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.