· illustration by Kate Wilson
My mother has sent me out to Saint-Denis by Métro, because Alsan, the cleaner at her office, has told her that the best halloumi is to be found floating in a bucket at the back of a Lebanese bakery in the market on Rue de la République. My mother would make the cheese herself if she could, just as she is making baklava from whisper-thin sheets of phyllo and honey produced by bees raised in fields of lavender.
For Monsieur Sarkis, a man whose picture sits framed on top of the piano as if he is a relative, nothing but the best will do.
My father tells her she needn’t bother – we’ll cater, we’ll order, we’ll dine at Le Paradis – but my mother is insistent: we will entertain at home and she will cook, for this is a man who for so long did not have the safety and comfort of a home, living in hiding, under threat of a fatwa calling for his assassination for the better part of a decade.
The fatwa was finally lifted last year and Sarkis’s new book is about to be launched in Paris. My father, his French publisher, has been talking of little else for months, even losing interest in the Swiss copy editor with the shiny black bob and pert breasts.
Ours is a small publishing house established by my grandfather from money inherited from his father, an engineer who built railway lines in Africa. My father, attempting to shake off the colonial residue when he took over as publisher in 1969, dropped the word “Dark” and relaunched the house as simply Continent Editions. He did not make any significant money, and did not expect to when he signed on a relatively unknown Lebanese-American author named David Sarkis who had penned a startling novella about a Muslim cleric’s sexual awakening.
The British edition was published first. We could never have anticipated the reaction. Radical Muslim clerics immediately denounced the book as a defamation of Islam, and others raised enough money to offer a million-dollar reward for Sarkis’s head. Our edition quickly followed, as did deals for publication in twenty-seven other countries. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, Continent Editions had a bestseller, and David Sarkis was a star.
My father thrived on this recognition, a reward that seemed worth the threat of the black Mercedes with tinted windows that started following him home from work, worth the inconvenience of having to change his route every day, worth the expense of hiring a driver, worth the seriousness of the bodyguard the government assigned to protect us, worth the threat to himself, to my mother, and to me. Until he received the letter threatening to kidnap me, at which point my mother, for all she shared in the excitement, for all it seemed to have reinvigorated their marriage, said: enough.
My father’s solution was to stop the driver outside a travel agency after picking me up from school the following day, and ask the agent to book me a ticket to the furthest place possible. At fourteen, I was sent off to Australia – and not to Sydney or Melbourne, but to the remote and desolate interior – without a return date.
The squat, veiled woman behind the counter has her eye on me as I scan the shelves, as if I’m about to make off with something. I’m taking it all in: the sweaty smell of cumin, the sizzle of frying falafel patties, the sour smell of vinegar emanating from the vats of Greek olives. A boy who must be her son – taller than her and pockmarked by acne – asks me if he can help me find something, while she slips behind a curtain. I tell him I have come for cheese. He says they have no cheese and I ask him: “Not even halloumi?”
“Halloumi, we have,” he says.