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Raji Kebbe

Soucci Restaurant, Beirut

Raji Kebbe

Raji is the co-owner of Soucci Restaurant in downtown Beirut. It's a Beirut institution that has been in its current location since the mid 1970s. Raji's grandfather started in the hummus business at the Beirut market in the late 19th century. Raji started when he was 14 years old and has been a hummus maker for over 50 years.

the Interview

Soucci Restaurant Beirut, October 2011

Show us the pictures, tell us who these people are, and how long your family history has been with hummus.

This is my grandfather, Abu Mahmoud El Sousy. He's the founder of the store. It was located behind the municipality. Before there was a fair. There was no fair. There were no market arches. Instead, they used tents. This man used a tent. This is the great grandfather. These two are brothers. But this one started before the other. This is my grandfather, Abu Mahmoud El Sousy. It's been approximately 122 years. Approximately, I've worked during the market times, before the events of 1976. From 1976... 22 years for me down there. Then we continued to work here. We moved in the year 1976 or 1977, and are still doing the same thing till this day. We will continue.

And your father, too?

No, that's my grandfather. My father did not work. No.

Whose photograph is that small one?

It's his son's. He, too, is dead. He's my uncle. The father of Ahmed, who works with me. Yes, that's his father. This is the grandfather. He's the original owner and founder of the store down there, and worked for almost 71 years at the market. 71 years. When he couldn't do it anymore, I replaced him.

How about before him?

He was the founder. There was nothing before him.

Don't you ever want to go back down there to the old market?

I did. I opened the store down there, before the assassination of Hariri, before his death. I opened the store towards Riad as-Solha Square very nice store. A very big one, too. We are very famous. We started working the day we opened the store. It usually takes restaurants 6 or 7 months to start working. But as soon as people knew we opened down there, the whole thing changed. We had plenty of customers. But it was really arduous. We worked day and night, and never closed the store. We couldn't close because of the customers. Everyone knows us, from both the Eastern and the Western parts. Even our Eastern customers are more. As soon as they knew about the opening. When Hariri was assassinated, the nation was shaken. All the stocks went down. Then they blocked the road, because it leads to the parliament. We left the store, and came back here. We never closed this store. We then came back to here. Till this day.

How did your grandfather work at the market?

They used coals for cooking. They used to put it a day earlier over the coals. The hummus or the beans were boiled on charcoal. They used to put it a day earlier, and the next day they would uncover it, and would find it very well cooked. That's how they worked back then, using charcoal. There was no gas. They had small cookers. When we first started working, we used those small cookers. Number one, number two, primos, and so on.

Where is that store located?

At the fair.

Raji Kebbe

You mean that was a tent?

Yes, it was a tent. See how they extended electricity lines for a lamp? It was a fair, no stores were built. They used tents as stores to work in, because there were no stores. The roads leading to there were all sandy. There was no asphalt yet. This was very long ago. These are the pots they used for boiling. These were clay pots. And these were made of brass. They put them, covered them, and lit up the coals on low heat, and left them to boil very slowly. The next day, they would uncover the pots. They used to start work at an early hour. They would pray the Morning Prayer and go to work. Then people would come, drivers, and people would come when the market would open. People would come before sunrise.These are the workers; they would arrange the serving bowls and so forth. Look, you see these jars? They are very old jars. I still have two of them. I'll show them to you in a while. I still have two of those. They were used for oil. They used to store oil, pickles and olives in them. We can no longer find jars like these. See how they lit the fire here? Like a stove, only vertically. They would put the coals inside, and leave it to slowly cook. But it had a different taste than its current taste...a different taste.

How did you learn to make hummus that is delicious?

Yes, when my grandfather used to work down there, this man, here, he never let anyone from the workers or his helpers stand behind the basta or the stove, the place where I stand. No one else stood there; I had a special spirit that makes food delicious. When I was young, like 13 or 14 years old, I would hang out with him after school. I liked to cook. At that time there were heads of states, lawyers, Alfred Abu Shahla, and different congressmen and ministers. Even Abdul Halim Hafez used to eat at our restaurant down there.

One time I asked my grandfather to let me cook myself. He grew weary; he was 82 years old at that time. He was sitting outside, and I went inside. That was my first time, I can never forget it. I made a plate, but the customer wouldn't accept it.

My grandfather asked him to taste it. I prepared the plate and he tasted it. He said "this young fellow did a good job cooking, it's delicious. He will be something." And I've been working for 53 years now. I assumed my grandfather's role there, and here, too.

You used to watch your grandfather?

Yes, but I'm talented in cooking. I cook at home and know what tastes good and what doesn't. The spirit. I can tell from a dish's smell whether it's delicious or not. Ever since that day, he stopped working, and I replaced him. I've been in this career for 53 years.

What gives you joy in your work?

I love it when my customers are happy and satisfied with the food I offer them. If I notice someone is not happy I ask them "Can I get you anything? Is there anything you need? Is the food not delicious?" Then they would say "No, it's really delicious." I'm happy when my customers are happy.

You mean you think of your customers' opinions when you're cooking?

Yes, indeed. I like my customers to be satisfied. It's not about the money. If we wanted money, we would've acted differently. We give our best so that our customers would be happy after they've eaten here, saying "Thanks, that was great. We'll be back with our families." Things like that.We would never allow it that a customer would leave unsatisfied, or lacking something. If someone is leaving without finishing his plate, I would ask him why. They would usually say that they're full. They've over-ordered and can't eat anymore.

Who invented the hummus with tahini?And what do you think of the so called hummus war? Lebanese say it's Lebanese, Palestinians say it's Palestinian, Israelis say it's Israeli. It's like a war.

Each country has its own version of hummus or beans. There's a certain flavour to each country. Palestinians, for example, serve beans with tahini, and a little lemon. Egyptians serve it with no lemon at all. Lebanese offer a special delicious flavour by adding the right amount of lemon, the right amount of original olive oil, and premium tahini from Yemen, white delicious tahini.

We puree Humus manually, we don't use machines. We add the right amount of everything, lemon, oil, and salt...just the right amount. Our hummus is more distinguished than that of the other nations. It's the most delicious.

I'm not just saying that because I'm Lebanese. It's well known that Lebanese hummus or beans, especially hummus, because beans are good in some other countries, too. But hummus with tahini is a Lebanese specialty, along with tabbouli and keba nayye. These are the most famous Lebanese dishes, taste-wise.

Israelis say it's an Israeli dish that is in their tradition.

That's mere propaganda. Everyone knows it's propaganda. We had Jews at our markets, even before Syrians, before Halabis came and bought the...before the events, they lived along with us, in Owad El Yahood street, for instance.

Before they start talking about hummus, it was an already famous dish here. Even before we opened our store, it was famous. 150 or 160 years ago they didn't even know what hummus is. That is only propaganda. You know how rumours are spread in the media. Like when they say some famous person is dead. It turns out the person is not dead, but they gain publicity. But Lebanon is the homeland of hummus.

When Israelis say so, do you get upset?

No, not at all. Lebanon is never affected by things like that at all. Lebanon is never affected. We used to feed Jews hummus when they first came. They came to Lebanon, and passed by Syria. We used to feed them hummus. Lebanon is never affected by things like that. Especially when it comes to food. It's the truth. Lebanon can never be affected.

Raji Kebbe

Who are your customers?

Everybody eats hummus. Really... everybody. From the prime-ministry, the presidency, colonels, you know. I don't have the right to mention their names. A lot of famous and high profile people come to us in particular. We even sometimes cater the parties they have at their homes, especially to taste our hummus and beans. And fatta as well. Fatta is the most important.

How about regular people? Do they come here?

Everybody, old and young. As you can see...the rich, the poor and the moderate. Everyone likes to come here to eat, because we offer average prices and delicious food. We have a reputation...a very good one. Hariri invited Pavarotti. You remember? We were the first at the party. There were about 350 people, including Hariri. And we fed them ourselves.They are both gone now, but we did cater to him. They were about 300 people at the fair. At the opening Hariri invited him, and there were other high-profile people.

Did they like the hummus?

They wiped it off. After the party they wiped it off. The food we made was not enough, although it was a lot. There were other dishes by other people, but everybody preferred eating hummus, beans and fatta.

How many kilos of hummus do you make a day?

From 6 to 7 kilos of hummus a day. But not on Saturday and Sundays. On Saturday and Sundays it's more like 12 or 15 kilos. And it all gets sold.

Do you have a secret recipe?

Not at all. We only get best quality ingredients. But there's no secret recipe.

And the spirit?

And the spirit. We really don't have any secret ingredient. But boiling and cooking over low heat is a skilful technique. Not anyone can do it right.

Are there other places like this left in Lebanon? Or is it declining?

The old places are no longer there. There are a huge number of hummus and beans stores everywhere. A lot of people have such stores. But the old ones are very few. There's Marooj. Marooj's store was close to ours downtown. There was another one called Abu Afeef, a very old store. Its owner is dead now. If no one of the owner's children or relatives continues in the same career, it's gone. They are very few now. There are millions of bean sellers, but the old and well known ones are no longer there.

How important is hummus to Lebanese culture?

Hummus on the dining table is as important as olives, whether in homes or in restaurants. No matter what you order at a restaurant, you always order olives and hummus, then tabbouli and other appetizers, because it is considered an appetizer.

Can you imagine a day when an Israeli, a Palestinian and a Lebanese would sit together to eat from the same hummus plate?

That would be our ultimate wish - peoples reconciling and peace prevailing again in this country. Because as long as there is a Palestinian out of his country, and as long as there are wars, peoples would never agree. The most important thing to us is that everyone would sit at the same table and that peace would reign.

The film we're filming now is called "Make hummus, not war".

What a lovely title! It's really great. That's exactly what we need, to make hummus, not war. But make sure you tell them to send us a copy of the film. We always receive a copy from interviews that are recorded with us.

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