She’s known for pulling money from under her cardigan and offering lemonade to visitors. Her fingers are short and wide; her walk, slow and deliberate; her body, heavy with decades of work; her eyes, beautiful with a smile.
She’s the cook and shopkeeper of an olive, blossom water, and jam store on the old coastal road in Al Qalamoun. The shop is long: at one end, plastic patio chairs and tables wait for summer days and jars of olives and olive oil line the bookshelves; at the other end are a marble counter, lemon press, and stainless-steel fridge. In the centre, candied fruits, rose water, and fig jam sit on a wooden counter and in two display cases.
I ask the woman what she prefers to prepare. She laughs. I’m too old to have favourites. I get help now. As she had done during our visit the year before, she walks to the fridge and pours each of us a glass of lemonade. She turns to the shop window and points to the lot beside the newer blossom water–fruit cocktail shop. Seven years ago, she had picked olives there for a French television crew. They stayed all day. I made them lahme baajin. I watched their show on the television.
Do you own the shop with your husband? No, with my brothers. How long have you worked here? 45 years. She must have been 30 or 35 then. Had she been widowed?
I eye the candied ziffer (sour orange). I stare at the black and green olives that she’s stuffed in reused 2-litre water bottles. I pick up a bottle, walk by the plastic furniture, and hand it to her. She runs her finger against the bottle’s opening and tells Sam to cut the bottle top rather than try—and fail—to shake the olives through the narrow opening.
She places a box of candied ziffer next to our olives. I add a jar of batinjan makdous (walnut-stuffed eggplants). As though to congratulate us on our choices, she offers us crystallized orange-blossom flowers. I can’t resist something so beautiful: pinkish-red, almond-shaped petals. She feeds me a heaping plastic teaspoon of them. I smile and thank her. I tell myself that I prefer these candied flowers—whose taste reminds me of soap—in decorative doses.
She moves her spoon toward Sam. She then offers M. what Sam didn’t eat. The woman plunges the spoon into the plastic cup for a third time. She brings the spoon toward my lips. I don’t want to disappoint her, so I open my mouth and let her feed me a second time. While I slowly chew the petals, she walks to our pile of food and places the candied flowers next to our olives, ziffer, and batinjan makdous.