A Culinary Trip to the Easternmost Village in Lebanon

The majority of us probably first heard of Arsal on the news, when this East Bekaa village came under siege by militants. Nestled on the border between Lebanon and Syria, Arsal -- which means "God's throne" in Aramaic -- sits at the confluence of two Levantine cultures rich with overlapping history, heritage, and traditions.

Nevertheless the media attention Arsal has received doesn't bring us closer to its denizens and their way of life. Like almost every tragedy or turmoil that beleaguers a region, Arsal attracts pity for becoming the scene of terrorist rife, but the human empathy stops there. Sufficiently beyond reach, it is just another warzone that is off-limits to the local tourist.


The Discovery Box from Arsal came chock-full of local delights


On a rather bold mission, Anthony Rahayel of NoGarlicNoOnions, the blog and enterprise which debuted Lebanon’s open-air street food market Souk el Akel, traveled to Arsal on one of his televised excursions. There, he met with village locals and highlighted their artisanship in everything from baking bread in a tannour to carving out stone for building veneers. Here’s the video:





The people of Arsal exemplify hospitality, warmly welcoming Anthony into their midst and presenting him with their finest. What struck a chord with me in particular are the words of the sheikh, who exhorts all Lebanese to treat each other as brothers, not strangers. In the eyes of these rural town folk, the whole of Lebanon is perhaps a collection of villages, and the deep-seated tradition of receiving guests is sacred and unquestionable.

You can taste that chaleur in every one of the products bundled in the Discovery Box Anthony sent out a few weeks ago. There’s the classic “mouneh” range, from labneh balls preserved in sunflower oil, to pickled stuffed eggplants, lamb confit and chili paste. There’s zaatar, keshek, and sun-dried tomatoes, in addition to kaak biscuits ("akrass") and chickpea-flour tannour bread. I mean, who even knew that the cave-like tannour oven is still put to use in Lebanon?


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Woman baking tannour manakish (photo credit: NoGarlicNoOnions.com)


Sweeten your palate with pumpkin, apple, and strawberry jams, as well as viscous black gold, aka grape molasses. The women of Arsal are exceptional craftswomen, weaving beautiful coasters that resemble miniature Persian carpets.

What I especially cherished about this initiative is that 30 families in Arsal and 10 in Baalbeck were employed in the creation and fabrication of the box. Students from Beirut helped with the packaging and delivery, soliciting the aid of 20 taxi drivers for distribution. Now that’s a group effort.


500 boxes were distributed across Lebanon (photo credit: NoGarlicNoOnions.com)


We may not be able to travel to precarious Arsal, but thanks to this hand-carved box filled with an array of homemade delicacies, we can get a whiff of the hospitality defining this jeweled village. 

Over a hundred kilometers separate us, and inevitably, the gap in customs and habits continues to grow deeper. But we remain united by our love for the fruits of this land.



30 students from Beirut assisted in the preparation and distribution of the boxes 
(photo credit: NoGarlicNoOnions.com)

Comments

  1. This comment isn't related to the post specifically although it's probably one of the best posts I have read regarding the Discovery Box from Arsal! I just wanted to thank you for writing up such amazing posts time in and time out using perfect English, perfect grammar and perfect sense!! It's been so difficult following local bloggers lately because they are simply butchering the English language...it's a crime against my eyes and intellect. So thank you for always being so on point and having posts that follow through the same idea from start to finish, not to mention perfectly written. It's just sad how low the level of good blogging has gone down! Some might say your use of the English language is good since you were raised in the States, but having American friends of my own I know that it has nothing to do with it. I am not asking for super literary feast every time I read something published...just good grammar and spelling, the basics!!!! Keep up the good work!

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    Replies
    1. Chirine, I don't know where to start nor how to thank you for your faithful readership and warm praise. It's something I definitely don't take for granted, and comments like yours motivate me to continue blogging.

      Beirutista is far from being a mainstream blog. What I'm most proud of are the sophisticated, intellectual readers (like yourself!) that the blog attracts. I’ve tried to create a forum that’s insightful and refreshing, a place where literary fluency reigns on high.

      Your beautiful words reminded of this interview I had not too long ago (see last paragraph): http://www.beirutista.co/2016/04/one-on-one-with-beirutista.html

      Thanks again from the bottom of my heart--you are gold.

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    2. I have read the interview and trust me you are the one who's gold! Lately going through a lot of the Lebanese blogs has been pure torture. Forget about the spelling and grammar of the post, but people don't even bother to capitalize or place in the right punctuation!!!! That's a crime against the English language. And I agree your blog is far from mainstream and it's a shame that there are just a few bloggers left who can capture the readers' interests. I totally understand the hype of social media and everyone wanting to be a blogger but not everyone is cut out for that. I mean even Instagram captions have gone insane!! So thank you for existing in this crazy sphere. And sometimes, even if I am not that interested in the subject matter, I find myself clicking on your post and reading it with such a joy. So like I said before, keep it up!!!

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