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.
April 28, 2020