Sherine Ben Halim Jafar was five years old and on a holiday abroad with her family when King Idris of Libya was overthrown in a coup. She never got the chance to go back home because as former Prime Minister of Libya, her father Mustafa Ben Halim became the target of the new Gaddafi regime.
With her family being forced to live in exile, Sherine had to deal with moving cities, homes and schools several times and the constant fear of the threat to her father’s life. She began to suffer from depression and recurring panic attacks that neither her family nor doctors knew how to handle. During those dark days, the kitchen became her sanctuary, where she could forget her turmoil and immerse herself in the aromas, flavours and exotic ingredients of the Palestinian and Libyan dishes her mother cooked.
Sherine’s childhood love for Arabian food grew into a passion for learning to cook authentic recipes from across the region. She embraced the food as her heritage, and was fascinated by details such as the special occasions when the dishes were cooked and the rituals, and familial bonhomie associated with cooking and serving them.
Traditional Arabian food gave her the sense of belonging and connection to her roots that she craved. It became a way of finding her identity, and of defying the circumstances that kept her away from her homeland.
Although she had to keep a low profile regarding her identity for most of her life, Sherine has finally decided to tell her story in a book titled “Under the Copper Covers”, which was released earlier this month in Dubai, the city that has been her home for two decades. In the book, published by Rimal Publications, she has shared the fears and traumas that plagued her while she was growing up, the joys of discovering her identity through food, and the authentic Middle Eastern recipes that she loves to cook.
On the eve of the book’s release, she spoke to Weekend Review about her journey of discovering herself and her culinary heritage. Excerpts:
Stories to savour: Syrian goulash
Why did you want to write this book?
I started writing this book five years ago as a simple cook book, in collaboration with a friend. The main reason was to pass on all the recipes I have collected from different parts of the world to my children, so that they do not lose this part of their heritage.
I think we spend too much time worrying about leaving behind money, jewellery or other material things for our children. I wanted to give my children something real, and I want them to understand that this is something I have worked hard for, something that they should accept and be proud of, because only when you are rooted in your heritage can you move forward in life.
But when I started writing down the recipes, each one brought back memories. The first recipe I wrote was for stuffed vine leaves, which reminded me of the constant arguments in our family about which version was better — the Palestinian or the Libyan. My mother, who is Palestinian, served both versions, and my siblings and I always tried to appreciate them equally to keep both our parents happy.
That was when I started realising that the significance of food goes beyond just eating it. As these memories came flooding back, I felt a strong urge to tell my story, and I felt that sharing it with the world would also help me to come to terms with certain things in my life.
Why did you choose this title for the book?
While in exile, my father wrote two books about the history and politics of Libya before 1969, which had been systematically erased from public memory. Through these books he brought out this forgotten part of our history from under the covers. But I felt that it was also necessary to tell the story of what life was really like under that cover of being a prime minister’s daughter.
I wanted to show the other side, that under the cover of an apparently privileged life, we were like anyone else — full of fears, anxieties, wounds and stories. I had actually decided on the title “Under the Covers” before I wrote the book. I later added the word copper because food and cooking are an important part of the book and my life.
What was the main cause of your anxieties?
While we were living in Beirut, my father was kidnapped and locked in the boot of his car. Fortunately he escaped, but the thought of him with his hands tied and confined in that small, dark space was the main trigger for my anxieties. And it was very painful to find out that the driver, who I was so attached to had been involved in the plot to harm my father.
While writing this book I actually relived those childhood panic attacks, and it was very difficult. But I wanted to share the anxieties I had suffered so that people become aware of the fact that childhood depression does happen.
At that time everyone thought I was weird and the doctor told my family to just ignore me. Even I tried to push my fears “under the covers”, but inside I felt tortured and in constant turmoil, and extremely lonely.
Today I see many people suffering mentally, and I want them to know that they are not alone. I hope that knowing somebody else has been through this, and understands what they are going through will give them some comfort and encourage them to seek treatment.
How did being in the kitchen help you?
I felt safe and secure in the kitchen. It was wonderful to watch my mother cook and to listen to her stories. She had already experienced the pain of exile from Palestine before becoming an exile once again; but when she cooked dishes such as “Knafeh Nabulsiyeh”, she would tell me about her hometown and bring Palestine home to me.
When my aunts visited from Libya, they would bring Libyan spices and foods and get together in the kitchen to make Libyan dishes and serve green tea with traditional Libyan rituals, which gave me a wonderful feeling of belonging. I felt that even though my country, my home, my toys, my clothes had been taken away from me, Libyan food was something they could not take away from me.
I felt so proud and possessive about the food that I would get into major arguments with my Arab friends if they tried to claim that dishes which I thought were Libyan or Palestinian originated elsewhere. The kitchen also provided some lighter moments when I saw the burly British policemen assigned to guard my father, enjoying our Arabian food and even getting upset if something else was served.
How does it feel to have shared your story?
It has been a cathartic experience. The process of preparing to write this book changed me from someone who was lost and troubled to a person who is contented, able to accept things as they are and happy to embrace many different cultures as part of my heritage. The book celebrates love, family relationships, connecting with people and accepting yourself.
What role has Dubai played in your life?
I came here on a short holiday, and fell so much in love with the city that I wanted to live here. I feel at home here because it has the Arab culture that I missed while growing up, but it is also multicultural. Dubai has given me a sense of stability and security and it has given me the freedom to be who I am. I feel lucky to be living here and having raised my family here.
Why was it so important for you to marry an Arab?
Although I was brought up in the West, I instinctively knew that I would be even more lost if I married a Westerner. I wanted and needed to marry an Arab because I did not want to have to explain my food, culture and traditions to my spouse.
My wish was to embrace my husband’s country and culture fully, but the person I fell in love with also happened to be an exile and of mixed Iraqi and Lebanese origin. But fortunately for me he is very rooted in his Iraqi identity. He genuinely understood who I was and gave me the space to find myself and to be myself. He is the first person I was able to speak to freely about my anxieties.
Dressing up in traditional Libyan bridal clothes and jewellery is one of my happiest memories, and I sneaked out from the henna ceremony just so my father could see me dressed that way.
What do the cuisines you have covered in your book mean to you?
The Libyan and Palestinian come from my parents and the Iraqi and Lebanese from my parents-in-law. I included Syrian dishes because my maternal grandmother was Syrian. The Iranian recipes are there because it was the first Middle Eastern cuisine I was exposed to after the food at home and I fell in love with it.
My Iranian friends in London were also living in exile after the revolution in Iran, so we bonded very quickly. I have mentioned Saudi dishes such as “kubsa” because Saudi Arabia gave my family a huge opportunity by granting us Saudi citizenship. And I have featured several Emirati dishes in my book to thank the UAE for welcoming us and giving us the opportunity to start our lives over again.
Why did you invite other women to cook with you before writing down the recipes?
I wanted to be sure that the recipes I provide are authentic. So I invited women who have inherited traditional recipes from their families to come and cook them in my kitchen, while I took notes. I convinced them to share their recipes, the rituals involved in making them, and also their stories so that their legacies are also documented and preserved for the future. I hope my book inspires other people to tell their stories.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.