I’m in Beirut for my cousin’s engagement party. (A cousin from my mom’s side, not to be confused with the cousin from my dad’s side whose wedding I attended last month in Texas.) After two days of festivities and partying—the first day was the “official proposal” with families, etc. involved and the second day was a big formal engagement party—everyone went back to work. My mom and uncle and I decided to go up to Mount Liban to visit the hermitage and tomb of Saint Charbel. The hermitage is about a 40-minute drive from the city. Saint Charbel was a Maronite monk and priest from Lebanon. He is famous for preforming numerous miracles and many sick people come to seek intercession for healing. People come from far and wide to pray and visit and there are numerous letters from over ninety different countries from people writing the monastery seeking help and healing.
There is an important point here, people of all faiths seek healing from him. The point I argue is the truly faithful do not distinguish by religion, they believe in God and thus they have faith. When you visit holy Christian sites in the Middle East you find just as many Muslim visitors as Christian. The point is the faith not the man-influenced religion. If you believe something you are giving it power. More on this concept later but I want to draw your attention to this because people have such a skewed—if not negative—view of religion. I won’t deny that there is a lot of negative done in the name of religion but faith should not be lost in the bastardization of religion by humans who are innately flawed. That comes with the territory of being human.
Back to our adventure. I first had to run an errand at the post office so my uncle swung me by Liban Post and I experienced another foreign post office. I really encourage you when you’re traveling to do quotidian things to see what life is like elsewhere, i.e., go to the super market, post office, take the bus/metro, etc.
We got on the road to the church of Saint Charbel and as is tradition for my uncle, we stopped at Sea Sweet for knafeh bl jibne. Knafeh bl jibne is a sweet cheese pastry famous in the Levant. It is made of a finely shredded and ground wheat stuffed with cheese and dripping with orange blossom sweet syrup. It is originally from Nablus, Palestine but the whole region is fascinated by the sweet and makes it, too.
You see my uncle doesn’t eat sweets but he stopped for us because knafeh bl jibne is my mom’s favorite. Knafeh bl jibne is made in a big round tray, served on a plate, and eaten with a fork but the Lebanese have created their unique way of eating it in a sweet bun. This way it can be eaten as a full breakfast alongside a cup of strong Arabic coffee. We pulled over on the side of the busy highway and got a knafeh sandwich to share. The dish is always served warm so that the cheese is stretchy and melted and dripping with just enough syrup to make it perfect. I snapped some photos for you all and I hope you enjoy although I greatly apologize that you cannot taste the delicacy yourselves. In the future I will include a recipe so you can make it from home.
We kept driving. I sat in the backseat and just listening and observed my mom and her brother chat. The relationship you have with your siblings is so special. I saw these two grown adults as children, their love for one another and bond so apparent and beautiful.
We stopped at another roadside “snack.” That’s what it’s called. A little old lady has built a roadside rest attached to her house for travelers visiting the hermitage to stop and have a rest. She cooks flatbreads on the sajj—a dome-shaped hot surface with the heat source inside/underneath, used to mainly cook breads. We placed our order and then walked around observing. A souped up SUV pulled up flashing it’s police lights (fake). The guys told the little old lady that they were very busy and could she do their order first. The little old lady asked my uncle if it was OK if she did their two sandwiches before ours. Fine, he said, unconvinced. As we sat around waiting, the order of two sandwiches grew to 3, 4, 5, 6…my uncle lost his patience and politely told the old lady we were also in a hurry and could she cancel our order. Back in the car he told us that he was teaching her a lesson…you serve people in the order they came.
We drove to the next snack and ordered sandwiches on the sajj. The woman serving us had a lisp and was very sweet. She brought us our kichk flat breads along with watercress sandwiches, piping hot off the sajj. She brought homegrown lemons to squeeze on the watercress sandwiches. She was captivated by my mom (who isn’t?) and as we were leaving she asked me in Arabic if that was my mom. I said yes and she said, with a wave of her arms, quelle maman (what a mom!).
We continued. We got to the church site and went in to visit. I always get very emotional at holy sites. I have bawled my way through countless churches, monasteries, etc. I don’t know why I do but I’m incredibly moved at these places. I’m not upset about it, I believe that we ought to feel our feelings and let the tears out if they want to come out.
I urge you to visit holy sites if you get the chance. Or maybe even seek them out, go out of you way. Even if you don’t practice a particular religion, I find it to be a lovely place to contemplate, meditate, or just be. I feel that it’s so powerful, how many countless people came before me to this site seeking something, a cure, a solution to some problem, or in thanks.
**a much shorter version of this story was originally published in my column Postcards from the Kitchen in the Cedar Street Times on 17 August 2018