Amal Ghazal with her dad and great-grandmother. Home. Qab Elias, Lebanon.

Between Lebanon and Vancouver: Sourdough and Memory in Pandemic Times

April 28, 2020

I baked my first sourdough bread today. Baking has been a coping mechanism and a good excuse for our inability to stay focused on one task. I know I speak for many when I say so. I have been enjoying buying sourdough bread from local bakeries, to support them and to find a valid excuse to leave the house. Perhaps this is the only activity, along with grocery shopping, that is allowing us to pretend we can claim some sort of normalcy. But baking at home this time was not just a distraction and stress release. It is also about sourdough and the childhood memories it has been generating.  A state of quarantine has amplified certain childhood memories. There are many reasons for that, including the comparative angle between living through a pandemic and living through a war (in my case, it is living in wartime Lebanon, 1970s-1980s). Both pandemics and wars cause much uncertainty and anxiety but war is much worse and the comparison, beyond the uncertainty and the anxiety, is not always valid.

Quarantining has been reminding me of the sourdough starter we kept at home in Lebanon during my childhood, and that kept us alive. It was the gold everybody owned but could share with others. I grew up in a large household that included several women. One of them was my great grandmother who told us stories, sang, braided her hair and mine, and supervised baking at home.  Kmaj bread, the Lebanese word for pita bread (Kmaj comes from the Turkish word for bread, Ekmek), had become popular in the 1970s and 1980s but did not yet eclipse the Saj bread, the thin flat bread baked on a domed griddle and considered healthier. We had a Saj oven in a huge room, which we called the garage, where we also kept produce that could survive winter. The room was adjacent to the garden that had an olive tree, a loquat tree, grape vines, roses, lavender… and a water fountain.

Saj bread, at the time, could not be bought. It had to be home-made. From time to time, my aunts, my uncles’ wives, possibly a neighbour too, would get together in the afternoon or evening and prepare the dough for the Saj bread. It was a much awaited event for us. We liked the vibe, the chatter, the gossip, but mostly the magic of seeing the bread rise, then divided into pieces, shaped into balls, arranged into large aluminium containers and covered. The kitchen accommodated  everybody, and all utensils needed. Space seemed to always expand to fit any group size.

At dawn, the women regrouped, brought all containers down the stairs to the “garage”, arranged their seatings, prepared the Saj, the wood fire and started the baking process. The dough was to be flattened by hand, tapping on it in an almost rhythmic manner while stretching it over the arms until it is  big and thin enough to cove a thick round cloth that looked more like a round pillow. It was then held by the palm of the hand and slapped on the Saj. It bubbled, was turned to the other side and then removed to the stack of bread. If the sound of tapping to flatten the bread did not awaken us, the smell of bread certainly did. We joined as observers but waited for the prize at the end. Some dough was left to make a circular thick bread on the Saj, called tulmiyyi. Handed to us warm, we dipped it in an endless choice of food, ranging from savoury to sweet. My favorite version was with ghee and honey.

The one who supervised this whole enterprise was my great grandmother, the matriarch of the family. Her presence was reassuring. She is the mentor, the one passing the mantle of life, exemplified in bread-making, to others and making sure all women perfected every step of the procedure. The texture, the shape, the tapping, the heat, the stacking, all had rules that had to be followed meticulously. And everybody followed instructions to the letter.  Most importantly, she was the keeper of the sourdough starter. She fed it, looked after it and distributed it as she wished.

Standing in the garden now turned into parking.

I can’t remember what year exactly she passed away but she survived her only son, my grandfather. Witnessing his death, we were told, was too much to bear for her and the heaviness of his loss killed her eventually, my aunts believed.

Her presence, it turned out, wasn’t just keeping the sourdough starter alive. It was also guarding the garden, the trees, the flowers, and the water fountain. Not very long after her death, all that space was bulldozed and was turned into a parking lot for family cars, and also into a fuel reservoir, in case of a shortage. Never mind that a bomb could lit that reservoir on fire, and us all with it.

The sourdough starter disappeared from the house along with the garden. Kmaj bread completely replaced the Saj bread, which was mostly received afterwards as a gift. It was becoming rare to find, before it made an eventual forceful return. With my great grandmother’s passing, the whole household was further “modernized”. We could buy more cars to park and buy fresh Kmaj bread daily. We could stay tuned to the TV if we missed her songs and stories. Her name, by the way, was Bahiyya (Gorgeous). Her death took away much more beauty from our lives.

In my mind, baking sourdough bread is connecting me to a certain past, or is perhaps reviving it. A pandemic galvanizes a state of survival. Baking is an act of survival, but of defiance too. Bread is life; Egyptians call it so. Baking asserts the desire to live in the face of a pandemic. The equation of bread and a pandemic is the equation of life and death. But a sourdough starter holds a chain of memories, not just in its chemistry but also in its individual histories. It connects me to my great grandmother, and to my childhood in Lebanon.

But it turned out, it is also connecting me to “20 year old Vancouver hipsters.”

CCMS staff and myself have a WhatsApp group chat that I have recently been using to check on CCMS team. Instead of the usual “how is everybody doing?”, I announced my successful baking operation, and dedicated the loaf as a birthday present to our program assistant, Janine-Marie. Aslam, our Community Engagement and Outreach co-ordinator, wrote: “Why is @Amal Ghazal every 20-year-old Vancouver hipster?” It turned out, as Aslam explained later, all 20 year old Vancouver hipsters are baking sourdough bread. Aslam thought I had joined the hipster club while in my mind I was trying to join my great grandmother's baking club, though through a loaf in an iron cast skillet, not the wood fired flat Saj bread. An hour and a half later, Aslam wrote again saying: “I see a popular blog post in the making –“Sourdough Starters: from my Grandmother in Lebanon to my Hipster Vancouver Neighbours under Covid.” Our Communications and Events Co-ordinator, Alyssa Quan, immediately commented: “I love that.” This brief conversation echoed how our brainstorming sessions have been going lately, as we try to curate new content while unable to meet and access our different spaces in the city, spaces that range from offices we work from, murals and public art installations we sponsor, rooms for community conversations, hikes and nature walks for healing, halls for guest lectures, cafés for meetings and planning, and more.

This piece, written to refute the accusation that baking sourdough bread has made me a member of the Vancouver hispster club  (although I can still claim that membership by other means – I live in Vancouver after all), is dedicated to my team members: Aslam Bulbulia, Janine-Marie Conrad, Arthur Liao, Alyssa Quan, and Yara Younis. They are keeping the ship sailing, and smoothly, despite all challenges.

Ardalan Rezamand, a long time member of  CCMS team, took a long break from us to finish writing his PhD dissertation, which he successfully defended, online. He wrote yesterday from his farm at the US border, to check on me and see if I needed anything. This is also dedicated to him. 

Amal Ghazal
Director, CCMS
April 28, 2020