In my childhood, Lebanon meant delicious food, most of which we could not find in Syria. This included cheese, chocolate and Pepsi. My aunt, who lived in Lebanon now over 25 years ago, would visit and bring us gifts like a Smeds processed cheese block and a bottle of Pepsi.
For my brothers and I, the greatest happiness was my mother preparing us a Smeds cheese sandwich with a glass of Pepsi. And as I grew up, my idea of Lebanon was exceptional foods with mouth-watering flavors and distinct packaging. The first thing I did when I moved to Beirut was try food, like chocolate and crisps. I ate strange cheese that was not available in Syria, because the country was closed to most imports, except for a few very expensive products.
But, after coming to Beirut, I also felt a strong desire to send food to my family in Syria, like my aunt had done long ago, to bring that old happiness to their hearts, with the sentence: “The goods arrived from Lebanon.”
However, sending food to Syria is not as easy as it used to be. Following the outbreak of the war [in 2011] the number of checkpoints on the Beirut Damascus highway has multiplied. Transporting anything across the border has become like smuggling explosives, with cars parked along the roadside and bags searched for many hours.
You would see dresses and underwear pass through the hands of soldiers looking for things that could be hidden amidst your clothes and belongings. It is provocative to see a piece of clothing dear to you in the hands of a soldier or murderer.
Crossing a checkpoint quickly generally requires paying a fee. Many people did this. It’s the checkpoints manned by Maher al-Assad’s Fourth Division which are a nightmare. Passing them means losing half of your gifts or cigarettes, so many drivers would prepare boxes of cigarettes in advance to hand out among the soldiers.
In addition to these insults and long waits, some soldiers simply ask people for a can of tuna, mortadella or cheese, under the pretext that they want to have lunch. In other words, fulfilling my dream of sending food, cosmetics and perfumes to my family in Syria was easier said than done, especially after the time that soldiers at a checkpoint stole some of the things I sent.
I had to find a way to circumvent the soldiers, to disgust them so much that they would not rummage through the bag of pleasures I sent to my family from time to time. As necessity is the mother of invention, I found a way.
In short, I learned to hide food inside of pants and shirts that I wanted to get rid of, and wrap them up in such a way that if a soldier put his hand inside the bag, he would only feel cloth. At the bottom of the bag I would place the most valuable foods and gifts. On top of these would be a layer of less valuable goods. So, if the soldiers were to steal some of my things, they would be the least valuable.
On top of the gifts, I’d put a thick layer, usually clothes. So as not to give away my scheme completely, I won’t explain the final step. It involves worn-out underwear. In general, I’m just trying to show the soldiers how poor the owner of my bag is, so they think it’s not worth searching.
Last time I did this, I gave the owner of the taxi operating on the Damascus-Beirut highway an extra US$4. I told him that if a soldier wanted to search the bags, he should give him 5,000 Syrian pounds, about a dollar, which is a good sum for a soldier standing under the scorching sun all day.
That time, I took pictures of the contents of the bag. When it arrived, my mother told me everything was there, and not a thing was missing. The bag hadn’t even been opened. All the items were exactly as I had packed them.
I considered this and told my mother, “If this is what US$4 can do, imagine the weapons and explosives that have entered our country with only US$4!”
Yet this is not the whole story of the Lebanese bag of pleasures. There is also the question of seasons, which bring their own items and issues. For example, in the summer I cannot send chocolate or cheese, as they may melt or spoil. In winter I have more options and can send a larger variety of items.
I have lived in Lebanon for years now and my appetite for new and imported foods has started to fade. Perhaps, with time, you get used to things, even the treats you so eagerly awaited as a child. Pringles crisps no longer draw my eye at the market. Instead, little by little, I have started to want foods that remind me of Syria, and the things my mother used to cook. I started to look for local cheeses instead of expensive foreign ones. It seems I have grown accustomed to the flavors of Beirut.
My family, however, has not and they continue to receive the bag of pleasures with enthusiasm. My nephews often have special requests, such as certain brands of cheddar cheese like Zwan or Kerry.
To expand their options, I send them things they have not tried yet. I ask them to let me know if they liked the new chocolate, and whether I should keep sending it. Sometimes my mother will say, without being asked, “Don’t send us those crisps again, because they are not very tasty.”
The pleasures of Beirut are closely linked to deprivation experienced by most Syrians and the limited choices of food they have. It is ironically similar to the idea of having just one single leader. Just like we have no choice in choosing our president, so we have no choice in cheese, crisps or perfumes.
Crossing dangerous roads, evading corrupt soldiers and nasty officers, risking looting and detention, the Lebanese bag of pleasures offers a break from the state of siege, fear, deprivation, and economic sanctions. In the hands and mouths of my nephews, Swiss chocolate is a taste of a different life.