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Photo collage of Beirut streets and high rises with Karla’s mom and dad. Photos by Karla Jubaily; Design by Anya Anber Ameen

Belonging, food and grief: A reflection on how food shapes identity

Karla reflects on her first trip to her father’s home town of Beirut and how she stays connected to her roots through food

By Karla Jubaily , in Blogs , on April 4, 2023

A version of this story was previously published in the UBYSSEY.

Growing up, I had no strong connection to Lebanon. My only true knowledge of the region came from glimpses of Lebanese media on our satellite TV that I didn’t understand and my dad’s reminiscent stories.

These were both overshadowed by North American narratives that associated the region with war and terrorism. When I was a teenager, I shied away from this aspect of my identity, using my racial ambiguity to hide away half of my heritage out of fear of being bullied. I internalized xenophobia and Islamophobia, then masked it as shame and guilt.

My dad expressed his love for Lebanon all my life, but his recollection had become fragmented in the decades since leaving as a teenager during the 1975 civil war. In the predominantly east Asian city of Richmond, B.C., we were far from my parents’ communities. My dad’s Lebanese family resided on the East Coast while my mom’s Filipino family lived in Manila.

When I was 16 years old, my parents told me that we would be going to Lebanon. In retrospect, it seems absurd that the only part of the trip I was excited about was our nine-hour layover in London. I had never been to Europe before and it seemed like the ultimate travel destination. Flying from Vancouver to London, then to Bahrain and finally to Beirut was a long and tiring 22 hours of travel — particularly excruciating for my quadriplegic dad. But when we arrived, it was clear that it was worth every second.

He was finally home.

I will never forget the tears in my mom’s eyes seeing him back in his home country for the first time in over 20 years — she describes him as seeming like a little kid returned home, the weight of years away lifting in an instant. Airport staff quickly wheeled my dad through the airport to his electric wheelchair as he conversed with them in Arabic. My mom and I tried to keep up, frantic and exhausted.

We had arrived at Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport on a summer afternoon, about a 10-minute drive away from Hamra, the neighbourhood where my dad grew up.

My dad navigated its narrow cobblestone streets in his wheelchair as though he had never left. One of the first things I learned upon arrival was that there are no addresses, only street names and unit numbers, making my dad’s ability to navigate the streets after over 20 years away — and in a wheelchair — truly miraculous.

Hamra is a small, hipster neighbourhood filled with apartments, storefronts, street art, bars, restaurants, coffee shops and stores that have been in families for generations. It is the home of the renowned American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University, with a diverse ethnic and religious makeup. Though Hamra has much to offer, it was the food that stuck with me the most.

Hamra Street, Beirut, Lebanon

Our first meal was right around the corner from our hotel. We had shawarma, but it wasn’t like the shawarma I’d had in Vancouver — a mess of dry chicken, wilted lettuce, mushy tomato, unevenly sliced onions, unseasoned hummus and tzatziki (the worst part). Instead, it was like nothing I had eaten before. The pita bread was filled with toum (garlic sauce), chicken, Lebanese-style pickles and french fries. I was surprised not only by the flavours of the shawarma but also by the presence of toum, a sauce I had never seen outside my household. I remember thinking that being there was so much better than my few hours in London!

In Vancouver, shawarma is considered late-night food, only to be eaten when drunk. But in Lebanon, it is celebrated.

We had fresh-pressed juices, ice cream and traditional Lebanese home-cooked food for every meal. I had always thought that my dad was odd in his preferences when it came to fresh-pressed juices over store-bought, but it made sense once I saw how readily available they are in Lebanon.

In the following weeks, I learned that the home-cooked meals I grew up eating — kafta bil sanayeh (baked meat, potatoes and tomatoes covered with tomato sauce), loubya bi zeyt (green beans with tomatoes) and bamia (okra stew) — that had seemed like my dad’s odd creations, were actually Lebanese home-cooked staples. The food I had only eaten at home was being served in restaurants and fast-food establishments.

The city was alive, it was real, and I saw it with my own eyes. I walked through Hamra, Sanayeh and downtown Beirut with my parents and admired street art and murals while my dad told us stories at almost every corner.

Every day, I learned something new about my heritage, myself or my dad. We saw the Wardieh gas station my dad worked when he was in his early teens, nestled between the high-rises. My favourite memory is going by the cliffside road where my dad and uncle used to fish as kids and young teens. Past the railing were rocks large enough for people to sit on while they fished and smoked argileh.

Photo of people swimming and fishing from the rocks past the railing

I imagined my dad at my age, joyful and serene, navigating through Hamra and meeting up with friends, before being displaced by the war and becoming encumbered by disability.

I was shocked to realize that somehow I had connections to this place too. Even though I had only spent a few weeks there, I felt proud — a reminder of how certain environments have the ability to make people feel included and connected to their community. From the food to the customs to the mannerisms, I gained a sense of belonging. The walls that I had been putting up for so long vanished, and my insecurities and worries seemed so far away. I felt embraced by the very community and culture that had seemed so foreign to me.

Recently, my mom told me the reason we went to Lebanon at that particular time was because of dad’s health. He felt that it had dramatically declined and he feared he would not be able to return, if not then. After our trip, I had four more years with my dad. He passed away in 2017, at the end of my first year at UBC. It was only eight months after our second and final trip to Lebanon.

I haven’t been back since. He had always been my strongest connection to the region, and when he passed away, the thread connecting me to my homeland snapped. Just like that, I lost my dad and my sense of self. I was desperate to regain that connection and keep my dad’s spirit alive. Now it was up to me.

I keep wanting to go back in time, regretting not asking my dad more questions about our heritage when he was alive. More often than not, I am overwhelmed with the gut-wrenching wish for more time with him.

The worst part of grief is that the world around you keeps moving, unfair and cruel, as it forgets the past. My search for community and validation was and continues to be difficult. I tried to find a community on campus where I could connect with fellow Arab students, only to feel othered as a mixed-race person.

It wasn’t until the pandemic, when I turned to cooking and the internet, that I began to find what I was seeking. I baked and cooked traditional Lebanese food, sharing simple photos of my dishes on Twitter, where I connected with Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian diasporas around the world. This small act became the fundamental way I now connect to my heritage. Through cooking traditional food, I regained my confidence and sense of belonging — how could anyone (including myself) question my Lebanese identity when I can cook traditional meals so effortlessly?

Karla with homemade Lebanese shish tawouk

It was a reminder that I’m not alone and that many diasporas feel some sort of disconnect from their culture of heritage, whether or not they have a parent connecting them to that culture.

Finding my sense of belonging is a work in progress; the feelings of loss caused by my dad’s passing still come in waves, but I have found new threads tying me to Lebanon, my father and my identity.