I was born in the very humble neighborhood of Mar Elias el-mkhalsiyeh (St Elie du St. Sauveur) where everyone was my father, mother, aunty, uncle, brother, and sister. We had no labels, and we shared everything from food plates to blankets.
I was even more fortunate to be born in the 80’s while Europe and America already switched to coloured TV and compact disks; Zahle was still satisfied with Cassettes and black & white TV; or no TV at all!
Who needs a TV in Zahle when electricity is still a fantasy and when you have neighbours like uncle Halim, aunty Georgette, aunty Matilde and Mantoura (May their soul rest in peace).
Uncle Halim had a little grocery shop across St Elias church; he had a big skull like a soccer ball, and used to call me Nina. His products were the most expensive and more likely expired, but there was something about his sandwiches that attracted police officers in general, and me in particular. I wasn’t allowed to taste because I was not a police officer maybe or because the sandwich cost more than my daily allowance of a silver coin but I was happy to watch him cut tomatoes over slices of Mortadella and finish off with a sprinkle of salt wrapped in a Lebanese bread.
Aunty Georgette’s door was the one right next to the church; there was no way you can get in and out of the church without smelling her Moujadara (cooked lentils together with rice, and garnished with sautéed onions) simmering on low fire in her humid kitchen. She was a wonderfully humble woman who loved everyone and had a peaceful smile covering her tired face. She was a heavy smoker, obviously suffered from emphysema and often talked from her nose. She had many kids; two of them had crossed eyes and were teeth-less.
Aunty Matilde was a classic, often called “Matille” She was actually my dad’s aunty and played a big role in my childhood. I was her sweetheart. When my mom didn’t allow me to keep kittens in the house, Matilde offered to look after them. Matilde barely made it out of her house; the maximum distance she afforded to walk is to the church. She was a single aunty and her living room used to fill up with same visitors daily, including me and Aunty Virginie; her sister in Law, who used to (and still) eat a kilo of oranges at each visit. Although she is in her 80’s, she looks and smells like a citrus tree and her face lacks wrinkles. Despite the fact that Matilde used to make the worst tabbouleh a human being can dare make; it was her signature dish that I always loved to taste its distinguished bitterness. As mentioned earlier; Matilde rarely left her sofa, she knew which stores were on sale from the radio that she often broke on purpose, just to get my dad’s attention to get him to visit her to fix it.
Mantoura’s original name was Eugenie. She had a major attraction to churches and religious festivals to the point that she became an icon figure in one of Zahle’s most famous and exclusive religious event of The Holy Eucharist (Khamis el Jasad) in June of each year; where Mantoura lead the walk of the city, followed by a crowd of devotees reciting chants and praises.
I can go on and on about my neighbours, one by one but I will never finish with their amazing stories. When it comes to food, Zahle had a specific –sometimes seasonal routine. September is the month where women prepare for winter through pickling vegetables, pureeing tomatoes and jams, and preserving grains. On snowy days, particularly in January and February; Kechek (is a powdery cereal of cracked wheat fermented with yogurt diluted in hot water, garlic and olive oil) and makhlouta (a combination of beans and peas soup) are cooked for lunch, wheat and water are blessed on Epiphany day, and sweetened wheat is also consumed on Saint Barbara’s day. Then comes spring in March with the season of green almonds, pistachios and green fava beans, enjoyed with beer. And finally comes summer in June, when fruits and vegetables are bought daily, early morning for the preparation of the Mezze season. The cafés over the Berdawni River buzz with locals and tourists to celebrate what makes Zahle internationally famous for being the birthplace of authentic mezze cooked with so much pride yet with extreme love.
You don’t need a calendar in Zahle. A day normally starts with a 7am early mass followed by a Man’ouche; an oregano pide straight from woodfire oven for less than $1 each. Kids go to school, men go to work and women make it to the market to race for the best fruits and vegetables in season while electricity is still off. Catching up over a Turkish coffee is very common, we call it “sobhiyeh” and it’s when women get together in one house to gossip about other neighbours, drink coffee, read each other’s future with coffee muds and prepare the vegetables for the cooking. Then electricity comes and lunch is prepared. After lunch, another round of catching up take place at another house with more Turkish coffee and gossiping, often interrupted by annoying kids wanting a snack or help with the homework, and in-laws sneaking a peak around the house to make sure they haven’t missed anything (God forbid!). If mass is missed in the morning, no worries! Additional services are available at 5pm, followed by the rosary and an episode of a Turkish series. At 6pm the electricity goes off again and generators are on. 8pm is swearing time! Men are focused on their TV listening to 8pm news and cursing the country’s political turmoil and dead economy, over mezze platters of Labneh (Greek style yoghurt), white cheese, salads and pickles…if an unexpected visitor knocks on the door, no problem! A tabouleh is fixed and a charcoal chicken is delivered. At 10pm electricity goes off, so do people; and what is left of Zahle is empty streets, complete silence, and dark houses protected by Our Lady of Zahle.