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A Falafel House

Some afternoons, when his uncle Zouhair was unable to open shop, Mustapha Sahyoun’s father, Fouad, drove him to work in a bulky Peugeot 304 that bounced across roads pockmarked with bullet holes and rocket craters. But in the no man’s land between East and West Beirut, debris from demolished buildings made the roads impassible, and Sahyoun would have to go on foot. He would leave the Peugeot’s comfort and pick his way through an abandoned and dusty path running across the Green Line, a long stretch of demolished properties that served as the only buffer zone between Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim factions during the war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.

Mustapha had a pass, allowing him to go through the checkpoint in Beirut’s Mathaf neighborhood and hail a taxi, which would take him the rest of the way to his falafel shop, Zouhair’s, in Christian East Beirut. After navigating through a broken city to get to work, Mustapha would spend the day mashing chickpeas and frying them into balls of crispy falafel, which he pressed into small pita bread sandwiches stuffed with fresh parsley, sliced tomato, and chopped radish, with plenty of garlicy taratoor sauce. It was important to Fouad and Zouhair, who owned separate shops in Beirut during the tumultuous 1970s and ‘80s, that young Mustapha learn the craft of falafel the same way they did, one step at time.

The brothers were devoted to each other, seeing the family business as a joint endeavor, even when operating separate shops. When the war split the two brothers, who lived on different sides of Beirut, they still attempted the dangerous journey across no man’s land to help each other whenever possible. “I was everywhere” in Beirut, Zouhair said. “It was hard, but we had to make it work.”

Forty years later, the distance and external conflicts that kept Fouad and Zouhair apart are gone, but they are divided yet again. They work meters from one another every day, preparing falafel the way their father taught them. But instead of sharing a kitchen, Zouhair alone inhabits the original Damascus street shop. One store over, Fouad has a new shop, emblazoned with red signs that read “Falafel M. Sahyoun.” A single white tile wall separates them, a boundary that is never breached. The brothers no longer speak. Lebanon has long been a country defined by divisions, and though the brothers’ rift is not sectarian, the uneasy relationship between two falafel makers competing in close proximity is a reflection of the problems that still haunt the country.

The original Sahyoun’s falafel, right, is now run by Zouhair Sahyoun, behind the register. He no longer speaks to his brother Fouad, who runs the red Falafel M. Sahyoun on the left. Photo: Jack Crosbie

Fouad and Zouhair inherited the family falafel business from their father, the first Mustapha Sahyoun, who opened one of Lebanon’s first falafel shops in a backstreet of Beirut’s downtown in 1933. A few years later, as Beirut expanded, he set up a larger storefront on Damascus Street. Over the next twenty years, falafel became more than just a business—Mustapha senior’s secret recipe was passed down to Fouad and Zouhair, two of his six sons, who still follow every step of his original process.

Mustapha trained his sons by trial and error, after school and on weekends, making them watch as he prepared customer’s sandwiches and then testing them afterward, tasting and smelling one of their sandwiches, rating its quality, and explaining ways to improve the taste.

“He used to come and call me, I would go with him to the kitchen,” Zouhair said. “He would tell me, ‘Give me this, turn this on.’ My brother”—Fouad—“would do something different at the same time. From there, he would not tell me what to do, but he would tell me to get him something and take something else and slowly I memorized the process.”

For Fouad, ritual and repetition were key. “Little by little, I patiently learned until I could make a sandwich,” he said. “Once it clicks, you’re good.”

Once convinced of their mastery, Mustapha only then allowed Fouad and Zouhair to serve customers—a process that took years. From the type of parsley purchased at the local market to the way a falafel sandwich is rolled, every stage of the process is calculated and done for a reason. Instead, they work in neighboring shops that are mirror images of one another, one lit by a red neon, one by blue, sharing a name, a recipe and a colorful family history of perseverance through the hardships of Lebanon’s violent past.

Falafel is a common food around the Middle East and Mediterranean. It is said to have originated in Egypt, prepared by Coptic Christians as a substitute for meat during Lent. But as anyone in Beirut will say, the Lebanese feel they have perfected the dish, and Sahyoun’s recipe is widely regarded as the best, by locals and critics alike (Anthony Bourdain visited both brothers’ shops in 2010 for his show No Reservations). Sahyoun’s recipe is slightly different from others—Mustapha famously used only beans and spices in his mix, eschewing onions (because he was concerned about his customers getting bad breath) and parsley other chefs and cultures use. The result is falafel that’s crispy on the outside, but moist and slightly mushy inside, a salty, rich contrast to the crisp radish, juicy tomato, and fresh parsley and mint surrounding it.

The Lebanese love affair with falafel is so deep that even amid internal political tension and economic malaise, Lebanese chefs came together in 2010 and fried five tons of falafel in order to retain the world-record of “world’s largest amount of falafel” from the Israelis. Naturally, the chefs prepared the world’s largest hummus bowl the next day.

“There are people who say that the falafel is our hamburger,” Zouhair said. Falafel is a meal that transcends socio-economic backgrounds—at the brothers’ shops, a sandwich sells for $2, ready to eat on the go or wrapped up in bags by the dozen. Important Lebanese politicians enter as casually as construction workers in stained coveralls, eating sandwiches outside or at the small marble countertops. Fouad and Zouhair both said several former Lebanese presidents have sent bodyguards or drivers into their shops for bulk orders of sandwiches.

Fouad Sahyoun through the window of his shop. Photo: Jack Crosbie

The Sahyoun family is Muslim, but their businesses are non-denominational—even when the Lebanese Civil War was at its height, Falafel Mustapha Sahyoun sold sandwiches to every faction in the bloody sectarian conflict. But it wasn’t easy. Both brothers remember violent clashes outside of their shop and the yells of men armed with Kalashnikovs.

“When there was a problem, the whole country would shut down,” Fouad said. “The next day, you had to continue.”

Clashes erupted at random times of the day, scaring off customers. The shop was on Damascus Street, right on Beirut’s “Green Line,” a stretch of abandoned buildings and broken roads, overgrown with vegetation after years of war. The Green Line separated Muslim from Christians, and Sahyoun’s falafel was directly in the middle of the war. In 1977, Mustapha senior died, and after the assassination of a prominent Christian politician intensified the conflict, the brothers were forced to close the Damascus street shop.

As the city tore itself apart, Fouad and Zouhair found themselves on opposite sides of the divide. Fouad lived in West Beirut, while Zouhair lived near his father’s house in East Beirut. Managing any business during the civil war was a challenge, but the two brothers faced the impossible task of regularly commuting over the Green Line if they wanted to work together.

Finally, Fouad decided to rent a storefront in West Beirut and build living accommodations on the next level, while Zouhair set up a falafel shop in East Beirut.

A ring of freshly fried falafel. The building across the street, reflected in the falafel oil, was gutted during the civil war and has never been rebuilt. Photo: Jack Crosbie

The war lasted for 15 years, and the brothers kept selling falafel throughout. Some nights, Fouad said, he would have to call his family and tell them he could not come home while battles raged on the streets outside his West Beirut shop. Instead, he locked himself in the shop and slept on the floor behind the heavy granite counters, praying for the violence to end. When the war finally ended in 1990, Falafel Mustapha Sahyoun survived, and Fouad and Zouhair soon returned to Damascus Street. Their shop was ruined from years of war, and the surrounding street was worse.

“It was all broken,” Fouad said. “We had to fix it, it took us a week. There was no road. Cars could not come on the road. So people would park on the back street and walk here.”

The brothers patched up the shop and started cooking. As Beirut put itself back together, their customers started to return. “Once our old customers knew we were here, they started to come and they would tell other people,” Fouad said. “It took six to seven months to a year for everyone to know.”

Falafel Mustapha Sahyoun worked smoothly for twelve years until 2006, another violent year for the country. Though the Israeli invasion did not affect their business the same way the civil war did, the year closed with an insurmountable rift between the two brothers, who clashed over their ideas for the business’ future. Fouad left, taking the storefront directly next to the original shop, setting up a competing restaurant with a red neon sign and the same menu, logo, and recipe.

Two men chow down on Sahyoun’s falafel. Photo: Jack Crosbie

“We both began together,” Zouhair said. “We used to come down to the restaurant during those days my father ran the shop. When my father died, we continued to work together. At the end, he wanted to start something alone. He, by himself, decided this. I asked him to stay with me. It’s over between him and I.”

The brothers are both guarded about the rift in the family, but the bitterness lingers in the few meters of space between them.

“I don’t work for money, I work for my father’s name,” Fouad said. “Either you work for the name you have or work however you want to make money. I chose the name. He’s not my brother anymore. It’s over. It’s expired.”

Now, with no communication between the two brothers, customers are forced to choose between the two shops, even though the product is, by most accounts, the same. Fouad’s shop offers the option of a spicy chili sauce, while Zouhair’s original blue-signed falafel shop only uses tahini-based taratoor. They each have regular customers—few guests seem confused by the near-identical shops, instead heading immediately to where their loyalties lie.

The brothers sit behind their cash registers just meters away, greeting their regular customers and watching newcomers carefully to see which shop they enter.

Mohamad Yaghi and Jack Crosbie
Mohamad Yaghi and Jack Crosbie Mohamad Yaghi is a Lebanese-Canadian journalist currently studying at the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance. He is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School whose work examines Lebanese identity and politics. Crosbie is a photojournalist and writer based in New York City and a graduate of Columbia Journalism School. His work explores quirks, conflicts, and cultures across the globe.

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