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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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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.

http://www.nyu.edu/pages/gsasweb/journal/iBeatReporting/2009/carlahaibi/index.html

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

http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=96645

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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Every couple of days, an article about Beirut is published in some prominent newspaper. After the New York Times and the LA Times, CNN, ParisMatch.com, BBC News and Mail&Guardian.com are also putting the city in the spotlights.

The articles online videos focus on the food, nightlife or the mere fact that Beirut is marking its comeback with steadfast determination. Symbolized by the Phoenix bird, the city this year gives a whole new meaning to the word “resilience.” Half as many people as the country’s entire population have flown to Beirut this summer. With two million tourists, the streets are vibrant with energy, life and car honks. Yet, in my humble opinion and far from any cynical thinking, Beirut, the city of contradictions par excellence, has many obstacles to tear down before it claims its place among top world cities: Respect of human rights and foreign workers, gay rights, civil marriage, to name but a few. Don’t get me wrong, a dose of criticism by a citizen towards its country, has no intention but to shed the light on serious issues that us Lebanese have to solve when the music is turned down and the tourists go back home. After all, if this city was not my destination of choice, I would not even have bothered writing this post.  Cheers from Beirut.

 

targeting the right market. (Photo Credit: MEDIA - Middle Eastern Designers, Illustrators, & Artists)

Targeting the right market. (Photo Credit: MEDIA - Middle Eastern Designers, Illustrators, & Artists)

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Ilili, or tell me, in Arabic, is the name of a Lebanese restaurant in New York City. Many friends have asked me which was my favorite Lebanese restaurant in the city. A question that would embarrass me because… you know what? I don’t like any Lebanese restaurant in the city. Truth is , I don’t like to eat Lebanese food at restaurants in New York. It is not worth it for me. And anyone who likes good food and appreciates homemade cuisine would agree with me…until i went to ilili in the Flatiron area. That place actually changed my views about Lebanese food in New York restaurants. 

First, the tabboule definitely competes with the homemade version. 

Although the service was not always great! Waiters take on the task of educating customers about the menu and the characteristics of the cuisine. And if they have doubts that the customer may be Lebanese , they ask  him or her , if they would like to break the Arak themselves. A gesture that made up for the mishaps that followed. But I will not dwell on that, because this place is a must-go destination, if you want to have a sense of what the cuisine in Lebanon tastes like.

 At the bar, you can choose from a special selection of cocktails with original combination of ingredients such as rose water and vodka to  warm up the palate for the upcoming culinary voyage. A complementary helping of creamy labne (strained yogurt) served with crispy pita chips drizzled with extra virgin olive oil imported from Koura in Northern Lebanon along with Lebanese olives; greet you at the table.

And about the rest? you can read it here.

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This summer, before concluding my journey in grad school and starting an even more exciting one in the real world of Journalism (wishful thinking), I have registered in a multimedia class, to film, edit and produce videos for the web. As taxing as it is, it has been so enriching and thrilling thus far.

For my story, I chose to film the Lebanese community based in Brooklyn focusing on the Lebanese Food Festival that took place this last weekend in May. The festival showcased dancing, live Lebanese and Arabic music, fresh Lebanese and Levantine delicacies that attracted and fed over 5,000 passersby.

 

Food stalls at the Lebanese Food Festival (Carla Haibi)

Food stalls at the Lebanese Food Festival (Carla Haibi)

 

 

Here’s the article published in Now Lebanon.

A slide show will follow.

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For those of you who are celebrating, Happy Passover!

Here’s a story i wrote for the holiday while interviewing a Lebanese Jewish caterer in New York.

Read it on Saveur Website.

Some pictures of the food she prepares. All Lebanese and all Kosher.

 

Lebanese Tabboule

Lebanese Tabboule

 

Stuffed grape leaves

Stuffed grape leaves

 

Kibbes and Turnovers

Kibbes and Turnovers

I don’t know about you, but I am getting hungry and my mouth is watering.

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