May 1, 2006

    Hanna Habib Farha

    And for the new generation : LEARN AND REMEMBER….

    ( This article is the first of a series told about how our fathers and grandfathers used to live… ,their traditions, their habits, their words of wisdom their beliefs etc….hoping that those who have lived and witnessed some of these events will not forget and tell them to their children and grandchildren ,and those who never heard about them, from the new generation, to just read, learn, and remember….)

    Arak prepared the traditional way

    I was about ten years old when my father, in a commanding tone, said ”Go to Abu Asaad* and tell him to send me his horse At 12 noon. I want to go to Ibl-As-Saqi.

    Cars those days ,in the town of Jdeidet Merjayoun ,were rare. And Abu Asaad was among the few who owned horses then.

    At the appointed time, Abu Asaad sent the horse. I was too young then to understand why my father wanted to go to Ibl-As-Saqi on horse back.

    Later on, I learned from my mother that he had gone there to rent a vineyard for the season, so that we could eat grapes all summer and my father could make his own supply of arak , that would be sufficient to last the whole year.

    Off to the Vineyard

    Ibl-As-Saqi is a beautiful small town in South Lebanon about 15 km from Jdeide. Most people there earn their living from agriculture by growing olives , grapes, cereals, fruits and vegetables.

    I couldn’t understand how important arak was to my father until I grew up realizing that arak was and still is to most Lebanese their “national drink”. Arak has prize position on the table, surrounded by many small plates of delicacies called mezze.

    From the day my father paid the money, he made the trip once a week to examine his vineyard and make sure that his grapes were doing well. Once ,after he had returned, he told us that all the vineyard owners had met and chosen a warden (natoor,in Arabic) who immediately started to build a shack (irzal) on top of a hill.The shack had to be high enough for the natoor to observe all the vineyards and make sure that no thieves or wild animals entered his territory.

    Harvesting the grapes

    It was around mid September when my father gathered us all to break the good news. "Be ready to harvest the grapes this coming Sunday" and continued” We will leave home at 5 am. The harvesting must finish by 5 pm when the truck will come to pick up all the grapes and bring them back to the house."

    At 5 am on Sunday, we were up and ready for a full day of adventure and excitement. After my mother have prepared sandwiches and drinks, and my father had put knives and scissors in a bag, we made our way to Ibl-As-Saqi.

    Fifteen minutes later we were in the vineyard picking grapes and having a great time. My father took a large straw mat and laid it down near the main road. He told us to put the grapes we had picked and to lay them on the mat. By the time the truck came , there was a pile of grapes that looked like a small hill rising in the middle of that beautiful valley. But everybody was aware that the job was not finished.

    Back home there were 5 or 6 large copper basins spread around , And in a dark room there were about 6 or 7 wooden barrels.

    Several ladies from our relatives and neighbors were waiting barefooted, for our return and ready for the big ‘dance’ on the grapes.

    The women would step into the basin to squeeze the juice from the grapes with their feet. The grape juice went into the barrels for fermentation, which took between 15 and 20 days. My father went to the barrels twice a day to stir the juice ,"This" he said "helps a lot in the fermentation process."

    Distlling and celebrating

    On the day set for distillation, many friends of my father came over to watch and celebrate the occasion. Before assembling the distiller(called ‘karakeh’ in Arabic) my father filled two-thirds of the boiler with fermented juice ,close the cover tightly and then lit the fire and announced the beginning of the feast.

    The karakeh was place in the middle of a big hall in the basement. Guests were seated on wooden benches and chairs surrounding the karakeh from all sides. When the fermented juice started to boil, steam passed through the cold pipe and changed immediately into liquid alcohol. Alcohol was then collected in small or medium glass containers. After no more alcohol came out from the pipe, the karakeh was washed very well ,and alcohol was poured and anise was added-closed again, set up the fire and the distillation process went on. The liquid collected at this time was the required arak. It was collected in pots and small glass containers.

    The process went on , night after night , until all the barrels were empty. My father was sure then, that he had enough arak to last him another year.

    * Abu Asaad was the late Dhaher Al Khoury, father of Asaad, Fawwaz and Nawwaf (This article was first published in "Beirut Times" December 1997)

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