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I mentioned yesterday that one of the many, many dishes we had at lunch was a Lebanese chicken with rice dish. Waffa says it wasn’t rice; it was freekeh.

Freekeh is a very unique Middle Eastern ingredient. It’s a green wheat that is harvested before it is completely ripe and then smoked. According to Waffa, it came about a couple thousand years ago when the Romans were marauding through the area. After they’d done their plundering and pillaging, they’d set the fields on fire in order to destroy the wheat, condemning the local people to ruin. Instead, trying to save whatever they could, the locals collected the burnt grain from the fields and, after cleaning it, discovered a toasted grain that was green and very nutritious.

Most of the freekah in Lebanon comes from an area called Jabal ‘Amel, a mountainous region in southern Lebanon. After being harvested by hand, the wheat is left in the sun to dry for 24 hours. It is then spread on stones together with branches from a particular local shrub called balan. The balan is the fuel for an intense and very quick fire that burns the husks while the grain undergoes a rapid and even roasting. This stops the aging and gives the freekeh its characteristic toasted aroma.

Waffa says freekeh is much higher in protein, vitamins, and minerals than normal wheat. It also has a fiber content four times higher than rice and is rich in calcium, potassium, iron, and zinc.

And to think that it was accidentally discovered thanks to the nasty intent of marauding Romans.

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A feast at Cafe Nmeir in Zahle

Cafe Nmeir in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Photos by David Lansing.

We had lunch in Zahle at one of the outdoor restaurants next to the Bardouni River called Café Nmeir. You would think that by now I would be used to the Lebanese way of eating—small plates of this and that, but lots of them—but it continues to surprise me. They bring out the saj and the hummous and the tabbouleh, which I am becoming quite addicted to, and many, many more plates—fattoush, that chunky tomato and cucumber salad with pomegranate seeds, and the olives and bowls of almonds, the yogurt cheese balls (like labneh), and chargrilled eggplant, and stuffed vine leaves, and falafel and on and on and you think, certainly that is our lunch.

But that is just the start. That is just the mezze. Then there are the lambs’ kidneys and chicken with rice, the stuffed cabbage and a couple of fish dishes. And just when you think you are about to explode, they bring out dessert—dark red strawberries, thick slices of sweet melon, date cookies and orange cake. And, of course, lots and lots of cups of Lebanese coffee.

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To the Bekaa Valley

A peasant woman making saj at a restaurant along the Bardouni River in Zahle, Lebanon. Photo by David Lansing.

Late in the morning, we hired a car to take us to Baalbeck to look at the Roman ruins. The road wound east, towards Damascus. As we passed through the little towns in the Bekaa Valley, you couldn’t help but notice the obnoxious yellow flags of Hezbollah centered by a clenched fist holding up an automatic weapon. Baalbek is the strategic headquarters of Hezbollah which may explain why, despite having perhaps the most magnificent Roman temples outside of Italy, it gets few tourists.

Before we got to Baalbeck, we stopped at Zahle, a pretty little town known for its open-air restaurants strung along a shady stretch of the Bardouni River. The eateries, known collectively as Cafes du Bardouni, are famous in Lebanon for their mezze.

We walked up a narrow path following the path of the Bardouni, which is more like a creek than a river. Waiters holding up menus in front of our faces invited us to come in and try “the best” Lebanese mezze in Zahle. At one restaurant, an old peasant woman, wearing the traditional abaya, sat near the entrance beneath the shade of a tree making marqouq, or saj, the very thin, unleavened peasant bread that is cooked on a domed griddle set over a coal or wood fire.

A handful of people, including myself, stood around watching her methodically pat out the dough, flip it expertly atop the saj griddle, and, after a minute or two, deftly fold it into quarters and put on a flat pan where a waiting waiters quickly snatched it up and took it to the tables.

The old woman seemed totally oblivious to all the restaurant activity around her; I’m quite certain that although I was standing only a few feet away from her, taking pictures of her making the bread, she did not see me. It was like she was deeply lost in her own thoughts, her own meditations. Her hands and arms knew exactly what to do to make this ancient bread leaving her mind free to go where it wanted.

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The Beirut taxi driver

The taxi driver. Photo by David Lansing.

Abu Layla must have been the inspiration for the Beirut drivers’ definition of hell on earth: To have at the same time an empty service in front, stopping unexpectedly and often (and always in the middle of the road so as not to lose a place in the traffic), and a full one behind, impatiently intent on delivering its squashed human cargo as fast as possible.

It was the frustration of losing his import/export business (or that’s what he told every passenger who cared to listen) that pushed Abu Layla. One day, one day, he’d be back on top. Meanwhile $400 at the Sunday morning Service car mart at Cola had secured him a 27-year-old Mercedes 200. The registration papers said it was red, although rust would have been a better description. None of the rear lights worked and the one functioning headlight was enough to spot the raised manhole covers and avoid destroying what was left of the suspension. The only important maintenance for Abu Layla was to keep the horn working.

His first lesson had been: hoot at everything, no matter which way they seem to be heading. He even allowed himself gratuitous honks at shapely legs in a mini-skirt although, he confided, foreigners, “even ugly ones,” were more attractive. By carefully avoiding use of the word “service” any stranger was a potential taxi fare. And a friendly rival driver had given him an invaluable tip: Never show passengers you have more than three LL1,000 notes (about $2 U.S.) notes. That way when someone offers a bigger note, you can say with a smile: “Sorry, I don’t have any change.”

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Photo by David Lansing.

More confusion: Three Muslim women, their heads and arms covered, stand in front of Hatab, a Lebanese lingerie store near Nijmeh Square, admiring the provocatively-dressed manikins in the window. One, wearing French thigh-highs and garters, is posed provocatively with a hand on her hip, as if she were waiting for a customer in Amsterdam’s red light district. Her sister, wearing La Perla, kneels while looking away from the sheer coffee slip that has been pulled off her right shoulder to expose her nude-colored bra. The final manikin, in a cheap Lindsay Lohan wig, bends at the waist to expose a stockinged leg beneath a silk dressing gown and a scarlet bra.

The three middle-aged Muslim women chatter in front of the window display, drawing each other’s attention to a draped red corset, the garter belts. After a few minutes of chatting and giggling, they enter the store to do a little shopping. Something exciting to take home to the Mr.

Photo by David Lansing.

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