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.
Photos credit http://akezhaya.deviantart.com/gallery