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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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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I know that this is now considered an old movie. But it dawned on me that i cannot talk about Lebanese culture without having a post about this movie. I loved it and if you haven’t seen it, you really need to see it. It is very well done and it truly is a microcosm of the Lebanese society, with its taboos, religious diversity and its appetite for life and love. A beauty salon is a meaningful locale where women meet, interact and face the world with an improved look and confident demeanor.

In fact, it actually reminded me of my reporting experience in Brooklyn (refer to previous post) when I was looking for Lebanese Jews to talk to. Just when i was about to give up, i saw a beauty salon and i thought to myself that a Lebanese Woman , Jewish or not, cannot dismiss the ritual of getting groomed and styled at the beauty salon. This is a must.I was right and i found a great source and met so many interesting women there. Part of the to-do list of many Lebanese women living abroad while visiting their country is to go to the hairdresser before facing the society.

It may seem superficial, but it confirms the fabulousness that Melik Kaylan discussed in his article in Forbes.com (view previous post)

Check the website of Caramel to know more about it.

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