Thom, ah-ee-la and mahrah for all

Lebanese festival offers food, family and fun

By Tammy Newsom

Photo: Will Thomas grills Kafta and Danny Slilaty grills chicken for Shawarma sandwiches at the 2013 Lebanese Festival; photo: Jim Zaidain

Are you ready for some Lebanese cheer?

Then much Thom! Ah-ee-la! Mahrah! for you.

Thom! Ah-ee-la! Mahrah! (which means, food!, family!, fun! in Arabic) can be expected at the 21st Annual Greater Dayton Lebanese Festival, held this weekend on the grounds of the St. Ignatius of Antioch Maronite Catholic Church.

Whether or not you are at all familiar with the diverse and exotic foods, spirits and traditions imported from the Middle East, the Lebanese Festival is a prime opportunity to sample a range of traditional cuisine, music and memorabilia without leaving town.

“There is a full menu this year, which has been cultivated over centuries of authentic hand-made Lebanese foods,” Jim Zaidain, long-time church elder and festival committee member since 1993, said. “Kibbeh, kafta, marinated garlic chicken, falafel, beef and chicken shawarma (“Lebanese gyro”), tabouli salad, fatoosh salad (Middle-Eastern bread salad), stuffed grape leaves, hummus dip, homemade Middle-Eastern mountain bread with zhata seasoning; and fresh delicious Lebanese pastries.”

All the food is prepared fresh and without the use of dairy or mayonnaise. “The Lebanese versions of baklava and versions of Lebanese food are made to be stored without refrigeration because people in ancient times didn’t have refrigeration,” Zaidain explained. “All cuisine is made from scratch from the church kitchen. Not bought frozen.”

Church Elder Trish Zennie, whose father-in-law was one of the founding members of the Dayton Convention Center’s annual A World Affair, runs the kitchen during the festival’s food preparation and service. “Many of the 60-or-so families from the St. Ignatius parish either have come directly from Middle-Eastern countries such as Jordan, Syria and Iraq, or have family and friends originating from the region,” Zennie said. Thus ensured, the menu is spot-on, capable and authentic.

Church members will travel once a year to the Middle East to bring back memorabilia: key chains, gifts, religious paraphernalia and jewelry boxes.

“Nobody comes back from the Holy Lands empty-handed,” Zaidain said. “Families of parishioners travel to the Middle East throughout the summer to buy items in Beirut and return with a briefcase full of merchandise to sell here at the festival.”

Popular items this year are bamboo trees and lanterns; sunset candles and also hukas, or hip-scarves, according to Zaidain. He recommended checking out the vendor’s booth, called Sippi (“Grandma’s kitchen” in Arabic), which is selling ladies’ and children’s caps, jewelry and T-shirts. Complementary to the food and souvenirs, a mix of traditional and American music and dancing will be provided by accomplished acts such as the St. Ignatius Debbke Troupe, performing traditional line dances, and the belly dancing troupe, Al Hambra, led by the incomparable Conchi Mabson. Other regional dance troupes, including Raks Devi and Egyptian Breeze will perform.

A local American band, called This Side Up, will appear this Friday from 9–11 p.m. “The plan is for guests to enjoy continuous musical performances from opening ceremonies to closing,” Zaidain said.

Zaidain was especially excited to book Al Hambra, a Lebanese solo troupe, as part of traditional Lebanese dance.

“Solo dancing is like belly dancing, but very family oriented,” he said. Although other traditional Lebanese acts are on hand to provide entertainment throughout the festival, Conchi’s group is the main headliner. “Conchi’s belly dancing shows are strict on how to perform and how to dress,” Zaidain said. “Al Hambra is so talented, but sadly, not given much media attention. Belly dancing is big in Lebanon, where they have numerous belly dance competitions.”

Conchi’s husband, Phil, is the resident deejay and emcee. Amusement park rides and games are also available at the festival and are suitable for guests of all ages.

“The most important thing for Americans to realize is there are good people from the Middle East and they have a good time like everybody else,” Zennie said. “These people believe in God. They’re not terrorists.” Among the church’s 60 families are an equal number of people emerging from Jordan, Syria and Iraq. “There is a mixture of Middle Eastern nationalities with family connections,” Zennie said. “The church is open to all people here, and abroad.”

Worship services are conducted by St. Ignatius Pastor Monsignor Ignace Sadek, and are held twice on Sunday. The 10 a.m. mass is taught in English and the noon mass is in English, Arabic and Aramaic-Syric – the original language spoken by Christ.

Zennie said the Lebanese Festival was started to not only raise money for St. Ignatius Church, but to introduce Middle Eastern culture to the Miami Valley, as begun by The World Affair.

The Dayton Lebanese Festival will take place Friday-Sunday, Aug. 22-24 at St. Ignatius of Antioch Maronite Catholic Church, 5915 Springboro Pike (State Route 741). Admission and onsite parking are free. Overflow parking is across the street at Meijer. Hours of operation are Friday, 6–11 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; and Sunday 10 a.m.–7 p.m. For more information, please call 937.428.0372 or visit thelebanesefestival.com. 

Reach DCP freelance writer Tammy Newsom at TammyNewsom@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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