Lebanese Food / Wine and Culinary Traditions

Lebanese Food / Wine and Culinary Traditions
Spring time always inspires me...

Friday, April 18, 2008

My trip to Zawtar

Yesterday I set out to meet a man who grows fields of zaatar (origanum syriacum) in the South of Lebanon. His name is Mohammad Ali Neimeh, better known as Abu Kassem. I had met him a few months ago at Souk el Tayeb one morning. We hit it off immediately. I could see how passionate he was about what he was doing. He spoke about his zaatar fields as if they were his children. He showed off his products with pride and asked me to taste his zaatar mixture made traditionally with zaatar, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. For a skeptic like me, when it comes to zaatar, I found the mixture to be delicious. I promised him to come visit him in his village in the near future.

My first destination was to get to Nabatieh, from there Abu Kassem said that his village would not be far. I headed to Saida and took the turn where one heads towards Nabatieh. To make my life easier, he sent a friend of his (who happens to be a chauffeur) to guide me to the winding roads to reach his house. I was taken by surprise with this route and drove very slowly capturing every detail with photos of carob trees all along the side of the road. The contrast of the trees with the color of the earth was gorgeous (I won't bore you with any more details).

I was welcomed by Abu Kassem with his warm smile, which for me, is what makes him so special. He shook my hand and welcomed me to his home. Immediately we went in the garden to discuss the zaatar. Suddenly, we were interrupted by two young men in a white van. "Marhaba!" they shouted. I was a bit disappointed that our meeting was to be interrupted, but decided to be patient and listen to their conversation. We sat down at the front of the house with a cup of fresh tea made by Abu Kassem's youngest son. One of the men was interested to have Abu Kassem plant a parcel of land full of zaatar in a nearby village. I also learned that he was a beekeeper who had trained with different organizations on how to make honey. I was intrigued and suggested that he puts his bees with the flowering zaatar, once his land had been planted. I had always been surprised why in Lebanon, honey made of the flowers of zaatar was not popular. He listened and approved. In my mind, I thought, this could be the start of something new. They spoke of technicalities like watering the land and seasonality of the zaatar and the price per plant. Then my mind shifted to thought of, "oh how I long to be a farmer and be able to have fields of whatever I may fancy, zaatar for example!" Ok, dreams aside, the meeting was ended abruptly by a firm statement by Abu Kassem excusing himself and telling them of our appointment. They left pleased with their talk and promised to return next week for the final deal.

Shall we? We got into my car and drove to see the village. What a village! Beautiful sceneries, fields of zaatar mixed with the contrasting fields of tobacco. Abu Kassem led me to the first lot. I was mesmerized, amazed at this wonderful site. Who says we can't grow zaatar? I knew that it could be done in an amateur way because a few years ago my husband took some zaatar from the wild and stuck them on the window sill in our balcony and ever since, we've had zaatar grow from year to year. What struck me was to see a field of zaatar growing healthy, organically, and without too much fuss. I didn't want to leave, Abu Kassem laughed at me and said, "there is more, come I'll show you."

We drove through the village stopping to see Abou Kassem's brother and other field workers on a tobacco plantation. They welcomed me with enthusiasm and started to pose for the camera. What I really admired is their love of life and knowing how hard their labor is, they joked and laughed as if they had no cares in the world. Their faces showed lines of sacrifice and obviously, they had a hard life.

Abou Kassem led me down a steep road, it led to the banks of the Litanie River. We met up with a shepherd. He was amused by me taking his photo and told me that I should photograph the cluster bombs nearby. I told him I was simply not interested in doing that. I was here to photograph the mouneh. Later on my way up, a voice inside me said take the photo, so I did! It frightened me being so close to these objects that have harmed so many people in the world. It was time to leave, I bid the shepherd farewell and was on my way to capturing the beauty of a spring day.

I was shown different fields of zaatar that Abou Kassem had planted. He also introduced me to neighbors who had been converted by his planting revolution. His aim is to stop the planting of infested tobacco in Zawtar to organically grown zaatar. He says that the market can handle it and that there is alot of potential.

We stopped off at the village bakery where the baker had made us dozens of sfiha bi lahmeh. I was definitely starving with all this zaatar business. We went back to his home and shared a delicious meal with his family. He spoke to me about his life and introduced me to his wife and three children.

While visiting Abou Kassem, a phrase kept coming up, "I am finally living a true love story." I asked him about it, he described how his life had changed. In the past, society did not respect him, socializing with different people from various communities was a problem, gaining individual's trust was very hard. Presently, Abou Kassem has joined farmer's markets all around Lebanon with farmers and producers from all over the country forming one big family. Customers are lining up at his stand. People are telling their friends about Abou Kassem's zaatar. His business is flourishing and he is spreading the word and know-how to others. "I want to teach everyone how to grow zaatar, it's not my secret to keep."

"When zaatar is grown in fields, it helps keeps the zaatar that grows wild in our mountains and in our environment forever for future generations to enjoy. "

Zaatar is very much part of our Lebanese culinary heritage.

Thank you Abou Kassem for making a difference!


Nathalie said...

This is wonderful, Barbara! Love to read about your explorations, keep this up. I think it's great. Nathalie.

Liban said...

Hello Barbara
I had a lot of pleasure reading your experience. It proved me again that we have a wonderful country filled with wonderful people. I will visit your blog often!
Josyane BOULOS

chessy said...

ya3né I was already in love with zaatar, now I like Nabatiyé too. chou bedé elik? ya Barbie, take us with you some day on these long journeys to nowhere lands where peasants are happy to share their experience.

Leila said...

This made me think - neeyelik. I am here in California, seriously ill, longing to go to Mieh-Mieh where I have land, and also to tour the South. My doctors and my relatives say I shouldn't go because of my health and the security situation. And here you are, driving and visiting exactly where I want to go, documenting with photos and lovely text. bless you and thank you for sharing this.

Elie said...

So glad you decided to start blogging and what a wonderful first post! Looking forward to more of this stuff.

Gert said...

What a wonderful blog! I just love too follow your journey through Lebanon and maybe one day that journey leads you and your family too my place in Sweden. See you at Terra Madre in October. Gert Andersson

jrk313 said...

You have been in Lebanon for the past 5 years and I have been out for it for 5. I am young but I miss every inch of it, it makes me feel empty. My brother and I may move back though :). I only got a chance to read a little bit from your blog. I am a culinary student at the Art Institute of Washington. I am very interested in your writting i will be reading more :)!

Lina Hamdan said...

Barbara, I loved this page and believe you should dedicate one page for each area in Lebanon: Maghdoushe will have its "Ma' Zahr", Hasbaya its Olive oil,etc... It would be a geographic classification that would be documented in your next book!
Very nice blog indeed! Keep the spirit...