Sweets of Tolerance

Out of Lebanon

An shorter version of this article was posted on the Common Ground News Service.

On Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, between eateries fragrant with Middle Eastern scents, stands a small pastry store since 1992, Sweet Arayssi. Rima Arayssi, 43, is the fifth generation of a family of Muslim confectioners operating since 1844, in Lebanon. Her achievement goes beyond the family business to transforming the store into an oasis of coexistence among customers who have long-time religious and political tensions. She has continued to keep her bakery Kosher, as her father did, to cater for Lebanese Jews, among other Arab Jews residing in Brooklyn.

Most days, Lebanese Muslim, Christian and Jews meet at her store and find comfort in what they undeniably share, the longing to the sweet taste that reminds them of their shared cultural identity and home country thousands of miles away.
“Outside Lebanon, Lebanese from all…

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Sweets of Tolerance

An shorter version of this article was posted on the Common Ground News Service.

On Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, between eateries fragrant with Middle Eastern scents, stands a small pastry store since 1992, Sweet Arayssi. Rima Arayssi, 43, is the fifth generation of a family of Muslim confectioners operating since 1844, in Lebanon. Her achievement goes beyond the family business to transforming the store into an oasis of coexistence among customers who have long-time religious and political tensions. She has continued to keep her bakery Kosher, as her father did, to cater for Lebanese Jews, among other Arab Jews residing in Brooklyn.

The store in Bay Ridge Brooklyn (Photo Credit: Carla Haibi)

Most days, Lebanese Muslim, Christian and Jews meet at her store and find comfort in what they undeniably share, the longing to the sweet taste that reminds them of their shared cultural identity and home country thousands of miles away.
“Outside Lebanon, Lebanese from all backgrounds get along well and share the nostalgia for their country,” said Charly Mizrahi, 51, a freelance correspondent and a customer of Sweet Arayssi since it opened.

Outside the shop small Lebanese flags adorn the front door. Inside, a wafting aroma of ghee, or clarified butter, a key ingredient in the sweets, sets a warm ambiance. Freshly made varieties of flaky Baklavas with a shimmering glaze of syrup sit in large pans on one counter. On another, sits a display of butter cookies, saffron with pine nut cakes and coconut with sesame seed pastries, among other Middle Eastern delicacies. The boxes carry a label with the letter K, to indicate that they are made solely with kosher ingredients and set them apart from imported non-kosher sweets.

“Ahlan,” (welcome in Arabic) yells Arayssi, from the back kitchen. Clad with grey sweatpants and a t-shirt of the same color, she carries extra weight visible in her plum cheeks and her shapely six-foot tall figure. Long earrings with purple shells droop from her ears. Her eyes are drawn and extended by a thick black eyeliner pencil. Under a white paper chef’s hat, she wears her blond hair in a ponytail.

This cool morning in spring, she stands in front of the stove, rotating a heavy platter of kneffe, a Middle Eastern breakfast made with semolina rubbed with ghee, flour and sugar topped with a thick layer of cheese and cooked until the semolina crust turns golden brown. Served fresh daily in a sesame bun drizzled with sugar syrup, the popular item is Organic and Kosher, just like the rest of her products.

The latter term was a novelty for her in 1996 when Arayssi handled the operation of her dad’s store. She got introduced then, to the Jewish culture. Growing up in Lebanon, she rarely heard of this community. She was a child when Jews started leaving in the 1960s. Yet, she remembered stories of her grandmother who used to go to her Jewish neighbors’ house and turn off their lights for Shabbat. Arayssi heard stories of a life of tolerance among all Lebanese during her parents’ and her grandparent’s’ youth, but not in hers and not in the recent years.

Tolerance and coexistence are terms that Arayssi lives by every day. Born into the Muslim faith, she and her sisters went to a Jesuit school in Lebanon, just like her father and her grandfather who were baptized Christian. Her mother is an observant Muslim who prays five times a day. Arayssi though, married a Lebanese Christian.
“I think the more people marry in between religions the better the understanding among them will be,” she said. “There is a lot of fear from the other religion, ignorance really. There are a lot of preconceptions, a lot of judgments that are set in people’s minds.”

Arayssi feels privileged to be comfortable in both Muslim and Christian environments and she plans to raise her 4-year-old daughter in that same spirit of coexistence. “I want her to understand that all people are the same,” she said. “God is one, but we each take a different way to get to him.” She held a similar attitude of tolerance for all religions when she took over her father’s store.

In 1996, she left Lebanon and a career in advertising. A timely occurrence with her father’s wish to retire, led Arayssi and her husband, straight to the kitchen. She rolled up her sleeves, put on a chef’s hat and started learning the craft of making sweets. Such an encounter changed the course of her life and uncovered her passion for creating something that people liked and came back for.

Considering the high demand for the distinctive flavor of her sweets by the Jewish community in Brooklyn, she carried on her father’s decision to get a Kosher certification and cater for her newly discovered clientele.
Arayssi pushed it further by getting a calendar for Jewish holidays as well as Muslim and Christian holidays and planned the sweet preparation accordingly.

Arabic Kosher Sweets (Photo Credit: Carla Haibi)

She learned the principles of the Kashrus, the Jewish dietary laws and changed the operation of her store to qualify for the Kosher certification. Hard decisions were made in the process. She had to choose to make sweets exclusively and cancel the preparation of certain Lebanese food items, which were in demand but contained meat products. According to the Kashrus, meat-containing products could not be prepared in the same kitchen where dairy products are used. So Arayssi decided to stick to kosher pastries.

The Kosher certification was pricy though, a $ 4,000 yearly fee, paid to rabbis who inspected the kitchen on a regular basis. Kosher ingredients, more expensive than regular ingredients, had to be used exclusively in the preparation of the sweets. Arayssi could have taken it a step further by making Parv sweets especially for Passover. Parv means that the food does not contain any animal fats, but made with oil instead. Yet she did not want to jeopardize the flavor especially for the rest of her non-Jewish clients. “Arabic sweets do not have the same taste when made with oil,” she said.

Going kosher was one thing, keeping all her customers happy was another.
Arayssi sometimes feels that her role is delicate especially in trying to divert politically charged conversations, a complicated task when the situation in Lebanon is not stable. “Lebanese can easily argue with each other, and are very politically biased,” she said, adding ” This shop,” is not the place to talk about politics.” In fact, she chose to turn the television off in the store because Lebanese news broadcasts created tensions.

Instead, she preferred to oblige in her customers’ feelings of nostalgia, those who have been in the US for a long time, by telling them stories about Lebanon, and speaking Arabic (with the Lebanese dialect). “Some come here to practice the language,” she said. ”Others tell me, ‘this is smell of Lebanon,’ when they come into the store.”

Arayssi saw herself as the guardian of traditions, a way for her and her customers to remember their roots. “Somebody has to preserve the traditions, and food is a very important way to do it,” she said.

Such claims have made her reputation. Mike Ghaida, a Lebanese man in his 40s, is the president of a contracting company and has been in the US since 1983. He stops by on his way home to New Jersey from work in Brooklyn to buy what he deems the best Arabic sweets ever made. “For me this place is like a connection to Lebanon. It means traditional, real, homemade Middle Eastern, old-fashioned, high quality sweets,” he said firmly.

Arayssi store full of posters and artifacts that remind the home country (Photo Credit: Carla Haibi)

The task of making such artisanal delicacies is physically exhausting though. Arayssi spends at least eight hours a day standing in the kitchen, rolling, cutting and baking. “I inherited this craft from my father, I never went to pastry school,” she said proudly.

Adamant on producing consistent quality and taste, Arayssi finds pleasure in making every batch of sweets. Uniformity in shape however is difficult to maintain since each batch is handcrafted similar to a painting. “The work is artisanal, we work with our hands, we are creating everything from scratch,” she said.

While waiting for their order to be wrapped, customers like Ghaida often linger over the selection of antique posters of landscapes and monuments from Lebanon covering the walls floor to ceiling.

Determined to display the beautiful image of her country and dismiss common misconceptions that Lebanon is a dessert and that Lebanese live in tents and ride camels, Arayssi enjoys the positive echo that these images had.

“Some young Lebanese guys bring their girlfriends to the store just to show them what Lebanon looks like,” she said with a giggle.

I recently had a chance to be immersed in bedouin life in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. While the details of the project will not be disclosed for confidentiality purposes, I will share some great encounters and the fascinating bedouin cultural artifects that I came across.

Typical bedouin outfit (Photo Credit: Carine Daou)

Some might be surprised to hear that there are bedouins in Lebanon. Bedouins are nomads, who typically roam from place to another with their herds.

But the bedouins I met, are now naturalized and have Lebanese ID cards. They left their nomadic lifestyles and settled in the Bekaa among other places in Lebanon and the region.

Some have really adapted to their new situation, by moving to concrete housing as opposed to tents and increasingly leaving their herding and grazing practices.

Most however, have really preserved some traditional practices as markers of their own cultural heritage.

One of which I found most fascinating, was coffee roasting, grinding and serving. A specific protocol is observed when it comes to serving coffee for guests, and during special occasions and celebrations.

The origins of coffee are largely debated, yet it is widely believed that the first cultivation of coffee was found in Ethiopia and from there it spread into Arabia, Turkey, Europe and the rest of the world. Arabs have adopted coffee as an integral part of their traditions, and have used it as a sign of hospitality.

Traditional Coffee Pots (Photo credit: Carla Haibi)

Bedouins serve a special type of Arabic coffee, litterally called “bitter coffee.” To make this coffee, coffee beans are roasted. After they cool down, they are poured in a wooden bowl and then ground by a wooden stick to preserve the flavors of the bean. The sound of the beating movement of the wooden stick against the bowl creates an entrancing rhythm, that is typical of arabic coffee making ritual.

The “bitter coffee” is usually flavored with cardamom seeds, a spice that I am not particularly fond of, but that pairs very well with coffee.

Bedouin lady beating coffee beans (Photo Credit: Carla Haibi)

After grinding, the coffee is boiled with water in special copper pots. The caffeinated beverage is then served in traditional small coffee cups with no handles. The equivalent of one shot is poured in one cup and is offered to the guest first. The guest just takes it in one sip because this “bitter coffee” is strongly flavored. If the guest doesn’t want more, he wiggles the coffee cup slightly, the server moves then to the next guest and then to family members, all sharing this sip of “bitter coffee” from the same cup.

Let’s Not Carrie On…

Truth be told, if it wasn’t for Samantha’s outrageously racy and funny attitude, Sex and the City 2 would be just a condescending and bigoted plot. I have enjoyed the fashion and the shoes…Oh the shoes…But that’s it!

Here’s my full review on Common Ground New Service.

I am a fan of the series, as shallow as it may be at times, but I have enjoyed watching it over and over again, especially before moving to New York City. The stories in the series are very realistic and relatable for anyone who has experienced ‘relationships roller-coasters’ in the Green Apple.

The sequel however, ventured in making other cultures the subject for derision. Abu Dhabi’s ascension is not trouble-free, especially with the reports of Human Rights Watch about abuse of migrant workers, rape and violence towards women, and sentencing foreigners to prison and deportation for public display of affection, among other social issues. Yet the film does not address such social problems in a meaningful way, and instead unleashes stereotypes, and disregards cultural differences and social customs. Besides why are Hollywood moviemakers even going there? What is the point of showing no acceptance of other societies’ traditions? And how about not lumping all countries in the Middle East together and generalizing at every possible occasion?

As far as I am concerned, watching the sequel was a frail attempt to brush off the disappointment I had from the first movie, which I found racist against different ethnic groups, especially Mexicans. The sequel had an imperialistic perspective on Arabs, and Emiratis in particular that disregarded cultural characteristics and relied on bigoted representations of others. While many of the occurrences that the movie portrayed are very realistic, such as women wearing the niqab having to lift their veil slightly to eat. The reaction of the supposedly liberal American women to that is rather close-minded and intolerant. Abu Dhabi is NOT New York, and women there have different social dresses and customs.

My other problem with the sequel , which really took it further away from the relatable episodes of the series , is the fairy-tale ending. I wonder in which reality does a women who cheated on her husband by kissing another man, gets a black diamond. I am not expecting Big to divorce Carrie for a minor mishap, but the sequences in that movie are so utopian and frustrating at times.

Bottom line, Sex and the City should just stick to Sex IN the City…and the shoes.

Fast and Furious

After a sensational Max Raabe and the Palast orchester concert at the Beiteddine festival a few days ago, I was on a cloud…I spent a great evening, enjoying captivating tunes from the 1920s and 1930s.

But upon my return, I lost the way home. It was about 11h30pm. The roads were not lit, naturally, there were absolutely no signs that indicated the direction of Beirut.

OK, I am not exactly an expert on Lebanese roads ( I still get lost in the city). I left Lebanon before having my own car and now I am learning by doing and getting lost.

So I ended up taking the wrong turn and drove for over 30 minutes in the opposite direction. My cousin rode with me, he is French and only visited Lebanon few times. So he was not really able to help me with directions.

I kept driving until I reached a very dark road with no houses, or signs of life around.

At the sight of what was ahead, stress started building up regardless of the tunes of Manu Chao playing…I finally found a car parked on the side of the road. When I asked for directions to Beirut, the guy said “Oh my, you are completely in the wrong direction…” He thought it would be better for me to go back exactly as I came until I get closer the location of the Beiteddine festival. So I did…But upon my return, I bumped into a jeep for the civil defense with five policemen inside. I told the driver that I am lost. He kindly offered to show me the way.

And there I was, storming through dark streets and alleys in the Chouf Mountain, racing after the Civil Defense Jeep, which was signaling the bumps and pits…Mind you Lebanese roads are not the smoothest.

After riding for over 30 minutes, the Jeep lead me safely to the Saida highway, and I was able to get back home from there…

Bottom line, this incident made me think of a similar occurence in Mexico City, last year around the same time. I was with a friend riding back home one night and we lost the way, but my friend would not even dare stopping to ask the police for directions, saying that it was too risky, because the police is corrupt.

Whereas in Lebanon, corrupt could be the right world to describe pretty much everything, yet those policemen in particular went out of their way to put me on the right track, instead of checking me out, like they usually do.

Inspite of all the drama and the mock car chase of that evening, it felt good to be able to trust “the system” for once. Yes, what happened was minor and caused by my lack of attention and the ill-equipped roads in Lebanon. Still, when chaos and corruption are set by default, one good deed reminds you that Lebanon is a country where expectations should be kept very low.

To brush off this dose of cynicism, and inspired by a lovely evening, here is some of the Grand Max Raabe.

Here are the lyrics below…If that’s not outright romance, I don’t know what is.

“You’re the cream in my coffee, you’re the salt in my stew, you will always be my necessity, i’d be lost without you

You’re the starch in my collar, you’re the lace in my shoe, you will always be my necessity, i’d be lost without you

Most men tell love tales and each phrase dovetails:

You’ve heard each known way. This is my own way. You’re the sail of my loveboat, you’re the captain and crew

You will always be my necessity, i’d be lost without you”

When I moved to Qatar in 2005, my friends organized a welcome feast in my honor . They wanted me to experience eating a rice-based dish cooked in the desert and eaten with the hands.

On the menu, Kabsa, a traditional dish made of rice cooked with lamb, chicken and an array of spices. A huge platter with a mountain of Kabsa sat in the middle of the table. While I naively waited for someone to distribute plates, knifes and forks for everybody, those never came. My hosts were all already seated, and with a unanimous motion, they started eating with their right hands.

I sat there, eyes wide, confused and shocked at the same time.

“Come on you can do it! Will you just grab it?” yelled one of my friends.

“No, I can’t do it” I answered anxiously. I did not know how to just dig into that steaming pile of rice.

I had heard about Bedouin eating habits, but at 22, I had not discovered yet my passion about culinary exploration, which explained my reluctance.

I guess I was set on the right track that day… I put all the rules of table etiquette that I was brought up with, behind me, gathered my courage, and started caressing the warm rice gently, hoping that I would have the guts to actually grab it as easily as they did. I took a deep breath, and dug into the glowing mountain of food staring at me. I grabbed a handful of rice with my right hand and exerted pressure with my palm and fingers. The grease made the rice stick together into a ball which I pushed into my mouth with my thumb.

made a mess…and loved every bit of it – Dukhan Desert, Qatar- 2005 (Photo by Fernando Di Guama)

Surprisingly, a fulfilling sensation emerged. I have never had such a close contact with food. There was a rich taste of seasoned rice that left a hot and spicy finish when I swallowed. I quickly mastered the procedure and started enjoying, feeling liberated from the constraints of what I thought were proper table manners.

The picture above was taken on another day, when we sat on a table in the desert. We actually used to eat the traditional dish on the floor, sitting around the big platter, barefoot and cross-legged.

From that day on, I became an addict of intense meal experiences, and started traveling the world looking for those and learning about local cultures through their cuisine. Qatar was just the beginning…

**An edited version of this post was also published in Physical Equilibrium Newsletter in New York City.

The very first short movie I shot, edited and produced in the summer of 2009 in New York City.


The details of the event that I covered are in the following article published in NowLebanon.


Here are some shots behind the actual images in the short movie. My friend Miguel Olivo from the Dominican Republic, who is particularly fond of Lebanese culture, assisted me in the  filming process. Carrying the equipment from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back, was not a walk in the park, especially when we had to switch trains and endure service changes during weekends on metro lines servicing Brooklyn. The whole experience was very rewarding, especially after the final project was done. I have met amazing people who were so passionate about their background and engaged in their community. The young generation of Lebanese immigrants were very excited about showing off their dancing skills. As for Lebanese music, it played till very late after sundown.

The notorious dabke (Photo by Miguel Olivo)

Some behind the scenes shots (Photo by Miguel Olivo)

Miguel Olivo, Assistant Producer (Photo by Carla Haibi)