Posts Tagged ‘Carla Haibi’

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.


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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.

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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.

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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)

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At this moment, in San Francisco, the Bay Area more precisely, a couple of my friends, Maria Royo and Anton Calderon, young Spanish filmmakers, are preparing the logistics for their road trip through Latin America, to film a documentary about lullabies, Nanas: LULLABIES AND BROKEN DREAMS ON THE PAN-AMERICAN HIGHWAY.

Maria and Anton are two vagabonds who would not flinch at any prospect of living an unconventional adventure.

After Rediscovering Pape, their first documentary, which brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it, now they are off to yet another spirited escapade.

The Lullavan is how they dubbed their vehicle, a 41-year-old Volkswagen Type II Bus from 1969.

Their journey will be recorded on their website, click here and check it out, it’s really cool.

Here’s a photo of Maria and Anton with the Lullavan, the vessel that will carry them on their odyssey all the way down to Argentina. Maria pasted my green-box photo I had from a photo shoot, to sort of, include me in their journey. Of course, the van doesn’t have my picture on it…Still, I am, without a doubt, a Lullavan aficionada all the way.

"Viva la vie Boheme!"(Photo Credit: Maria Royo)

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In Lebanon, plastic surgery has become an intrinsic part of daily life. Some banks are introducing loans for plastic surgery, a clever move that has attracted many customers. Ads are now playing on the obsession with plastic surgery to boost the sales of whisky! Although there is no direct relation between physical appearance and consumption of spirits, marketers can simply use magic words that people connect with, or more likely words that characterize Lebanese customers: beauty, fabulousness and plastic surgery.

"Plastic Surgery made me fabulous...Live your way"...An ad on Achrafieh highway in Beirut (Photo by Carla Haibi)

In the above ad, plastic surgery as the only way to fabulousness is linked to living your life as you want it and whisky. Whatever the connection may be, it seems to be working…

All was calm and normal in the land where plastic surgery is used as a service in some travel packages…Until www.ANADiva.com, was launched. ANADiva, litterally means, I am a diva. A diva in this context is a woman with character, wit and a well defined identity. Through this online forum, Gwen Abou Jaoude, the founding diva and a friend wanted to tackle the issue of standardization of beauty in Lebanon. The website also aims at celebrating the beauty of the Lebanese woman and her identity.

As part of her awareness campaign she organized an event called “Be yourself or everyone else” this Sunday 20th of September 2009 at Gemmayze, the bar area in Beirut. Through this event, Abou Jaoude aimed at raising a red flag and at getting the debate started about an issue that has become a major social problem.

Using quirky installations, she booked one of the prominent bars in Gemmayze called Gem and a section of Saint Nicholas stairs that lead to it. The unusual set attracted a crowd of passers-by and media people despite the heavy rains that night.

I had the opportunity to write the concept of this campaign on flyers and the messages on the installations just because I really believe in pushing the envelope and providing an opportunity for a dialogue about the rapidly changing appearances of our society.

Finally, someone has dared to step in and make a statement not aimed at fighting plastic surgery per se, but rather aimed at questioning the obsession with it and its consequences on the identity of its heavy users. With most Lebanese women now looking alike thanks to the wonders of the knife and scalpel, the individuality of these women as well as their traits are lost and confused by increasingly high and unrealistic standards. Those standards are inspired by images promoted by media, images of plastic silhouettes and the glamour culture void of any emphasis on inner well-being or self-esteem.

Poster of the event (Photo by Carla Haibi)

As part of this special set, Abou jaoude installed a booth, she called the confidence booth where she invited people to go inside and have their pictures taken and enjoy a moment of fame where their self-confidence rather their concern with their appearance took over.

Black faceless models scattered on the stairs displaying messages of the negative consequences of an increasingly plastic culture (Photo by Carla Haibi)

Sewing machines set inside Gem Bar symbolized the mass-production of beauty in Lebanon where plastic surgery is increasingly sowing similar faces and bodies and crippling the society.

the confidence booth with the slogan “You are your own star… shine!” (Photo by Louma el Khoury)

Antique sewing machines on display at Gem (Photo by Carla Haibi)

Although this event was the first step towards a debate, Abou Jaoude has vowed that this will only be the start of a series of initiatives, the online forum ANADiva.com included, in order to promote critical thinking and preserve the true markers of the Lebanese beauty. Log on to the website to learn more and be part of the conversation.

A model trapped in a web in the ceiling symbolizing a crippled society by the loss of identity due to uniformity of beauty standards (Photo by Carla Haibi)

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I think this is it…the cherry on top of the scone of shocking and yet perfectly accepted practices in Beirut.

A recent article published in NowLebanon, informed about the concept of beauty stores for children.I chose the following excerpt from the article that says it all.

 “Kids come in to take care of themselves, to look good and to pamper themselves.”

…such outlets are primarily avenues for Lebanon’s young girls to learn the importance of hygiene and cleanliness, a rationale echoed by the owners of the country’s other two children’s spas. 
“They become more and more aware, they grow up knowing that they have to have clean hands and clean feet,” said Hilal.


"If I saw that look in my kid’s eyes I’d do the opposite of whatever I was doing" and Photo credit:hoitycoity.com/post/ 151795543/highglitz

"If I saw that look in my kid’s eyes I’d do the opposite of whatever I was doing" and Photo credit:hoitycoity.com/post/ 151795543/highglitz


Shouldn’t basic hygiene standards be taught at home and at schools simultaneously? or have beauty parlors taken over the education and the upbringing of the next generation?

What would a young girl, who at the age of four,is a regular at a beauty parlor, be doing at the age of 15 to live up to the image she was groomed to have? or at 25 for that matter?

In Lebanon, some parents from certain social classes have evolved their upbringing practices. In fact, they chose to just deliberately set the social expecations for their girls at a very early age. Those expectations will not only shape their children’s self-esteem but will also take away some basic elements of their innocence. The preoccupation with appearance and grooming should not be even on the list of concerns of a four year old, or a five year old and not even before mid adolescence. What about classic children preoccupations? Should girls be raised to believe that they have to conform to the expectations of the society for their appearance before they can even spell?

Reading this article, made me think of my childhood and what my concerns were at the time. I grew up during the civil war in Lebanon. Like many children of my generation, the so-called “war generation,” I have been initiated to flee my house leaving everything behind whenever the bombing got closer.

Apart from Chantale Goya, Ton Amie Lilianne and Zora La Rousse, Remy Bandali was my ultimate childhood idol. Two years my senior, Bandali was a child prodigy and a star at a very early age. We were in the same primary school and I saw her perform live on several occasions in Lebanon. I knew her songs by heart, every single one of them. I can still sing them to this day, 22 years later. 

But the reason I mentioned Bandali is because one of her most famous songs landed her a performance at the Champs Elysees in France and stardom as the youngest performer in the world. The song is called: “Outouna el Toufouli” which literally means give us the childhood. Bandali sings in Arabic, French and English in the same song. I will transcribe the lyrics of the english section of the song which is a translation of the sections in the other languages.

“I am a child with something to say, Please listen to me

I am a child who wants to play , why dont you let me?

My dolls are waiting, my friends are praying, small houses are begging…give us a chance…give us a chance

Please, Please give us a chance” 

In arabic, she says to give the children their childhood and to give them peace.

This song was a hit because it really portrayed with innocent lyrics, the tragedy of the livelihood of many Lebanese children growing amidst strife and violence of the civil war.

The irony of our evolution lies in the fact that many children of my generation were craving a childhood and lived in fear during a very tumultuous period in the country.While in 2009, values of education and civilization are making way for social decadence. 

As a result, some children and girls in particular don’t have a childhood to claim, because it has been already taken away by their own parents.

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