A few years ago, my mother was quite ill and I spent a fair amount of time in Beirut, first making sure she got the right treatment then helping her recover. Quite naturally, this disturbed my London routine including who washed and ironed my thousand and one white shirts – those of you who know me, know that I only wear them. This may be a shallow consideration given the gravity of the situation but I needed to look impeccable regardless. This is where Sabah, a rare person, came into my life. She had just opened a dry cleaning place down from my mother’s home, and I took my first lot of shirts to her. Women in Lebanon are very fashion conscious (well, in a very Lebanese sort of way!) and few would consider wearing the same clothes two days in a row let alone have a uniform. My white shirts intrigued Sabah. She couldn’t understand why I had so many! I also intrigued her. She knew my mother but had never met me. But she was very well disposed towards me because of my mother, and became even more so when I told her I wrote about food.
From that day onwards, whenever I visited my mother, Sabah looked after my shirts and she would pick them up and return them, perfectly crisp, and every time, she would bring together with the shirts delicious stuff she had grown or made for us to have for breakfast – she came before she opened her shop for a morning visit which is called sobhiyeh in Arabic; I always looked forward to our sobhiyeh because I knew it would be delightful, both because Sabah is bubbly and charming and because she has a good palate. A rare person indeed. And this morning, my first in Beirut, she brought me amazing figs which she had picked from her tree, and she brought manaqish, made with her own za’tar. If only I could have another Sabah in London!