Nicole Aragi’s Family History in a Jar

Nicole Aragi

In her kitchen, Nicole Aragi keeps a jar of olive oil from a village in Lebanon whose name she cannot pronounce, high in the mountains above Beirut where her father was born.

Wrinkled straps of tape hold the improvised oil-stained label in place. The writing on it crests to half the jar’s height, tall stems and sharp corners of Arabic, a language that, although she grew up in Libya and Lebanon, she cannot read.

“I think it’s my name,” said Ms. Aragi, a literary agent whose formidable roster of writers includes Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Credit...Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

She was born in Tripoli in 1962 in what was then the Kingdom of Libya. Her first bookstore was a donkey cart, steered around the city by an old man who sipped coffee with her father while she tore through his stash of Archie comics. (Years later, she would run her own bookstore, in Wimbledon, England, making a killing in gardening manuals.)

During the Libyan unrest that followed the Six-Day War in 1967, her family retreated to Beirut. When troubles came there, too, they turned to England. “You speak good English,” Ms. Aragi was told when she emigrated. She said, “It was the only language I spoke.”

In 1998, she went back with her father to the village of his birth, one of their last trips together before he died. There she was given the jar, filled with oil pressed from olives from her family’s grove.

The oil is long gone, as is the grove, since sold. But Ms. Aragi continues to replenish the jar with olive oil harvested in northern Lebanon, which she finds at Kalustyan’s, an Indian grocer not far from her apartment in the flower district. “It might come from our village,” she said.

Her mother, an Englishwoman, was “a reluctant housewife — she tells me now,” Ms. Aragi said. Her father, who worked for an oil company, was the cook.

She remembers him working from home, stirring soup while brokering deals on the phone. Six days a week he made Lebanese food, but the seventh was reserved for Sunday roast, with all the trimmings — including baba ghanouj.

Now Lebanese is Ms. Aragi’s “go-to, know-what-I’m-doing food.” She maintains a collegial baba ghanouj rivalry with the writer Nathan Englander, whom she has represented since 1999. His recipe draws from Israeli tradition, hers from Arab. Accusations have been made concerning the use of mayonnaise. Negotiations continue.

Like her father, she often cooks in the middle of the day, slipping barefoot from her sunny open-loft office through a sliding panel — Lucy through the wardrobe — to the apartment next door, where she lives with her longtime partner, the critic and editor John Freeman. When her writers wander in, unexpected, she feeds them.

On one visit, the novelist Rabih Alameddine, who is also of Lebanese descent, spied her Lebanese identity card and laughed. It states that she is illiterate, because she cannot read Arabic. “He loves to say that his literary agent is illiterate,” she said.

In the mornings, she pours olive oil from her jar over a bowl of yogurt, then dusts it with za’atar. Wherever it is from, it tastes of home. And though she doesn’t need to know, the label says: Nicole.

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