Lunch by the Litani river

Interested in courage? generosity? resilience in front of adversity?
Then you have to meet Abu Kassem and his family.
In a region known for decades as a war zone, now housing thousands of UN troops, lives Abu Kassem and his family. The Litani river, mentioned in the news every time there is talk of Lebanon, packs breathtaking beauty: deep gorges, mountains, steep valleys, waterfalls, olive groves and rows of fig trees at every corner. On Sundays, the river is enjoyed by scores of children,  swimming in it as happily as if they were on a beach somewhere at a fancy resort.
Several of us drove down from Beirut to visit Abu Kassem and his zaatar fields in Zawtar; one of the producers from Souk elTayeb,  he was  the first in Lebanon to successfully farm wild zaatar (a variety of oregano or thyme that grows all over the Eastern Mediterranean basin). Up until then, people would simply forage the mountains for the wild herb, dry it and grind it to make the Lebanese zaatar mix with sesame seeds and sumac. Today,  you could safely say Abu Kassem is the foremost authority on zaatar in Lebanon.  He talks about this herb using the jargon of a scientist, pointing out  grams of zaatar oil (and their market value),  medicinal uses for zaatar (used in more than 40 medicinal drugs and known to improve circulation and immunity), different varieties of zaatar, the protein content and chemical composition of this herb, yields of the crop and its (few) diseases; when I exclaimed to him that he had so much knowledge, he smiled broadly and said “I have a fourth-grade education.”
We were supposed to bring a picnic and eat it by the banks of the Litani nearby; instead, Abu  Kassem, his wife and four children invited us to share  a magnificent meal that they prepared in front of us:
Tabbouleh, meat kebabs, french-fried potatoes and a spicy tomato relish to dip the meat into. They brought a huge vat of parsley and green onions and tomatoes and lemons and every member of the family got busy: the two oldest sons chopping the parsley and onion, the daughters chopping the tomatoes, Abu Kassem getting the coals ready and Um Kassem peeling and slicing the potatoes; we offered to help but mainly sat there, mesmerized by the scenery and their speed and dexterity; a couple of bottles of their family’s olive oil were placed on the table, lemons were squeezed, parsley was washed and chopped. The tabbouleh was ready, the kebabs and the potatoes were sizzling. We sat at a long picnic table by the river and ate to our fill the freshest and most delicious food.
Such hospitality and generosity and warmth, lavished profusely on us, perfect strangers, from folks who had suffered so much: their home had been hit and destroyed by a bomb  while they were in it; in 2006, their fields carpeted with cluster bombs, some uncleared  to this day (3 million bombs have been dropped in South Lebanon in 2006 over a three day period); yet, they were all smiles, filled with warmth, gratitude and contentment.
We felt so fortunate to have met these folks. They gave us a great lesson in courage and how to live life with wisdom and joy.
Here is a very simple and delicious spiced tomato sauce that I learned about while there:

Mash one or more small red chili peppers with the seeds, add one or two grilled  onions and mash; add several grilled tomatoes (remove the charred skin) and mash. Serve with the meat kebabs.
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  1. Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    A great place to have lunch!



  2. Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Mediterranean people have a long history with wars, poverty, hunger and total turnaround of their lives. I am very familiar with stories like this, since I come from a country that has endured 2 world wars, 1 civil war, 1 million Greek fugitives from Asia Minor and a military dictatorship which lasted for 7 years having as a result the loss of half of Cyprus. But people always find the strength to overcome all these and go on with their lives, which is very promising. I am sure you had a great time there.

  3. Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Education and knowledge are definitely not the same, these are the people that make the world a better place and life worth living, thanks for the message in this post, I really needed something like that today, my eldest daughter, only 33, is hospitalized with a deep vein thrombosis, I know she will be fine (so doctors say), but still I ‘m scared, when I read about Abu Kassem I saw everything clear! thanks again

  4. Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    What a beautiful sight. I love the photos. I wish I can try his zaatar.

  5. Posted August 10, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    A beautiful place to spend the afternoon and have lunch…love those pics..

  6. Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Great pictures and you told their story very well. What a beautiful meal!

  7. Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Reading your posts I’m really longing to go back to the Middle East for a visit! I won’t show my hubby because then the next thing I know he’ll be booking us tickets, lol! (And we promised we’d wait until after we bought a house!) Abu Kassem (and his family) sounds amazing!

  8. Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    What an incredible family! Sharing a meal with such generous people is so inspiring. And such a lovely spot – your river pictures are wonderful. You know… I always thought zaatar was the blend of spices – I didn’t realize it was an herb itself!

  9. Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful story and wonderful photos, Joumana!! What amazing and lovely people. :-) I’m so glad you got to experience such a gorgeous day.

  10. dana
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Ahh, Joumana. I felt so homesick by reading this post and seeing Alice’s lovely pics. I am glad that you have been in my neck of the woods and that you liked it. A weekend picnic on the Litani is a summer tradition that all southerners keep. I am so impressed by Abu Kassem’s ability to grow za’ater. Was the taste any different from the wild za’atar? Zawtar and nearby Meyfadoun used to be a fertile place to grow tobacco in the first half of the twentieth century. Most families there made their living by planting tobacco and selling crops to the local Regis. Glad to see that other crops are cultivated there as well.


  11. Posted August 10, 2010 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    What an inspiring family. I found some zaatar mix – it was delicious on tomates provençales.

  12. Joumana
    Posted August 11, 2010 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    @Dana: actually Abu Kassem does have a tobacco crop next to his zaatar one; that’s what keeps his family afloat. I tasted his zaatar and I could not tell any difference with the wild zaatar that grows in the South, and also in the Chouf area where we are from.

  13. Posted August 11, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    What lovely people, and what an impressive bowl of tabbouleh!

  14. Posted August 11, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    What a moving story! I so enjoy your writing Joumana :-)

  15. Posted August 11, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Dear Joumana – I am so moved by this post. Goes to prove that material possessions has absolutely nothing to do with true happiness. Incidently, thanks to you I finally purchased my first bottles of zaatar, pom molasses and aleppo pepper this week….big hugs coming your way. You are teaching me a whole new way to cook :)

    Ciao, Devaki @ weavethousandflavors

  16. Posted August 11, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    What a heartwarming and charming post. I’ve found throughout my travels that it is often the people with the least who are the most generous.

  17. Posted August 11, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    What a compelling post. I had tears in my eyes reading it. You are fortunate to have met people like Abu Kassem and his family. They are the true heroes… unsung heroes!


  18. Posted August 11, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating post.

  19. tony
    Posted August 11, 2010 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Joumana, for this beautiful diary and photos. Amazing, the stories that food can tell. Also, am grateful for the images as my family was from not far from there. Thanks for your work on this nice site.

  20. Posted August 12, 2010 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    What an inspiring family and an evocative post. You make life come alive with your posts – the smells, textures, tastes, countryside, people, thank you so much. I must visit some time.

  21. Kathleen
    Posted August 12, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    He looks so much like my late grandpa that it made my heart hurt. How wonderful to know his story.

  22. Posted August 12, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Such beautiful pictures of beautiful people and beautiful food. I can almost “taste” their hospitality from here :o)

  23. Posted August 12, 2010 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for sharing such a warm portrait of a strong, loving generous family. There is so much to be admired in these people and their honest way of life and it is good to be reminded of what really counts in this life.

  24. Posted August 24, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Très intéressant ! Les photos donnent envie d’y être

  25. Ghada
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Joumana for this post. Walked me back down memory lane. I come from South Lebanon and having lunch by the Litani river used to be our favorite pass time during summer.

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Zaatar batons on November 29, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    [...] For information on a zaatar grower in Lebanon, click here. [...]

  2. By Zaatar matzo on April 19, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    [...] am making some matzos with a Lebanese twist. These matzos are flavored with zaatar I bought from Abu Kassem in Zawtar (south Lebanon), the world’s foremost expert on Lebanese zaatar. Abu Kassem sells [...]

  3. By Zaatar matzo | Food Recipes on July 7, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    [...] am making some matzos with a Lebanese twist. These matzos are flavored with zaatar I bought from Abu Kassem in Zawtar (south Lebanon), the world’s foremost expert on Lebanese zaatar. Abu Kassem sells [...]

  4. By Zaatar giveaway on October 2, 2012 at 9:20 am

    [...] to meet the man, Abu Kassem, who grows it in his fields. The story is related in a previous post. To my knowledge, his zaatar  is not available in stores outside of Lebanon. It has an organic [...]

  5. By Empowering Syrian women on May 4, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    […] on interesting day-trips organized by his dynamic crew in the four corners of the country, from the Litani river to the Ehden region up North, to be welcomed and hosted by the many farmers that Kamal has […]

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