There are always people buying falafel at Sayoun’s. This means that the entire shop—all ten square meters of it—is constantly full of customers, night and day. Some of them eat it there, leaning against the wall, popping the skinny green hot peppers that are provided in stainless-steel bowls while they munch their falafel sandwiches. Others buy bags of the sandwiches, or just the falafel itself, and take them out to their cars, in which there is inevitably someone else waiting, then drive away and eat them in their homes. They come in sleek black Mercedes and they come in rickety old cars of indeterminate make, but no matter who they are, they come to Sayoun’s to get their falafel.
In case you’ve never been east of Cleveland, falafel is a vegetarian dish, which looks like a brown meatball, but far less dense. In reality, it’s made from a mixture of ground chickpeas and/or fava beans, shaped into a ball (actually, it’s kind of a flattened sphere, which would make it an oblate, so I’m told), and deep-fried. That may not sound appetizing, but believe me, you wouldn’t want to hear how Cheetos are made, either. Falafel is a staple food in all of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, and it has started to make inroads in other countries as well.
I have been a fan of falafel ever since I discovered Mamoun’s, on Thompson Street in the West Village, back in the early eighties. There was a time when I lived solely on a diet of blues, alcohol, and Mamoun’s falafel. Falafel is well-known in France, since they used to try to run Lebanon (with about the same success as everyone else who has since tried), and my falafel education was thus further advanced after moving to France twenty years ago. However, once I started traveling in the Middle East, I discovered that I had been eating ersatz falafel all along. So, when I found myself recently in Beirut and a Lebanese friend suggested that we go to the best falafel shop in the world, I jumped at the chance.
Sayoun’s is on Damascus Road, just up from Martyr’s square. If it weren’t for the crowd of hungry people hanging around outside, it could be easily missed. You have to look for the hungry people, the idling cars, and a blue sign that says “M. Sayoun” in both English and Arabic. This stands for “Mustapha Sayoun,” who opened the shop in 1935. It is currently run by his son.
If you were to take a giant magnifying glass and focus it on Beirut, you could do worse than to focus it on Sayoun’s falafel shop. In it you’ll find people of every age, class, and religion, all there to buy falafel. It’s not that there’s a great variety of falafel. In fact, you have very little choice at all. You can choose whether or not you want hot sauce, but that’s about as far as it goes. One way or another, you’ll end up with a sandwich of falafel, with tomatoes, sliced radish, mint, and parsley. The sandwich will be wrapped in a thin piece of paper and presented to you in haste, as the sandwich-maker goes on to the next one. If you’re thirsty as well, you can choose between water and a narrow variety of sodas.
The best way to eat a Sayoun’s falafel sandwich is to stand around in the shop, popping an occasional hot pepper while you eat. When you take a pepper you’ll have to reach around someone else who is also eating a falafel sandwich, but this is not rude. You’ll probably also have to put down your soda on the little metal ledge, hoping no one bumps into it while you’re getting your pepper. No one will. You will then need to grasp franticly for the soda again after eating the pepper because it’s considerably hotter than you thought it would be, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking another after you regain feeling in your tongue.
During all this, you can check out the little blue tiles in the wall, and the certificate from the health inspector, but this is nowhere near as interesting as watching them make the falafel. One man comes from the back of the store (an area that appears to have the floor space of a phone booth) with a big bowl full of batter. Another man takes a special little scoop thing and begins using it to make balls of batter, which he plops rapidly into a large vat of hot oil. After only a few seconds, he fishes them out and places them on the rim, where they drain. Once they’re ready, they go into a stainless-steel tray and are quickly snatched up by the sandwich-maker proper, who has already prepared a piece of pita, onto which another man has sliced tomatoes and yet another has dealt parsley and mint leaves like a vegetable croupier. The sandwich-maker distributes the balls of falafel while the boss himself hovers over the nascent sandwiches, slicing radish against his thumb in a feat of manual dexterity I never plan on trying myself. The sandwich-maker adds the sauce and wraps up each sandwich, which he then places into a tangle of eagerly waiting hands before starting the whole process over again with a new batch.
Sayoun’s has been in the same place ever since its opening. I asked the proprietor (through my friend, who translated) if the store had stayed open all that time. He smiled and shook his head, then pointed to the building across the street. The structure across the street had been an office building, but now it is a shell. Its exterior walls are gone; they now make up the pile of rubble restrained behind a fence that fronts the sidewalk. “We closed during the war,” he said. “It would have been impossible to stay open.”
Damascus Road was on the green line, the frontier between Beirut’s warring factions from 1975 to 1990, while Lebanon was torn apart by a vicious civil war with few rules and little hope. Before the war, Beirut had been known as “the pearl of the Middle East” —a cosmopolitan city of striking beauty. In those fifteen years, though, the city was destroyed, almost entirely razed.
Before 1975, Beirut was a hub for commerce and travel in the Middle East. People came from around the world to enjoy Lebanon’s surprisingly diverse countryside, its five thousand years of history, and the stunning beauty of its capital. The war changed all of that. But today, more than a decade after peace finally came, the city has been rebuilt, with only the occasional blown-out hulk of a building to mark those spots that haven’t yet been renovated. Beirut has almost regained the glory of its past, and is just as cosmopolitan as before… in fact, in many respects it is a very European city. (Please note that the preceding sentence is necessary so that this column will sneak its way past the editor, since I am supposed to be writing about Europe, and Beirut is not technically in Europe. Per se.) Editor’s note: noted.]
After your falafel, I suggest going off to the “Petit Café” in the Raouche neighborhood. There you can have tea and a shisha—a water pipe in which you smoke flavored tobacco while men with funny trousers mess with your coals. Shisha-smoking is a particular vice of mine that may warrant a column of its own one day, but that either way should not be missed while in the Middle East. The Petit Café affords a magnificent view of the Pigeon Rocks, a set of things that are either very small islands or very large rocks, depending on your point of view, standing just offshore in a cliff-lined cove. The rocks have natural arches, through which the Mediterranean comes and goes while birds circle overhead. If it’s nice out, you can go on the café’s terrace, which is built into the top of one of the cliffs, and admire the rocks and the birds and the sea while you make bubbly sounds with your shisha.
Go to Beirut. There you can see evidence that buildings, cities, countries, lives, and even falafel shops lives can be rebuilt. That is a good thing to know.