s I tried to explain what Labneh is to an American friend of mine, I naively turned to Wikipedia for help. The explanation, which included the words “yogurt,” “whey” and “consistency,” failed to get my point across. To every Lebanese, Labneh is more than just strained yogurt; it is the embodiment of our childhood memories, spread on Markouk bread and drizzled with olive oil.
So it is no surprise that Lebanese-Polish author Kathy Shalhoub played on the word Labneh in the title of her first publication, Life as a Leb-neh Lover. The 155-page book was originally a blog and documents the author’s adventures across the world since she was 16, using anecdotes to show how she became the woman she is today.
During a phone interview from her home in Dubai, Shalhoub told NOW Extra that the blog was originally for friends and family, a trusted vehicle to keep in touch as she moved from location to location for her studies and travel. But after the encouragement of many, she submitted a book proposal to several publishing houses, “which got a lot of positive feedback,” she said. And so she decided to go through with the project.
“It takes as long to have a baby,” Shalhoub said half-jokingly about her book. “It took me about a year to get everything together, from the manuscript to the illustrations to the editing… etc.”
The book’s foreword is written by Octavia Nasr, the former senior editor of Mideast affairs at CNN and current founder of Bridges Media Consulting in the US state of Georgia. “Octavia was my mother’s student in drama class. I’ve known her since I was six. I used to go to see my mother’s students act on stage. [Nasr] recently reconnected with my mother, and I asked her if she would like to write the foreword. She read the manuscript, loved it and agreed to write the foreword,” Shalhoub said.
Shalhoub’s book is full of anecdotes describing a common Lebanese experience: the longing to live abroad, the unexpected pining for a Lebanese community in a foreign country, the culture shock upon return to the homeland, and the importance of being able to share one’s culture and language with a significant other.
Stylistically, Life as a Leb-neh Lover draws on Lebanese colloquial dialect, using words and curse phrases, such as a kick in the rass (head), ghinij (being spoiled), wallaw (excuse me) and visa bi tiza (visa up her ass). This adds a personal touch to the book and engages the Lebanese reader, evoking genuine amusement or an unconscious nod at the events at hand.
Taken from personal experience, Shalhoub’s writing definitely brings to mind the local saying, “Seek the advice of those with experience, rather than a doctor.”
“If there is a core message [in the book], it would be to try and figure out who you are… through [constant] introspection. Take a break and ask yourself, ‘Is this who I want to be? Am I where I want to be?’ If I hadn’t done that, I would probably still be [in the States or in France],” Shalhoub explained.
Now the mother of a baby girl, Shalhoub divides her time between raising her daughter, writing and freelancing with a consulting company in Lebanon. She also works as an editor for a Dubai-based magazine.
But writing more books is definitely in the cards, Shalhoub said. “I’m currently working on a novel centered in Lebanon.” As for the possibility of writing a sequel to Life as a Leb-neh Lover, the author seemed a bit reluctant. “Maybe I’ll write a sequel. But these are never as good as the original [work].”
Life as a Leb-neh Lover, which tells of the experiences shared by Lebanese worldwide, easily doubles as a guide through the inexplicable Lebanese yearning to see the world yet live at home in a captivating style that is bound to get you hooked from the first page.
Life as a Leb-neh Lover is available at all major bookstores for $20/30,000 LL.
You can read Kathy Shalhoub’s blog here or you can join her Facebook page here or you can follow her on Twitter here.