Cooking together can be a way to get to the heart of the matter.
When Rajia Hassib opens the door of her suburban Charleston home tucked away in South Hills, she instantly welcomes me with her warm smile. Sunlight floods her kitchen her, where she has chopped piles of parsley and mint in anticipation of my arrival her.
I am riveted by Hassib’s first novel, “In the Language of Miracles,” a New York Times Editors’ Choice about an immigrant family bound by tragedy to an American family in their suburban neighborhood. The book immediately drew me in, and so did its references to Egyptian foods: mousaka, baklava, pastries of mercy, baked whole fish with potatoes, and stuffed grape leaf rolls.
The foods are a subtle cultural backdrop to the ensuing drama. It whitted my appetite for more.
Delighted to discover Rajia lives a few streets away from my own home, I asked her if she could give me a cooking lesson. After a mouth-watering email exchange, we settled on stuffed grape leaf rolls, a classic crowd-pleasing Egyptian dish difficult to find locally.
Grape leaves are wrapped around a mixture of fresh mint, parsley, rice, and ground beef and steamed for a few hours. I was eager to learn to make these delicacies and also hoped for a taste of Rajia’s writing process and her life her in West Virginia.
Growing up, her mother showed her how to roll the stuffed grape leaves but not how to make them.
“I spent a fortune on international phone calls, talking to her and figuring out how to make this,” Rajia tells me with a laugh as we carefully dissect woody grape leaf stems.
When she moved to the United States from Alexandria, Egypt at age 23, making stuffed grape leaf rolls was a way to enjoy a taste of home. “It is comforting, especially if you’re an immigrant. It’s one link to home that’s actually in your under your control.”
Stuffed grape leaf rolls aren’t complicated to make, but they take time.
“The one thing I like about that is, like when my mom taught me, this is something that takes hours to make, but when you’re there with family, it becomes a social event. What are you going to do for two hours? You talk,” she says.
And talk we did. In three hours, we covered everything from themes in her popular books her, thoughts about home and Appalachia to what our kids are up to, and the best way to peel and eat a mango.
After living in Los Angeles and New Jersey, Rajia and her husband settled in Logan before moving to Charleston. They lived in the United States for sixteen years before finally obtaining official US citizenship.
“When you reach that point of comfort with America, but you’re not American yet, it’s a very insecure place to be,” she says.
Standing on the steps of the courthouse in downtown Charleston the day she became a citizen, Rajia recalls, “you can finally breathe, finally, you know. Because I feel American, even though people will never see me this way”.
She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Literature and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Marshall University, which was 88 miles away from her home at the time. While her husband her worked as a pulmonologist in Logan, she raised their two children, studied, and wrote “In the Language of Miracles,” an experience that attests to her determination and discipline her.
Now, after 25 years, Rajia Hassib considers the United States home, but it is not without complexity.
“I will always be an immigrant. I’ll always have an accent. And that factors and how people see me and how people interact with me. So… it kind of complicates the experience of being at home.”
West Virginia has a special meaning for her. She draws parallels between Egyptian culture and the warmth of West Virginians: “I made friends in Logan and in Charleston because people are not afraid to come up to you and just talk and ask questions,” she says. “They’re not as worried about boundaries as they are in New York, which is a good thing.”
Appalachian hospitality made Rajia feel at home.
“That’s something that is similar to Egypt because, you know, you meet someone for the first time and you are getting hugged and kissed.”
Another cultural similarity is the so-called ‘Southern goodbye’.
“There are stages of goodbye leading up to the door that start half an hour before you leave, and … all of that stuff that happens here too, the food and the family values… It felt like home here. That’s why I’ve been here for 15 years,” she says with a smile.
“Traditionally there’s always the sense that it’s part of hospitality to feed people and feed them well and feed them a lot,” Rajia says of her native Egypt. As she deftly rolls a stuffed grape leaf, she tells me that growing up, she learned you aren’t doing your job well if you don’t have three days worth of leftovers after entertaining.
“In the Language of Miracles” explores the ways we reconcile tragedy with ourselves and our community at large. The story of an immigrant Egyptian family grappling with a violent event as they assimilate into suburban culture is as thought-provoking as it is engrossing.
“Whatever I’m living is what I’m interested in and what I feel that I want to explore in writing,” she says.
Rajia starts her writing process with questions.
“I’m struggling with immigration. Why am I struggling? What are the problems I’m facing? What are the struggles? Let me write about it and have people talk about it and fight about it,” she explains.
Rajia’s plots and characters are a reflection of life: a rich, complex tapestry, often without clear answers. “I explore different things at the same time. It’s also more realistic because people are complex, very complex,” she says.
Foods help bring Rajia’s fictional world alive. “If you describe foods, people can imagine the taste and the aroma.” Foods are a large part of how we live, she explains.
“I can’t imagine the characters and families without seeing them interacting with food,” she says. “Every time I imagine a gathering, there has to be food there because it is just what we do.
“I can easily make a dish that my mom used to make and the smell fills up the room,” she says as she recalls a few of her favorite dishes.
She shares Egyptian dishes with friends regularly.
“It gives me a chance to share my Egyptian heritage with Americans because it’s a connection. You can have to a culture that maybe you’re not familiar with at all. But if you taste the food, it gives you something to associate with that culture,” she says as my mouth starts to water at the thought of digging into our stuffed grape leaf rolls.
They are worth every effort. They are soft and savory with just the right amount of tang. Better than any store-bought version I’ve tried. With a promise to head out quickly, we find ourselves going through the many stages of goodbye, already reminiscing about the fun we had this morning and promises to cook baklava or mousaka next time.
It is a pleasure to meet a fellow West Virginian who explores questions of culture, identity, and psychology through fiction and who brings unique insights and tastes to a morning spent in the kitchen.
I am reminded of the intricate and beautiful woven patchwork Appalachia is: people whose lineage is inevitably traced from cultures all over the world. People who are friendly, brave, and who tend to believe the good in others.