- Alyos Alana
- BBC – Beirut
The tradition of baking and buying “maamoul” is one of the aspects of Easter celebration for the Greek Orthodox Christians in Lebanon, but the situation looked different this year due to the extremely difficult economic conditions.
The Lebanese are proud of their baked goods, as unlike Easter, it is also an aspect of celebrating Eid al-Fitr and Ramadan as well, and Muslims and Druze make it on Eid al-Adha.
Rita Istanbouli, a Greek Orthodox, lives in Zahle, which is located about an hour’s drive east of Beirut, in the Bekaa Valley. And when I visited, she was making maamoul.
Church hymns can be heard as Rita makes the mamoul in her kitchen. So she grabs one of the date balls, and stuffs one of the dough pieces with it, then puts it in a wooden mold, and says laughing as she comes out with her hand a handcrafted in an elaborate manner: “We release our tension in it (the maamoul).”
She added, “We feel poverty. Our conditions have receded, and we no longer live as we used to before. We eat meat and chicken once a month.”
Rita works as a secretary in a hospital. Like all Lebanese, the value of her salary has been declining every month since the economic crisis.
“I have two children, and my husband and I work. We rent this house, and our salaries are no longer enough.”
Pistachios are Ritas favorite filling, but she can’t afford to buy them for Maamoul this year, as they have become too expensive. It also makes less than usual, and uses subsidized butter instead of ghee.
“Ghee alone costs a third of my salary,” she says.
Food prices have skyrocketed, as is everything in Lebanon. This rise appeared to be turning into a political issue.
Besides the rise in prices, people’s money and savings have lost a large part of their value (due to the devaluation of the currency). And the banks collapsed so that people could no longer access their savings.
More Lebanese are turning to food banks. Even the Sawa Association for Development and Relief, which mainly worked to help poor Syrian and Lebanese refugees, is called upon to help more families in the Bekaa Valley.
The situation is getting worse, and amounts of aid are wasted due to domestic politics and disputes.
For example, but not limited to, Iraq provided wheat aid to Lebanon at the end of 2020, but it was stored poorly in a football field instead of being distributed to people. Also, tea donations made by Sri Lanka to the victims of the Beirut Port bombing in August 2020 were distributed to the families of the Republican Guard.
In Tripoli, the second largest city in Lebanon, a volunteer for distributing food was killed after a fight broke out. In supermarkets, people struggle to snatch subsidized goods and hurl food at each other.
“I saw a number of fights,” says Rita. “There is not enough for everyone.”
There are concerns that subsidized materials will be out of stock anytime soon. And if that happens, chaos will ensue.
As the country’s problems increase, political parties are taking action.
For example, Hezbollah has opened its own chain of stores called Carpets. The party issues a card to needy families to buy cheap and subsidized goods made in Iran, Iraq and Syria, in which the party has a strong presence.
“These shops are only for Hezbollah and its supporters. I cannot take advantage of them. The government should do the same until we find what to eat,” says Rita.
In Beirut, Joseph Touq, a journalist and ambassador for the non-governmental Lebanon Tomorrow Association, has been working on making 9,000 pieces made with the help of his team over the past three days. The association provides food and medicine to needy people across the country, and distributes the items recently.
“Maamoul will not save Lebanon,” Joseph says, “but it may put a smile on the lips of some for a day. Tomorrow it may be time to distribute boxes of rice or paracetamol pills.”
In light of the four-day lockdown that the country is experiencing due to the Corona epidemic crisis, Orthodox Christians celebrate and break the fast for Muslims with the foods they are able to pay for.
And put Rita on the side to cool. Its sweet aroma fills the kitchen. Rita says this is the scent of Eid for her.
And although she didn’t make it with her favorite filling of pistachios, she knows she’s lucky just to be able to make such a small amount. Many families are unable to make any of it this year.