Raoul Youmaran: Feeding the Fight

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Youmaran says that he began to learn the culinary arts in the middle of the 1960s, starting his career in the finest restaurants in Wadi al-Berdawni, Zahle, Jounieh, Beirut, Antelias, and Chtoura. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Afif Diab

Published Saturday, April 21, 2012

Today Raoul Youmaran is spending his retirement in a quiet village in the Bekaa, but for a good part of his life he was one of the most sought after men by the leaders of the Lebanese left.

The raging battles during the 1983 Mountain War did not give Walid Jumblatt the chance to eat the breakfast prepared by Raoul Nicola Youmaran, better known in the Bekaa as Raoul.

The man laments the time he spent in the kitchen preparing breakfast for Jumblatt, who was in Damascus, and stopped on his way back at the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) center in Saadnayel to contact his party commanders in the mountains.

“I spent a whole Godforsaken hour preparing the breakfast,” Youmaran says. “Comrade Walid arrived and spoke on the walkie-talkie with the guys in the mountain, and he ran out without eating a bite of my breakfast.” He continues to speak about the incident as if it happened yesterday, adding, “Walid Jumblatt really upset me.”

Youmaran, an Assyrian-Lebanese, was born in Zahle in 1928. He took up Western and Eastern cooking and became one of the most trusted men by the leaders of the Lebanese National Movement (LNM).

He became a full-time active member of the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) at the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Youmaran became known as a leading cook for the fighters across the battlefields from Beirut to the Bekaa, and all the way to the south.

Youmaran says that he began to learn the culinary arts in the middle of the 1960s, starting his career in the finest restaurants in Wadi al-Berdawni, Zahle, Jounieh, Beirut, Antelias, and Chtoura.

“With the start of the civil war, I left the restaurants and gave my time to the Lebanese Communist Party upon the request of the comrades,” Youmaran recalls.

Despite his deteriorating health, he does not tire from drinking arak, refusing to heed the advice of doctors. He spends what time he has left in life in a small house in the Assyrian neighborhood in Ksara, south of Zahle.

Youmaran spends most of his time sitting at a small dining table for himself and his Assyrian peers, who spend their time drinking arak after a long life of watching their children immigrate to faraway countries.

“When I wake up in the morning, I start the heater, I set a table with a bottle of arak, a little cucumber, some olives, and a plate of labneh,” he says.

“I have no one here. But there are a few like me in the village and we entertain ourselves by drinking arak.” He apologizes for losing some of his hearing, “and I don’t see very well either,” he adds.

Youmaran’s grandfather and father emigrated from northern Iraq to northern Turkey in early 1910, escaping persecution.

“After that, the whole family went to Russia, and my father, Nicola, joined the czar’s army there. Then he joined the revolution of Comrade Lenin and they triumphed,” he explains.

In 1920, Youmaran’s father and uncles decided to leave Moscow and immigrate to the United States, but they arrived in Zahle “and could no longer go to America," he says.

His father set up a small shop to make and fix shoes in the neighborhood of Maalaka, Zahle. Youmaran spent his youth helping out his father at the shop.

His father was included in the 1937 census and became a Lebanese citizen, along with other Assyrian immigrants from Russia, Iraq, and Turkey.

“We remained in Maalaka until 1969, and then we moved to Ksara after the Assyrian Church built houses and small rooms for the sect there,” he says. “Thus, the Assyrians obtained a village.”

For a while, Youmaran moved from one job to another. As he started to form his political awareness, he discovered that his father had been active in the Russian Communist Party before becoming a Lebanese Communist with the establishment of the party in 1924.

“I don’t know how I joined the LCP, but I know that the family was in the party,” he says, adding that “we worked secretly.” The chef recalls that his family hid Communist leader Khaled Bakdash when he escaped from Syria in the late 1950s. “Farjallah al-Hilu also visited us in Zahle once,” he adds.

Memory is not serving the 83-year-old man well, so he turns to his friend and relative, George, to list some of their common anecdotes, or those that include their families since emigrating from northern Iraq to all parts of the world. “There is no one left here except us,” he says.

Youmaran has refused to tie the knot, as he believes that the institution of marriage is a failure. Plus, he was too busy spending his time in party activities, learning to cook, and drinking arak, as he puts it.

“I never thought of getting married,” he boasts. “I was absorbed in work, and suddenly I became old. I spend whatever time I have left here in the village.”

The man spends his retirement at home, taking a monthly salary from the LCP. He notes that he gave his whole life to the party starting in 1975 at the request of “Comrade Farouq Dahrouj, who was in charge of the Bekaa. The comrade told me that we want someone we can trust to cook for the guys."

Youmaran began cooking for the fighters of the LCP and the LNM in Nabi Sbat, Ersal, Brital, Beirut, the south, and the mountains.

He is very proud that he cooked for figures such as George Hawi, Mohsen Ibrahim, Albert Mansour, George Habash, Farouk Dahrouj, Inaam Raad, Issam Kansuwah, and Elias Atallah.

“I used to cook for the guys in Sakiet al-Janzir, Tallet al-Khayyat, Ras al-Nabaa, and many areas,” Youmaran says. “The LNM sometimes used to meet in the party centers and I used to prepare their food.”

After 1984, Youmaran settled permanently in the Bekaa, where he devoted his time to preparing food for the Lebanese National Front, whose members used to pass by secretly to the LCP centers in Saadnayel and Kab Elias.

Raoul Youmaran loves to go fishing for frogs but he has not done so for a while for health reasons. The man is famous in the Bekaa region as the best in cooking frogs and preparing a glass of arak.

He used to carry his fishing pole and basket, roaming around the western Bekaa to catch the best kinds of frogs, which some National Movement leaders raced to eat.

Youmaran misses the old days when he dined with several personalities, who were widely sought after – just to sit with them and hear Lebanon’s news.

“When the senior officials from the National Movement returned from Damascus, they passed by the party center and I would prepare their food,” he says. “I wish those days of the real struggle would return.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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