modern Vietnam, many family homes have an ancestral altar, where on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, generous offerings are made in their honour. I can’t say that my cooking was inspired by these traditions, but somehow I seized on the idea of food having the potential to close the space between me and whatever residual fragments of my father’s being were still floating around in the universe.
It took a good amount of time to perfect the recipe, and my experiments reflected the complexities of Levantine regional cooking. Over the course of many months—adjusting and omitting ingredients, knowing what to roast and when—my grief slowly became less dependable. The world of the living in the form of work, appointments, and children, stubbornly and persistently intruded on the soft shroud of mourning that surrounded me. Soon it seemed like there was less and less time for the cooking of intricate and unfamiliar dishes. Weeks went by without touching the cookbook, even as the gaping hole inside me grew smaller. My grief was still discernible to me, a dependable presence that moved with me through the daylight hours, but by the time a year had gone by, I no longer had the energy to sustain its demands. My offerings became smaller, less frequent.
This summer marks the tenth anniversary of my father's death. From time to time, the void that he left behind still demands offerings and I, for the most part, obey. Most recently, I made ma’moul: I mixed semolina, butter and rosewater together then filled the coarse dough with pureed dates. When they came out of the oven, I dusted them carefully with confectioner’s sugar and left two on a plate in the kitchen with a demitasse of coffee, this time unhidden.
Sahtain: its literal translation is double health, but its meaning is subtler. In the tradition of Arab hospitality, sahtain is a gracious wish for good health and a long life. It is a blessing on the person who consumes the food, but also on the person who cooked it, in that they have the pleasure of seeing the happiness of their guest.
When they go, our dead leave us behind. We remain in the land of the living, left to contend with the searing hunger of our loss. My small offerings started out as a way to bridge the distance between life and death, to selfishly prolong my father's passage into the afterlife. Now, ten years later, the demitasse and the ma’moul are the physical manifestations of my memories of him. Their fragrance, their taste of sweet or bitter or sour is a reminder of the space he once occupied, that no amount of thick, black coffee can fill.
Else Khoury is Palestinian by blood and Canadian by birth. She lives in Niagara, Canada, where she scribbles fiction, non-fiction and poetry at night and consults on privacy compliance during the day. Her work can be found in Sukoon, The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, Full Grown People, and Dragon Poet Review (Fall 2018).Her twitter handle is @yaffawiya.