Beirut, Lebanon – Anthony Rahayel’s work is guided by a easy premise he has repeated like a mantra in lots of of on-line movies over time: “Lebanon is probably the most stunning nation on this planet.”
It was a courageous assertion even earlier than Lebanon’s horrible downfall over the previous 12 months or so.
Now, after the nation suffered one of many world’s worst monetary implosions coupled with one of many largest non-nuclear explosions, the assertion appears to frame on the ludicrous.
However Rahayel’s views are deliberately out of step with Lebanon’s current public picture. The boundlessly optimistic meals blogger sees himself as an envoy for the actual Lebanon, “Lebanon as not seen on TV or within the information”, as he places it.
Learn his opinions, revealed on his weblog No Garlic No Onions, or watch his movies on YouTube and you’ll certainly see a really completely different perspective; one the place Lebanon’s God-given potential to be a vacationer haven may quickly be realised; the place the wealthy group spirit and heritage of the Lebanese trumps their degrading, divisive politics; the place meals is served neither too sizzling nor too chilly, nor too salty, nor too candy.
For the numerous 1000’s in Lebanon who watch him usually, Rahayel’s movies are an escape from the ache of the nation’s demise or, on the very least, helps soothe their discomfort.
For viewers within the giant Lebanese diaspora, his each day excursions throughout the nation stir a deep craving for the tastes and smells of residence – a filtered, extra good model residence they will dwell vicariously by means of him.
Rahayel embodies and promotes sure cliches about Lebanese – together with their famed resilience in overcoming seemingly insurmountable crises and their inventive, entrepreneurial spirit.
He’s a person intent on cleansing Lebanon’s picture, and customarily making it extra livable. He isn’t a insurgent, nor even mildly fascinated by politics.
Nonetheless, life in his nation has turn out to be so harsh that his telling of the story of Lebanon, “probably the most stunning nation on this planet”, typically looks like a critique of how unhealthy issues have gotten. As we speak, it’s not possible to understand Lebanon’s nice meals, breathtaking nature, and the storied previous of its inhabitants with out considering of the feckless political leaders who threaten the very existence of all of it. With that comes a name to motion.
And that makes Rahayel an unlikely protagonist within the combat for Lebanon’s future.
“Why do it? I like it. It’s a mission, it’s a press release, it’s a ardour, it’s making Lebanon a greater place by spreading positivity,” he says.
‘Once they go detrimental, I am going constructive’
Initially from Beirut’s japanese Achrafieh neighbourhood, Rahayel spent most of his childhood within the mountain village of Feytroun, some 33km (15 miles) north of Beirut.
Born in 1983 on the top of Lebanon’s civil struggle, he went to highschool and performed outdoor between rugged forest and limestone boulders. He joined the scouts, and credit his ardour for meals, nature and storytelling to lengthy summer season days spent climbing over mountains, and to nights sitting across the campfire.
His grandfather was a dentist, as was his father, and Rahayel too selected that occupation and labored within the area for about 10 years, earlier than taking on his ardour for meals.
In 2012, he launched No Garlic No Onions, a overview weblog named after his critical allergy to each greens, which occur to be staples of Levantine delicacies. “The concept was combating corruption – to write down sincere opinions when every part else was paid for,” he stated in an interview.
In 2014, he started filming his opinions and received into the kitchen, shadowing cooks who cooked conventional Lebanese meals that the majority Lebanese had solely ever seen made by their moms or grandmothers.
With a gleaming smile that deepens the dimples on his rounded face, he glorified Lebanese delicacies as the very best on this planet, proclaimed those that cook dinner it heroes, and stated Lebanese ought to be pleased with what their nation has to supply.
He did in order the struggle in neighbouring Syria spilled into Lebanon, with a spate of bombings and successive waves of clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, who had been additionally largely followers of various non secular sects and inhabitants of various areas.
As his movies picked up viewership, he launched initiatives that took folks from one aspect of the nation to a different, often throughout strains of political-religious affect, together with between Tripoli, a stronghold of assist for the Syrian revolution, and Baalbeck, a metropolis whose inhabitants despatched lots of to combat with Hezbollah alongside the regime. Little was stated about politics, heaps was stated about meals, and customary floor was discovered, if generally tenuously.
In 2016 he travelled by means of a number of military checkpoints to Lebanon’s distant northeastern city of Aarsal, the outskirts of which had been occupied by the armed teams ISIL (ISIS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
“I used to be carrying a Ferrari Jacket,” Rahayel says with a broad smile. “We stopped at six or seven locations and I received on the information that night time. They requested me ‘what did you see?’ I stated manakesh,” he says, referring to the Levantine flatbread often topped with native thyme or cheese.
“They requested, ‘nobody taking pictures?’ I stated ‘the persons are superb.’ They might pull me to the detrimental and I’d go constructive.”
As Anthony rises, his nation fails
In 2018, he paused his dentistry work to focus solely on meals and hospitality. Rahayel wakes up at about 5am, typically seven days every week, and drives throughout the nation, not often returning residence until after night time has fallen.
“You possibly can’t love one thing if you happen to don’t understand it,” he says. “Folks sitting in Beirut on a regular basis actually don’t know Lebanon nicely.”
He gained World Road Meals Blogger of the Yr on the World Blogger Awards in Cannes, France, in 2019, and World’s Greatest Knowledgeable Meals Account in 2020, and characterises each victories as wins for Lebanon.
Whereas Rahayel succeeded, his paralysed nation failed. Years of top-level corruption and incompetence by the nation’s leaders got here to bear in October 2019, when an financial downturn led to a hopeful nationwide rebellion that sought to overthrow the political class.
They didn’t budge. Protests devolved into riots, and had been then all-but extinguished by the coronavirus pandemic and the nation’s worst-ever financial disaster.
The native foreign money misplaced greater than 80 p.c of its worth in opposition to the greenback. Poverty charges have exceeded 50 p.c. Greater than half the inhabitants fear about meals safety, in line with the World Meals Programme, and Human Rights Watch has stated tens of millions may face starvation.
If Rahayel’s movies as soon as portrayed a selectively constructive picture of the nation, the abject negativity of the previous 12 months and a half has since discovered its manner in.
“Inform me about what you do,” he requested the proprietor of a small Lebanese bakery within the coastal city of Halat in a video from final summer season. “Properly, I’m nonetheless open,” she says flatly.
In one other video, the octogenarian proprietor of a standard foul (fava beans) and hummus (chickpeas) store notes how the worth of butter has elevated greater than threefold. “It goes up each time the greenback [exchange rate] does,” he laments. The parts he prepares for Rahayel are smaller than earlier than. An unstated heartbreak hangs over their dialog.
“In fact it’s very exhausting what persons are going by means of,” Rahayel says, including the deteriorating scenario has solely compounded the duty he feels to maintain the spirits of his viewers as excessive as potential.
“I by no means deflate, I say, ‘what’s subsequent?’ I at all times attempt to see the glass half full as a result of folks inform me that if I lose hope or depart the nation, they are going to depart too.”
The most important check
Rahayel’s followers noticed him in a manner they by no means had earlier than on August 5 final 12 months, the day after Beirut was eviscerated by an enormous explosion that killed 200, injured greater than 6,000, and left some 300,000 homeless.
The morning after the blast, he was pushed on the again of a bike by means of Better Beirut, live-streaming the destruction of the town he loves. He did so in absolute and uncharacteristic silence, for an hour and a half.
Close to the tip of his stream, he arrived at a constructing within the metropolis’s devastated Achrafieh neighbourhood and took the carry as much as his workplace, put his key within the door and opened it.
A glass wall was ripped clear from the brickwork, leaning ahead precariously. He started to cry softly behind the digicam.
“No manner!” he says, as he peered right into a principal room from beneath a collapsed chunk of ceiling.
The digicam pans to glassless home windows, flooring lined in shards, a big mannequin crusing boat keeled over onto the bottom, fallen metallic cabinets that lay amid a litter of small collectible figurines and mementoes he had picked up over years of labor. Scores of snow globes that sat reverse a breached window remained miraculously intact.
The workplace, a vibrant testomony to his radiant character, was wrecked.
Rahayel turned the digicam round to his face. “I’m going to cease now to take some photos right here and perhaps we’ll maintain going and I’ll present you downtown Beirut,” he says. His eyes path from the display screen to the harm round him. “Simply so I can digest what occurred a bit. Goodbye.”
With the digicam off, he discovered a small toy digger mendacity by the particles, positioned a toy bulldozer subsequent to it, and snapped an image. “Then I knew it was time to rebuild,” Rahayel says.
The following day, he was in central Beirut distributing lots of of manakeesh to these affected by means of his charitable initiative Kol w Taame, or “Eat and Feed.”
Cash for that help, a lot of it despatched to him by viewers within the diaspora, saved flowing and Rahayel says he distributed 850 million Lebanese kilos (roughly $100,000 on the market fee) price of help to folks over the course of the 12 months.
And, with assist from his spouse Nell, he rebuilt his workplace. It was unveiled in his final video of 2020, a giant smile painted by its principal door, dubbed “happiness headquarters”.
Regardless of all he and his nation went by means of, Rahayel says 2020 “was top-of-the-line years of my life as a result of I realized a lot. It was exhausting however I didn’t let it turn out to be a detrimental factor and pull me down, I at all times saved going.”
On the street
4 months after the blast, Al Jazeera accompanied Rahayel and his crew, videographer Kareem Kawtharani and buddy and sometimes-producer Elias Sarkis, on a visit to Lebanon’s mountainous northern Koura area, well-known for its darkish inexperienced olive groves.
The day begins with manakeesh, his absolute favorite factor, at Nakroucheh Bakery which opened after its house owners misplaced their jobs through the financial disaster and successive COVID-19 lockdowns.
“We had been all workers, as you realize. Now there is no such thing as a work. We make these at residence anyway so we stated let’s make it for the folks,” stated the proprietor, a middle-aged lady with deep turquoise eyes. Even within the quick time since her bakery opened, the price of fundamental items modified a lot that the costs of menu objects had been written over, erased, crossed out and changed.
Rahayel was in his ingredient, accompanying the bread in flawless stream from prep station to the oven, filming it rise, and all of the whereas asking about her merchandise: small savoury pastries with Zaatar (thyme), cheese or muhammara, a paste made from crimson bell pepper, walnuts and pomegranate molasses; Kaak, a purse-shaped sesame coated bread; and a meter-long five-flavour flatbread that’s, as Rahayel places it, “very Instagramable”.
That morning, the winner was a calzone-like sugar pie. Ultrathin layers of dough are individually sprinkled with sugar and rubbed with ghee, folded, after which put within the oven.
The completed product has a crispy-caramelised exterior that, when bitten, releases an opulently gooey syrup. “Hearken to the crunch!” Rahayel says, biting into the pie within the morning solar outdoors the bakery.
Subsequent, he heads to a producer of conventional soaps deep within the Koura mountains. He obsesses over particular person bricks stacked in a DNA-like spiral, the normal methodology for curing cleaning soap. He takes viewers into an outdated room and will get enthusiastic about its outdated cabinet and rusty utensils, together with a dial scale. From olive cleaning soap, he heads to an olive grove, overjoyed to see a big machine with an outstretched arm that shakes timber to take away their fruit extra effectively.
“It’s a kind of days,” he says, excitedly putting his cellphone beneath the branches to catch the falling olives in sluggish movement.
Later, at a big olive-oil producing manufacturing facility, he places on the showmanship. In mock-astonishment, he opens the door to the state-of-the-art manufacturing facility and exclaims, “We’ve one thing like this in Lebanon?”
“It’s about displaying that we are able to do something, it’s about selling all these Lebanese heroes without cost – for super-duper free, which nobody else does,” Rahayel explains as he waits for the olive press to start churning out neon-green virgin oil.
It’s time for lunch and Rahayel heads all the way down to one among his favorite locations, a nondescript fisherman’s restaurant close to disused salt pans within the scenic coastal city of Anfeh. Girgi al-Dayaa, or “Girgi of the Village”, is known as after its proprietor.
True to his fisherman roots, Girgi is big-hearted, raucous and foul-mouthed, at all times with arak – the excessive alcohol anise-flavoured native drink – in hand. His restaurant’s partitions are lined with pictures of creatures he has wrestled from the ocean over time on his small conventional boat, often known as a fluka.
Rugged Girgi and manicured, composed Anthony are a splendidly mismatched duo, the previous extracting guttural laughs from the latter as he ruins video sequences with crude language.
The meals comes quick: fish fatteh composed of fried child sardines, dried curls of bread and tender chickpeas lined with heat yoghurt that is dropped at life with scorching pine nuts and almonds; battered shrimps two methods; stuffed roasted calamari; a baked seafood ratatouille with succulent eggplant; slow-cooked fish in shawarma spice; native sashimi; a complete octopus baked crimson crimson and smoking grilled Dorade extinguished with the holy trinity of olive oil, garlic and lemon.
Golden mild streams by means of the window. A lot of arak is had. The good Lebanon of Rahayel’s idealism doesn’t really feel so illusory in spite of everything.