Beirut is known for its see-and-be-seen culture. At work or play, the Lebanese like to dress to the nines. Glad rags are the order of the day, every day. Sunglasses are a permanent fixture, eyebrows are subjugated, and manicures are as fresh as a jus d’orange pressé. Thirty-somethings blitz the sales in full-face make-up but remain impeccable thanks to the domestic help that they’ve brought along to carry their growing pile of purchases and keep the kids quiet by stuffing them with chocolate. Matriarchs in full hijab wedge themselves into café chairs on pavements complaining about back-pain, bright stilettos peeking out from under their black folds. The maid gets to put the bags down and, like the children, have an ice-cream and play – or rather to play mummy, which is not quite the same thing. But of course she doesn’t need a sit-down since she’s not the one wearing stilettos. The other mothers sit back and sip their espresso, languidly comparing purchases and indiscreetly commenting on the appearance of passers-by from behind their sunglasses.
So it is sometimes refreshing to deal with some down-to-earth Lebanese whom you might not bump into strutting the Beiruti triangle between tanning salon, manicurist and designer stores. My man’ouché kiosk is an ideal place for that. Not only does it serve what are arguably the best mana’iche in town, they come with a big smile and a mini Arabic lesson from the vivacious woman whose family runs the joint. Her friendly, outgoing manner is the only
permanent fixture as she bounces energetically around behind the counter filling outstretched hands with fragrant rounds of baked dough spread with thyme, cheese or meat and taken straight out of the large open oven with a peel (pizza spade). Not that she isn’t perfectly made up; but her charm is in her warm greeting, also extended towards the maids coming to pick up breakfast for the Madam, whom she treats with the same geniality as every other customer.
In his play Achrafieh, Joe Kodieh poked fun at the increasing snobbishness and the soaring price of the humble man’ouché in East Beirut, but neither is an issue at this joint. Locals gather round not only to pick up their man’ouché or lahm bi-ajin but often to eat it in situ leaning on the counter and chatting about happenings in the neighbourhood. This typical Lebanese hospitality is, in its broad-mindedness, somehow very special.
This piece is featured in a blog carnival by writers in the Lonely Planet blogsherpa programme to be published on 21 July over at The Brink of Something Else.