Elias Najib Karam 1931-2011


Abou Shanab with a glass of his finest arak (photo Norbert Schiller)

Adapted from Wines of Lebanon (Saqi 2005)

Kfaraqab, North Metn Picture if you will a village butcher’s in Mount Lebanon. It is 8:00 am on a November morning. A crisp chill rushes into the shop whenever an early customer enters. The butcher in his bloodstained apron, who has been up since 4 am, is standing at his counter, finishing a breakfast of raw, puréed mince meat, or kibbe nayeh, blended with herbs and covered with olive oil. On a side dish sit the last chunks of raw liver and a few pieces of fat. He makes a scoop with the bread and rounds up the last bit of meat, fat and oil, washing it down with a glass of arak. He wipes his hands on his apron and, newly refreshed, resumes his work.

Arak, a grape-based aniseed liqueur, is Lebanon’s national drink and the sine qua non with which to eat Lebanese mezze. Whisky may have brought the arak market to its knees in recent years, but arak is still the taste of Lebanon and the drink of the common man, who will still use it to fortify himself for the day’s work.

Everyone thinks theirs is best, including Elias Najeeb Karam, or Abou Shanab, as he is known in his village of Zabbougha in the North Metn, on account of his magnificent moustache.

‘Nearly everyone has a still in the area,’ explains Abou Shanab, who, at seventy-one, would argue that he knows his way around a glass of home-made arak, or arak baladi to give its more pastoral soubriquet.

October and November are traditionally the months when arak baladi is made. The law technically prohibits the home distiller from owning a still without a permit, but in the absence of a clampdown, which would be unprecedented, the household still – or kerki – will bubble away as it has done for centuries.

The process is relatively simple. If you have a still, several big plastic barrels and a densitometer to test for alcoholic content, then all you need is a lot of grapes, aniseed and water.

The arak is distilled three times or mtalat, to make it the purest as well as the strongest type of arak one can drink. The commercial brands will argue that without modern equipment, it is difficult to control the elimination of methanol and unhealthy oils in the first distillation process. They have petitioned the government to clamp down on the moonshiners, claiming that the cottage industry is ruining the reputation of the nation’s favourite tipple.

The aniseed is added during the second distillation and once again in the final stage, when two kilos are added to every twenty litres. For Abou Shanab, the whole process takes three days. He makes a hundred litres each season. For this he needs four hundred kilos of grapes for which he pays around LL200,000 and twenty kilos of aniseed at LL100,000. The sixty litres of bottled water cost LL50,000 and a ton of firewood for his still costs LL300,000.

Factoring in his time and effort, he believes that it costs him LL825,000 to make his hundred litres, which boils down to just over LL8,000 per litre. The market rate for baladi mtalat is LL12,000, but Abou Shanab is at pains to point out that he never sells what he makes. ‘That would be illegal,’ he says with just the slightest of twinkles in his eye.

But why does he do it? Why doesn’t he just go to the shops and buy it off the shelves? ‘You don’t know what is put in the other stuff,’ warns Abou Shanab, no doubt referring to the commercial brands. ‘I want to know what I’m drinking.’

He pours two glasses of last year’s produce from an old whisky bottle. At 8 am, it has a kick like an angry mule. But Abou Shanab is keen to extol the virtues of his elixir. ‘Have another taste. It’s cleaner than the stuff you buy in the shop and it doesn’t give you a hangover.’

This might be because it might just kill you first. Abou Shanab laughs. ‘Of course if you drink too much, it’s bad for you. Ma byeswa.’ So how much of his own arak does he drink? ‘A bottle a day,’ he replies. There is silence before he bursts out laughing. ‘I’m joking. Do you want me to kill myself?’


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