Saturday, April 16, 2011

Off to Beirut in time for Easter

It’s been an iffy week. The weather has been gray, rainy and gloomy in Dubai -- not what I signed up for when I moved here. Also, I had no Internet at home for four days, something we don’t expect anymore. But the sun is trying to shine through. The Internet is working again. And I’m “leaving on a jet plane” to Beirut on Sunday morning, just in time for Easter.

Holy Week and Easter is my favorite season of the year. Spring has started, the garden is blooming, the birds are tweeting more than ever, and there is so much symbolism in commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, the start of Passion Week leading up to the Resurrection and Easter Sunday.

Blessed Palm Sunday crosses & olive tree twigs
I land in Beirut on Palm Sunday, a bit late to witness and take part in the processions and blessing of the palms, but it is something my sister Asma usually celebrates on my behalf. Every year she sends me, from Cannes, the small crosses made of palm leaf or olive tree twigs that have been blessed on the day. Some haven’t survived the journey to Dubai, but those pictured above have been with me, whether at home or at work, for a longtime.

Passion Week was always busy at home. There were eggs to color and the traditional Easter cakes, ma’amoul, to prepare. My mom, Vicky, would order food colorings months in advance for the eggs, besides storing onion peel, beetroot and saffron. We couldn’t eat them during Lent, but used to enjoy them after the egg hunt on Easter morning.

Pistachio, walnut and date ma'moul
Preparing the ma’amoul, small shortbread pastries, filled with dates, walnuts and pistachios, was another Easter ceremony. Because they take so much time to prepare and therefore make large quantities, it is ordinary for friends and neighbors to help one another. Vicky and her friends would go from house-to-house and she would come back with a filled Tupperware or tin after each session. Again, these wouldn’t be eaten until Easter.

Ma'moul molds
Ma’amoul is made with semolina flour, scented with rose or orange blossom water. There are special molds to form the cookies. Ours, which belonged to my paternal grandmother, are well used, but I can’t remember in which box I packed them. The cookies are baked to a light pale yellow and dusted with powdered sugar. Each mold has a distinctive design to show whether the filling is dates, walnuts or pistachios without having to take a bite first. The flat ones are date-filled, the round are walnut, and the longer ones pistachio.

Of course, I always thought Mom’s ma’amoul were the best. We would look at them and take a sniff before closing the lid. They were often stored in Mackintosh Toffee tin boxes.

So these preparations went on through Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then Maundy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and set up the ceremony known as the Eucharist. It is the night on which Jesus was betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. Maundy (mandate) comes from the command given by Jesus at the Last Supper that we should love one another.

Good Friday, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion, was special for Mom and I. It was the one day of the year when we went to Church together for the procession and reenactment of the Crucifixion. When I moved to London, I kept up the tradition and I look forward to going once again in Beirut on Friday.

Fairouz sings Good Friday hymn "Wa Habibi"

Good Friday in Beirut was sad with most restaurants, coffee shops and offices closed. TV and radio aired religious programs. But we looked forward to the televised Good Friday mass in the evening (there wasn’t daytime TV yet!) because the hymns were sung by Lebanon’s Grande Dame, Fairouz. The famous singer chants the Good Friday prayers in a different church each year. I wonder if this is still the case.

The best part of Easter, the egg hunt done and a good breakfast after 40 days of Lent, was Mom sitting by the phone and calling her sister, brothers, family and friends, one by one to great them with “Al Masih kam”, or “Christ has risen.”

It was the crowning of a great week and a tradition I try to keep up too. Do you have any favorite Easter traditions or memories?

I wish a Happy Easter week to all my readers. The next posts will be coming from Beirut.