In this scene from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War I marvel at Leila, my faithful helper. Together we restored my apartment in Beirut eleven times.
Leila was my cleaning lady for many years. She lived in West Beirut, and had no telephone, so I used what we housewives in Beirut called ‘the Arabic telephone line.’ I contacted my English friend who employed Leila’s cousin; she, in turn, contacted Leila to tell her I had returned after an extended absence in a “safer” part of the country. Devoted and energetic, she was the only person I wanted by my side as I began the seventh clean-up of my apartment since the outbreak of civil war.
Before Leila could begin her work, the windows and the glass in the balcony doors had to be replaced. Two glaziers from the glass cutting factory showed up on the first morning and spent most of the day cutting glass, fitting and caulking it into window and door frames. As part of their job they swept the balcony and apartment clear of all shattered glass. When that was done, I was ready for Leila.
She washed the balcony first, swirling a short-stemmed broom with a full head of feathery bristles and plenty of water mixed with detergent around the pots and furniture. In some places she would go after the dirt on her knees, her jaw firmly closed, her hair wobbling, the muscles on her arms rippling, the curve in her back perfectly arched, her eyes searching for any speck she might have missed. I lovingly called her my “Rav-O-Vac battery.” According to Lebanese television commercials they never quit working.
When Leila cleaned windows they sparkled. She hosed down the glass on the outside then wiped it clean with newspaper. She found an old toothbrush worked best for cleaning between the radiator panels and in and around the bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Leila’s lovely voice singing Arabic songs made the work seem less tedious. I often heard her humming while I was in the kitchen preparing our lunch and she was getting ready to say her prayers to Mecca. I would put the food on the kitchen table and wait while she prayed on her mat. When she finished we would sit down and eat together.
My friends were jealous. They knew how good Leila was at whatever she did, and they all wished she worked for them. Her greatest talent was cooking and she taught me everything I know about cooking Lebanese food. She had worked in several prominent Lebanese homes and learned from some of the city’s finest cooks. In addition to the more traditional dishes like tabouli, stuffed grape leaves and hummus, she taught me how to prepare fresh quince with veal shank and flavor it with garlic and fresh mint. She added chopped cilantro and grenadine syrup to okra stew, cumin and red pepper sauce to her kibbeh and generously doused grilled white fish with a blend of chopped walnuts, garlic, cilantro and lemon juice. Her specialty was the sablé, a three layer round butter cookie. Both the top layer, with a round hole in the middle, and the bottom had a distinctive petal edging. After baking the two layers were glued together with thick apricot marmalade then generously sprinkled with powdered sugar.
On this particular clean-up the kitchen was the hardest. Though the temperature rarely dropped below forty degrees Fahrenheit during the winter months, Beirut was extremely humid. We found thick clumps of black mildew growing like hungry weeds across the ceiling and down the walls. The more we tried to scrub it off the more the smudge spread. Eventually we conceded defeat, a primer and two coats of oil-based paint doing what we could not do. After Leila had scrubbed the walls throughout the apartment it was my job to paint them. One day I was up on the ladder painting the ceiling. From my vantage point I was able to look out over the city. I saw a window-washer, a team of men cleaning carpets, one housewife hanging her laundry and another painting like me. I saw a woman pacing her balcony with an infant in her arms. I heard a city coming alive again after so many months of bombing. I heard traffic hustling, horns honking, music blaring from passing car radios. It was a perfect cloudless day and the sky was that blue only a Mediterranean climate can produce. I heard street vendors shouting and mistresses haggling, bargaining over a final price on a kilo of tomatoes. Arabic music poured forth from the taxi stand across the street, and I could hear Leila’s lovely voice on the other side of the apartment, singing the words to the music she knew by heart.
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