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August 12, 2005

Our Friend Bacchus by Nadia

Lion_3 The last time I was in the Bekaa valley was late spring, 1986. The snow had barely melted enough to allow cars to pass. A tentative cease-fire had just been announced between Syria and Hezbollah, all the reason my father needed to pack us into the car for a trip to the temples of Baalbek. He wanted us to know our country and the road was now safe enough for that.

We were greeted, as we drove over the mountain ridge and in view of the plain, by the sight of miles upon miles of hashish plants, undulating in the breeze. A side venture, to provide a few luxuries for the young Syrian soldiers unlucky enough to be stationed there. The recruit at the checkpoint on the summit seemed surprised to see us: “What are you doing here? Are you crazy?” My father’s response: “Road trip, and, yes!” The soldier waved us through. The drive took four hours.

Today, nearly twenty years later, the trip can be made in about forty minutes on the new highway that connects Beirut to the interior. It is June, and I have brought my husband here for the first time to see the places I’ve told him so much about. The Syrian pullout was in May and there are, for the first time that I can remember, no more checkpoints. That is to say, the checkpoints still stand but there are no soldiers in them. Our driver, Omar*, cannot help but mimic under his breath the absent soldiers’ bored accents as he drives past: Where ya from? Where ya goin’? What ya gonna do there? It will take more than a month for us to get used to this new reality. There are no more hashish plants.

Naim rushes out of his house to greet us. He and my father have been friends since 1959, when they met as teenagers in the Lebanese army. My father managed to get himself kicked out after three years, but Naim stayed on to become brigadier general, a post from which he retired a few months ago. Naim is broad and expansive both physically and in personality, conveying a solid reliability that conceals a keen sense of humor. He has known me since I was an infant: he and my father would stand on opposite ends of the dining room and toss me back and forth, to the horror of my mother and the nanny my grandparents had hired as a baby gift. I have a strong stomach.

There are two things I would like to do while we are here. One is to show Andreas the monumental temples of Baalbek. The other is to introduce him to arak, the national drink: where it comes from, how it is made, how we drink it. I cannot think of a better guide for both these goals than Naim, and he obliges us in spades.

Baccus_1It is hard to convey to someone who hasn’t seen it the monumental scale of the Baalbek temples. One can quote meaningless abstractions: the bricks in Jupiter’s temple weigh two tons apiece, its remaining columns the biggest in the world. The complex is bigger than the Acropolis. What’s the point? Our backdrop is a pine forest and the still snow-covered Sannine mountain. Apropos of the rest of our day, the most well-preserved temple is that of Bacchus, the god of wine. He must have been the god of some interesting drugs as well, as the sides of the temple are carved with poppy bulbs as well as grapes. We decide to dedicate to this diety the rest of our afternoon, and head towards the arak distillery.

Arak is an unfairly maligned drink. It is flavored with anise and is thus associated with ouzo, raki and their cousins. While all these drinks come from a common origin, over the years the latter two are often prepared with harsher grain alcohol, whereas true arak is still distilled from grapes. The better ones are distilled three times, and then aged in clay jars for at least two years. The anis should be there but subtle; a true good arak should taste like springwater coming fresh out of the rocks.

Mr. Ayyoub makes a very fine arak. His family’s distillery has stood unchanged on a beautiful Niha mountainside since 1890, underneath his thick-walled old stone house. Only a couple of changes in production have been made in the past 115 years: the grapes are no longer crushed by foot, and he has just bought a new machine that measures the volume of liquid and its alcohol content, making bottling a little easier. In the cave-like ground floor distillery, the fermentation tanks smell like a hundred years' worth of crushed grapes and the stills are made of copper. He makes his arak with the grapes and aniseed that grow on the stepped hillside outside his door. It is distilled three times, the head and tail of the distillation meticulously removed to save only the “coer”, or heart. It is then aged for two to six years, bottled and sold locally.

Vines_1 Mr. Ayyoub has realized that he has a good product and is now looking to expand, just a little. My father and Naim would like to help him export to the US, which is funny in light of the fact that my father is a Muslim who quit drinking when he reached his fifties and realized he didn’t have a lot of time left to repent. We tease him a little, and he takes it good-naturedly. Mr. Ayyoub insists we take a bottle with us, one with a higher proof than could be exported overseas. We decide to instruct Andreas in another fine Lebanese tradition, the leisurely riverside restaurant mezza, quite possibly one of the most civilized ways one can spend an afternoon.

In fact arak involves many longstanding traditions. For one thing, it is affectionately known by the locals as Halib es’Sbaa’, the milk of lions. Arak, which is clear in the bottle, turns milky when mixed with water and the suspended anis oils refract the light. It puts hair on your chest (hopefully not mine) and as Naim keeps announcing with every toast: “One bottle, two boys!!”. Andreas and I try very hard to conceal expressions of terror at the thought.

Thankfully the food begins to arrive, and keeps arriving, past the point where it would be possible to eat it all. There is flat saj bread, an enormous tower of fresh tomatoes, cucumber and radishes, a platter-full of various pickles. There is tabbouli as well as fattoush. Dips: hummus, eggplant m’tabbal, labneh with mint and garlic. Shanklish, a potato puree, spiced chickpeas. Escarole pastries, and ones filled with cheese, and meat. Bowls of olives marinated in lemon and thyme. Bowls of greens sautéed in olive oil. Armenian sausages and dried beef. Fried kibbe. Raw kibbe, raw pounded lamb and raw goat’s liver, plates of fresh mint, fried chicken livers seasoned with garlic, lemon and pepper. And all the while, “One bottle, two boys!” You get the picture.

Mezze_2 Arak drinkers approach their liquor with a sense of ritual that recalls junkies with their spoons. First of all the food is important, as the goal is to carefully maintain a pleasant buzz without getting fall-down drunk. Next, you want to use glasses that are on the small side, no more than 6 ounces, so that the liquid can be cooled with a minimum amount of melting ice. Third, the pour: first the arak in the glass. Then you add the water very slowly -- the longer the arak takes to change, the better the quality. Only after the water is added can the ice come in: if you try to put the ice in first, the oils contract and the mixture curdles, a terrible sin. Finally, the glass is only used once, as the water left in the glass would ruin the next pour.

There is no more refreshing drink to be had with this meal. With the driver there are five of us. Omar has a restrained couple of drinks, my father gets bullied into a sip or two, and the three of us remaining manage to kill the rest of the bottle. We go through a mighty stack of glasses. Success.

(*Some names have been changed.)


dear nadia,

i read your text about baalbeck city you are very nice reading about my city i am very happy because i see persone in my famelly nice tayping about baalbek

best regards
have a nice day nadia
abbas al masri

Well Nadia you come right back to Morocco! As you know, any good Moroccan will always say "you are welcome." You are indeed welcome.

Great, great story. I've only had arak once, and I confess that I didn't like it much. But I've suspected that I just didn't do it right, and reading this just impresses on me (again) how much I need to get to Lebanon. To get the good stuff, if nothing else: euhoe Bacche!

The food looks delicious.

I love the way dishes are served on Middle Eastern and North African tables, family style and everyone digs in. There's no fussiness and lots of love at the table. There's always more than enough and when you think your done there's even more.

Hajar, that is an incredibly cute story, and as a matter of national pride, I am very relieved you liked the Arak ;-)

My family traveled to Morocco every summer for several years in the early 80's. My dad had friends there so we were lucky enough to have some amazing meals. Even as a kid growing up in the Middle East, Moroccan food and culture were so intriguing and different from what I was used to. I fell in love instantly, and hope to get back there some day.

Wonderful account. My husband Mohamed had travelled to Lebanon and had kept a bottle of good Arak, awaiting the arrival of his soulmate. Good thing he was not wizened and gray by then, but 36 years old. We celebrated my arrival to Morocco with it and I was simply and literally floored! So much better than Ouzo, Anisette etc...I am also a huge fan of Lebanese food and was cooking it well before "Middle Eastern Ethnic" was known. We had a great deal of food with the Arak all prepared by his house maid at the time according to his recipes of being there. A spectacular and memorable night. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy your pieces so!

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