Hakuna Matata: It means ‘Eat Falafel’

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To be fair, ‘Hakuna Matata’ is Swahili for ‘There are no worries,’ which is Lebanese for the feeling you get while eating Falafel. It’s an amazingly crunchy vegan, gluten-free sensation that is usually prepared by a very funny man behind a colorful counter of vegetables, pickles and tacky ornamentation. The walls of a falafel shop are exhibition spaces for faded pictures of different types of faded glory. You see the funny man’s serious father framed next to downtown Beirut when it was an actual downtown. In equally flashy frames, you see the funny man pictured next to a fat, happy politician and subsequent headlines in local newspapers in others.

Like many other remnants of our cultural identity, the falafel shop is a vitrine to our fleeting being. It contains everything worth keeping in the streets of Beirut, without trying too hard. Everything seems to be contrived on the streets of this city these days. The people are overdone. The shops are overly aggressive. The buildings are overly pointless. In our quest to find meaning to our overly consumerist lives, falafel shops could be amazing academies of street savoir-vivre.

First and foremost, in most cases, a falafel shop owner is the falafel shop employee. He cares for it. He performs his trade personally. He hires assistants and acts fatherly, simultaneously being a loving figure and an asshole to them. As obvious as this may sound, it is something to think about. Today, the shops of Beirut are morphing very quickly into outlets or establishments with the sole purpose of generating a flow of cash by selling a flow of commodities. You rarely go into a shop to buy something and find someone inside that is actually passionate about their trade. That’s understandable. If you’re selling zebra print underwear to middle-aged men just for the money, you’re not going to be that zesty. I’m sure there are people that are as passionate about zebra print underwear as much as falafel men are passionate about falafel, and they should be the ones selling them.

Businessmen and businesswomen should not open shops they don’t care about enough to handle, and employees should not take on jobs they hate. As much as un-economically sound this may appear, people should not be doing things just for the money, which brings us to the second lesson to learn from the falafel academy, “Whoever puts flour in his falafel mix is a complete idiot.” While having a falafel sandwich last week, the funny man behind the counter revealed that faux pas as the secret of the weak. Flour makes cheaper, quicker and more yielding dough, hence potentially more money. “If you can’t make good falafel and live off it, close your shop!” This should be a new national saying. The responsible falafel maker teaches us to be honest about our trade or go home. Honest trade means higher quality and more trust. We all know this place needs a little more trust.

The streets of this city are more paranoid than ever. People that have lived the Lebanese civil war insist that the situation today is worse. The taxi driver rhetoric is becoming more and more wary of ‘the other’. The influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has awakened its people’s dormant or relatively subtle racism. Lebanese trust processed cheese much more than they trust their government. It’s really bad.

In the falafel shop, we all take a break from our seemingly infinite hunger for each other’s throats and just indulge in peace. Indulgence is a great remedy for where we are as a people. If we indulge in our lives more often, we would value them enough to [peacefully] fight for them. Our lives are valuable. Our city is valuable. Our friends and family are too valuable to dispose of because of a series of daily agitations.

Outside the falafel shop, there is always a cat or two that are waiting for something to drop for them to feed on. In between food drops, they seem entirely busy with the most bizarre things. Folded scotch tapes occupy them for hours… so do paper sandwich wraps and soda can pop tabs. They’re a beautiful caricature of how we, as Lebanese people, spend our lives. Instead of indulging in something as simple as a falafel, we cyclically watch the destructive evening news, debate how amazing we are versus other non-amazing Arabs, and lament about almost anything. It’s sad, because outside our dumb feline mimicry, there are a lot of nice things to be done (and eaten), and all it takes is for us to raise our heads a bit higher to see beyond the obvious boring clutter and just indulge.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut

Comments

Ahh Falafel - absolutely scrumptious
The best I have eaten came from the Palestinian restaurants: the Lebanese left me sadly disappointed.
I took the menu from the particular restaurant and recently returned to the restaurant. When the employee saw the menu he said “that is 3 year old menu what are doing with it”
I ask if I can have the menu and keep it for when I can return. There are other Falafel restaurants and at lunchtimes the queue are so long. But these have rather a dry acid sense of humour but the Falafel are great. Love the pickled vegetables – baby aubergines! Wow!
Do not like the “new” addition. Prefer the classic ones
I have taken many to these restaurants and we know a good Falafel, adding flour will not see us again. We know a good thing and we return to it.
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ahh we also know Swahili. what has knowing swahili got to do with knowing a good Falafel?
mah!

I bumped into Christine Campbell at our local Coles store this after noon. I was looking for the minced ginger for stir fry & she was looking the tahini to make houmus. She has retired from state politics you know & is looking all the better for it, I must say.
I thought she had gone to Paris - it is where everyone goes especially the Middle East, who have a bit of cash spends their time. I could have said to her "if you happen to bump into Raafat say hello for me"
Happy Holidays man !

A delightfull read! Thanks

Well done.

Years ago there was a small falafel stall at Northlands shopping center.
A most disagreeable man, made the most delicious falafels I had ever eaten.
Do I care that he was unhappy, when I was not, that I was happy because at last I had found him .... only that it occurred to me a one point, that he might shut up shop & leave.
Sure enough ...

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