The way this book is constructed is a marvel. It rambles like stream of consciousness writing, then catches itself, while the narrator, in whose head we reside for the duration of the book, reminds us that she has digressed, and brings it all around to where she originally left off, having shared some facet of her personality that illuminated who she is. Although it doesn’t sound like it, the book follows a linear track as the narrative goes back and forth in time, with her memories, to flesh out the details of her life, helping the reader understand, and ultimately empathize with her.
Aaliya is a 70-ish woman living in her beloved Beirut. She lives alone and prefers solitude to the company others. The reasons for that are understandable, given her past interpersonal relations. Aaliyah’s whole life is lived in books. To say that she is well-read is an understatement. Many of the authors she cites are obscure, or at least unknown to me. I began the book by writing down every author and title, but I had to give that up when it took me 2 hours to read 40 pages. Finally, on page 62 where she named 14 writers in one paragraph in an attempt to explain why she can’t translate their work, I gave up the obssesive recording. Aaliyah loves books, loves the characters in her favorite books, and loves her authors. Naively, I thought I might attempt to read all of the works she cites, but realistically, with my penchant for contemporary fiction, that’s not going to happen. So I settled on 3 books that I will try starting with Aaliyah’s favorite Holocaust book, Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. Next is Memoirs of Hadrian, her favorite novel, by Marguerite Yourcenar, and finally, the philosopher Spinoza. Having left philosophy behind 50 years ago after an introductory course, I’m going to need Spinoza “lite.” I found Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton.
In addition to being a self-taught “learned person,” Aaliyah was also a student of classical music, and mentions many of her favorite pieces as she makes her way through the local record store, 2 records per month – all that her limited budget will allow despite her obsession. So I thought about using either Lizt’s Etudes or Chopin’s Ballade #1 in G minor, but I kept thinking about a scene she described from the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982. Three Israelis in combat fatigues broke into her apartment in the pre-dawn hours. She grabbed the AK-47 that was on the bed beside her (don’t ask, read the book, it’s a good story) and without having to fire a single shot, sent those 3 intruders scrambling out of her apartment and into the street. Needless to say, her reputation in the neighborhood as a “crazy lady” went a long way in the future toward keeping her safe. But the image of crazy ladies reminded her of the Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus (Bacchus is Roman mythology) whose name translates as “raving ones.” They reached a frenzied state with the help of dancing and intoxication. When I searched the web for images of Maenads, this picture by Frederick Leighton, called “Bacchante,” came up. Unfortunately, the caption said that it was in a private colection, making the original inaccessible to me, although there was a link to purchase a print. I just love this picture. Not sure why. Wildness? A girl and her greyhound – goat – sheep? I don’t know. I just can’t stop looking at it.
THE FOOD: When Aaliyah and her husband first moved into the building where she still lives, the landlord turned out with his family to welcome them with rice pudding with rosewater. Since my husband is a fan of rice pudding, I thought I’d try a Middle Eastern recipe.
Easy Middle Eastern Rice Pudding Recipe
2 C milk
1 C half and half (or heavy cream, if you prefer)
2 cinnamon sticks
6 whole cloves
1 C medium grain rice (or Basmati)
3 T sugar
2 tsp rosewater (or to taste, add more as preferred)
½ C water, more as needed
⅓ C evaporated milk
2 T unsalted butter, room temperature
ground cinnamon for serving
honey for serving
crushed pistachios and walnuts for serving
Place the milk, half and half, cinnamon sticks and cloves in a medium saucepan. Heat on high and watch carefully. Just before the milk mixture boils, remove from the heat. Cool completely and refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight so that the flavors develop and intensify (if you don’t have time, you can proceed from here).
Remove the milk mixture from the fridge and set in room temperature for a few minutes. Add the rice, sugar, rosewater and water. Bring the mixture to a boil on high heat, then simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring regularly.
As the rice cooks, keep stirring regularly. The rice mixture will dry, add a little water (a tablespoon or so at a time) to help it cook. Continue to stir and add water as needed until the rice cooks completely. The rice mixture should be moist, and the rice should be fully cooked but maintain a little bite.
Remove from the heat. Stir in the butter and evaporated milk. Carefully remove the
cinnamon sticks and cloves, then transfer to small serving bowls or even 3-oz mason
jars. At this point you can cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
When ready, add a little evaporated milk to each bowl to loosen the rice pudding, if you find that it hardened in the fridge. Heat briefly in the microwave, then top the rice pudding bowls with a pinch of ground cinnamon, honey, and the crushed nuts. Serve warm or at room temperature.
My husband likes dried cherries, so I added them, warmed the pudding and drizzled it with honey.