Red, green, and white balloons marked the site of the 16th annual Touch of Lebanon Festival at St. Maron Catholic Church. Saint Maron Church is a tan stone structure on University Avenue NE just south of Broadway Street, and Sept. 29-30 it hosted a festival to celebrate the parish’s Lebanese roots.
The church opens up on Cedars Hall, where large tables are set up, and in the center of the room groups of people sit around eating and talking. On one side of the hall is a silent auction with people perusing the merchandise. On the other side is a church bazaar with Lebanese accents.
Among grills and old hardcover books are tables of red and white t-shirts, flags, umbrellas, and oven mits, all with a green cedar in the center. Symbolizing immortality and steadiness, the cedar is the national symbol of Lebanon.
The crowd includes people dressed in glittering gold vests, purple head wraps, and sashes tied in wide knots. On the other end of Cedar Hall, the parking lot is closed off and booths are set up along the perimeter. On the far side a group of kids plays basketball near games of chance. Between those booths and the church is a row of tents giving off smoke and a smell of Middle Eastern food.
To avoid the rain, customers stay close to the tables and order shish kebabs, gyros, and chicken breasts with garlic. The most popular item is the five-ticket falafel sandwich. Tabouli salads and specialty breads are also popular.
Carmen works at the booth where they are making both sajh and zatar bread. She serves up a circle of zatar which is covered in sesame seeds and olive oil before it’s folded over itself twice and served. Next to her the man serving zlabye (fried dough) is into the music, singing along as he dances. A customer pauses to think about the dough and the man smiles and says, “Buy one, it was Jesus’ favorite food.”
Abouna sharbel Maroun, the pastor at St. Maron, is working at the French fry stand. Born near Beirut, he lived in Lebanon for his first 21 years before coming to the United States. He has been at St. Maron for 18 years. In January, he was elevated to the rank of Monsignor.
He says the Lebanese community has been in Minnesota since 1880 and some of his parishioners are fifth generation. St. Maron Church has been here for 104 years and serves between 400 and 500 households from all over the Twin Cities. While the majority are from Lebanon, the parishioners hail from all over the Middle East, including Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.
Many still have relatives there; Maroun has two sisters, four aunts, an uncle, and many cousins in Lebanon. The community follows Lebanese politics and current events, and last summer when Israel invaded the country, 76 members of the parish were stranded there. He said everyone made it home safely.
Elections are to be held next month in Lebanon, and Maroun said most Lebanese people want long-term sovereignty for the nation. “Lebanon has been the same country for 5,000 years, it is mentioned 82 times in the Old Testament,” he said, and he hopes whoever is elected in November will help “Lebanon once again be independent of everyone.”
Back under the food tents in the rainy parking lot, Maroun takes the basket out of the deep fryer and gives it a few shakes. He pours the fries into a tray where he covers them in a red-orange spice, “This is my special recipe, from Lebanon.” He gives them one last shake to spread the topping.
Maroun said he sees the weekend as a success, “Both days it’s been raining and we’ve been busy consecutively, people come to enjoy the Lebanese food, and the Lebanese music, and of course the hospitality.”
The music continues, and a young man with gelled hair and a soccer sweatshirt starts to dance. The tables are circled with friends and relatives eating and clapping along to the music. A girl struggles as the white sauce spills out of her falafel sandwich. Some men smoke cigars while others laugh and join in with the singing. The young man continues to dance alone in the rain when a young woman joins him. She is wearing a long black skirt that echoes her hair.
Then the weather makes a sudden change and rain pours down on the roof of the tent, and the crowd cheers. Instead of the original two dancers coming in from the storm, three more run out from the tent to join them. The music keeps playing and the five dance together in the downpour.