bread from Beirut
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 10, 2007
For several years my friend P and I often joked about meeting for lunch at a midtown lunch spot called Bread from Beirut, which is now called Bread & Olive although it offers the same menu and is in fact owned by the owners of midtown east’s Al Bustan. Apparently “Beirut” is no longer the selling point it used to be.
We never made it there, partly because P works in an industry that doesn’t believe in breaking for dinner, let alone lunch; and partly because I am deeply allergic to the 40s and the slow-moving tourist amoebas that clog its sidewalks.
I thought of the restaurant’s name this past weekend, as I was doing my Saturday morning grocery shopping. A collection of Bahraini women were gathered near the checkout, instructing their hapless brother/husband/son to collect the items they had forgotten to pick up during their initial shop.
Don’t forget the Lebanese bread! the eldest one admonished him. Yes – its important! added another.
It certainly is. I took a service from Beirut to Damascus one evening in late July 2005, when the Syrian government was imposing a work slow-down at the border. Nothing was allowed to pass through customs – semis stretched over a mile along the no man’s land border zone road, and anyone entering by private car or taxi was liable to lose anything that appeared recently purchased in Lebanon.
Our taxi was full of women: three Jordanians heading home after a weekend visiting a relative, a young Lebanese girl on her reluctant way to visit an aunt outside Damascus, and me. I can’t survive on Syrian bread, the girl announced as we neared Chtaura, before sweet-talking the driver into pulling over at a roadside shop and coaxing the proprietor to hand deliver a bag of bread to her.
Getting that bread across the border proved an exercise in teamwork. While the guards searched the front seat, one of the women in the back stuffed it under her galabiya. When they searched the back, we held the bag below the front passenger seat with the backs of our legs.
I’ve wondered idly about that girl and her bread now and again, imagining that she told her aunt: Khalti I can only stay here in Syria with you for as long as this bread lasts. When it finishes khalas I am returning to Lebanon.
When K moved here this spring, we talked a lot about the differences between Beirut and Damascus. I can’t complain about some of them, like the fact that on these sultry days I can walk on the city streets in a tank top and skirt without drawing so much as an awooouu from the ISF guys stationed on the corner.
And in some very endearing ways the cities remain quite similar – including one that has to to with bread.
When I walk to the gym in the mornings, I pass mounds of bread – freshly baked and bagged, dropped off by the bakeries’ deliverers to their ba2ala, snack and restaurant clients around the city. When the shopkeepers come to open their stores, the bread is there to greet them – just as it is in Damascus.
Bread obviously isn’t a high value object – the price of an bag of average-sized Arabic bread is 1000 lira, or $.67. So stealing bagged bread at 6 am would be a less than lucrative entreprise for any would-be thief.
Still, the economy is terrible here these days, and 1000 lira is a meaningful sum for the many people here living on too-tight budgets. I love the morning bread piles because to me they indicate that Beirutis still live within a circle of trust, in which community values trump opportunities for easy gain.
above: Arabic bread awaiting the shopkeeper
below: a tray of croissants biding its time atop a neighbor’s car