Sunday Times Magazine: Relative Values

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The author Hanan al-Shaykh and her son, Tarek Malouf, founder of the Hummingbird Bakery, on escaping civil war to live in London.
Interviews by Lucy Holden

26 August 2018

Hanan:

I grew up in Beirut and had two small children by the time the Lebanese Civil War was raging in 1975. My son, Tarek, was two and my daughter, Juman, was five months old and I knew I had to flee. There were men walking the streets with rifles, shooting and violence everywhere. Once you’ve lived through a war, nothing worries you.

My husband was working as an engineer in Saudi Arabia, so it was just me, the children and my helper, Yesharick, at home. One day I said to her: “We have to go.” I knew we could try to board one of the planes owned by my husband’s uncle if we borrowed enough money for tickets to London. Yesharick went to her bedroom and pulled from under the bed a suitcase containing $16,000. She didn’t believe in banks, so she’d saved all of her wages.”We don’t have to borrow money,” she said. I laughed and loved her and we left for London. My husband would fly from Saudi Arabia to visit, before moving here permanently a few years later.

Feeling forced to leave your home because of a war makes you so angry. I poured my anger into a book about the conflict, tradition, female oppression, abortion and sex. Up until then there had been no female voices of the war, and I used language that was deemed too modern, so no one would publish it. I had to do it myself.

Tarek was just a baby when I was writing it, but I never let him and his sister see how angry I was; I wanted them to grow up with everything I didn’t have — especially security. When we first moved to our flat in Mayfair, I saw the city through their eyes and everything was exciting. We went to all the museums and to see the white peacocks in Holland Park. I filled our house with books because the only book I’d grown up with was the Koran.

When I was five, my mother left to marry another man, and so there was often no one in the house in Beirut when I got back from school. We never felt welcomed home, and so when I had children I always wanted to be there to open the door to them. I tried not to be an obsessive or possessive mother, but I always worried when Tarek wanted to get the bus back on his own.

I’ve never been religious, but my family in Lebanon were Shia Muslims. I wasn’t allowed to go swimming in the sea because it was deemed to tarnish you, so my friends and I would sneak off to the sea and hide our wet things afterwards. I wasn’t allowed to visit coffee shops either. Maybe because my life was full of rules I wanted my children to feel free to do whatever they liked when it came to their careers. I knew Tarek would do well, because he is so clever and interested in the world.

I first heard him talk about icing when he was just a child. He went to an American school in St John’s Wood and loved going to friends’ houses because their mothers made American-style cakes. He’d come home asking why I couldn’t bake cakes too, so I got a Betty Crocker recipe and tried, but it came out flat as a pancake. He stopped asking after that.

When he told me he wanted to open a bakery, I thought it was a brilliant idea and I so wanted him to do well. I used to ask all my friends to pop in every time they were anywhere near to buy cupcakes and I put flowers up in the shop. I’m so proud that my son could open a coffee-and-cake shop — especially as I wasn’t allowed to visit them when I was young.

Tarek:

I don’t know the Lebanon that my mother knew. I have memories of the streets, the smell of kerosene and the sound of air-raid signals, like the old London sirens that went off during the war. I was two when we left Beirut and I don’t know how many of those memories are from photographs and things I’ve picked up since.

More of my early memories are from London: I remember going to nursery school and feeding the ducks in Hyde Park.

It was thanks to my mum that I got my first job as a journalist for ABC News in LA. In the interview they asked me why I wanted the job, and the truth was that it was in television and I thought it’d be glamorous, but knew I couldn’t say that. Instead I told them my mother had been a journalist in Lebanon and had written about lots of amazing women, and it worked.

When I got the job I realised it wasn’t that glamorous at all.We worked next to a studio that produced soap operas, including one called General Hospital, so every time we ate in the canteen we were surrounded by actors in scrubs or with fake injuries. I worked on some amazing stories, but after four years I realised breaking news wasn’t for me.

When I left my job I visited my sister, who by then was living in New York, and we went out for coffee to an American bakery. They were everywhere and hugely popular. I realised London had nothing similar. I decided to open a London bakery that offered cupcakes and American-style brownies and bakes. I talked to my parents about it and they thought it was a great idea. It’s traditional in our culture to own a business, and at the time I didn’t feel I had any other skills, so I went for it.

I went to secondhand shops to buy cookbooks containing old American recipes. I made endless chocolate and vanilla sponges at home. It took me the best part of a year to perfect the recipes and secure the premises, and we opened in January 2004 in Notting Hill. I’d been so busy, I’d hardly thought about what it would be like to run a bakery.

Mum used to come in a lot, and my dad too, to help with anything that needed fixing. I’ve now written four recipe books, but I’m not sure I’d write anything as personal as my mother does. My favourite of her books is The Locust and the Bird, because it’s about my grandmother, her mother, and her life. All three of us have had very different lives, but I love that certain things, like books, cakes and coffee shops, tie my life together with my mother’s

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh is out now (Bloomsbury £13)

STRANGE HABITS

Hanan on Tarek
Since the age of six he’s been drawing maps of London for me because he knows I always get lost
Tarek on Hanan She makes us giggle in the most inappropriate situations

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