Eating a man’oushe during recess every day comprised nothing more than engaging in a monotonous routine that satiated his hunger. It also afforded him a good excuse not to talk while pretending to socialize with the rest of his classmates. Wissam’s daily ritual consisted of spending 1,500 Lebanese Pounds at the school cafeteria (a small kiosk, really), where he had to unleash his WWE skills in order not to come out empty-handed.
The process was more akin to a Herculean feat. Daily, the manager of the cafeteria stocked up on a fixed amount of edibles. He was always basing his analysis on a whimsical assumption that probably depended by and large on his mood when he woke up every morning.
The employees would unflinchingly inform latecomers and those who couldn’t make their way through to the front of the line that no items were left except for a couple of boring snacks no one else had wanted.
To come out victorious entailed devising meticulous strategies to be amongst the first arrivers to the kiosk. Some of the maneuvers included asking for permission to go to the restroom just five minutes before the class session ended, or faking a stomach ache to be allowed to leave to buy something to eat. The latter usually prompted the teacher to urge the student also to accompany their food with the quintessential concoction that everyone seemed to believe could cure any ache one was suffering from: tea.
Going back to the man’oushe, it is a Lebanese pastry similar to pizza, served for any meal during the day. However, it is more common for breakfast or lunch, usually topped with cheese, thyme, minced meat, or keshek (a Lebanese dairy-based product), and a variety of other combinations. The smell of this tasty freshly baked dough can trigger an array of senses, depending on the topping.
The melting sweetened Akkaoui white cheese on top of the gently rising dough in an arched brick oven exudes a smell, unlike any other aroma. A mosaic of scents can waft out from the oven to your nostrils uninvited, making its way to the pandora box of the mind where all your memories are stored.
Despite having a man’oushe frequently at school, Wissam seldom went down memory lane. Not so much because of the commotion he had to go through to secure himself a tasty man’oushe, as much as because this staple of Lebanese breakfast was not baked right there in front of him.
Wissam noticed that being present during the ritual of baking was as crucial as indulging his palate with an exquisite dance of the soft dough and the mix of heavenly thyme, cheese, or keshek.
However, he couldn’t explain the reason behind this gut feeling. It wasn’t something that he could articulate. Nor was he sure that others would understand what he meant either. So he spent his days pondering about the renewed sense of awe and inspiration he experienced every time he frequented a bakery but kept his thoughts to himself. He looked forward to it and impatiently waited until the next time his parents decided to have mana’ish for breakfast, generally on weekends.
Parents can be quite capricious, though, at some point weeks passed by without having any baked goods cravings. To that effect, Wissam endeavored to set out a plan to subtly plant the man’oushe seed in his parents’ minds so they would crave it more often, alas to no noticeable success.
He couldn’t tell what exactly about the trip to and from the bakery that evoked such ineffable visceral feelings. It was a mundane ten minutes walk uphill, where nothing much happened. In a suburban setting, on an early Sunday morning, you could hear the chirping of birds singing to the melodies of occasional cars passing by, and dancing to the rhythm of a handful of exercising sports junkies seeking to breathe in some fresh air. But that was pretty much it. Nothing fancy.
The stillness and the slow start of the weekends made it possible for Wissam to adjust back to a slower tempo to balance out the frenetic ebb and flow of his quotidian weekday routine.
Nothing even compared to the joy Wissam experienced when he was the first customer to arrive at the bakery. The noise of the dough mixer could be heard outside within a substantial radius from the place. It was like music to his ears that acted as a warmup session before he got his hands dirty.
The bakery was a place where people socialized and gossiped. Time stopped there, and everyone was friendly with the rest. Wissam would greet the owner, make small talk, explain to him why he was fed up with school, and what he thought about the game of the night before. The owner of the bakery, Abu Tarek, engaged him in a fun discussion as he cut the dough into pieces, sheeted it and placed the pieces on a long, rectangular, well-floured wooden board.
Wissam would, later on, zone out entirely as he prepared the mana’ish gently adding the thyme mix, or Akkaoui cheese his mom had prepared, spreading them over the dough, and dimpling it with love to make it ready to enter the oven. During this time, he would be lost to a flood of ideas that swamped his mind, things like what he wanted to become in the future, where he would be living, and the kind of lifestyle he would like to have. Little did he know that all this did not matter, a realization that would dawn on him years later.
The cracking sound the wooden board made as the baker slid the dough into the oven never ceased to fill Wissam with hope. Expectantly, it seemed to him only necessary that the sequence following the placement of the dough in the oven would be the emanation of a mixture of fragrances that would levitate him above the ground and would take him to much better places.
On his way back, carrying a tray full of freshly baked man’oushes, Wissam used to stop at a fork in the road that overlooked the sea. He often considered taking a turn and not going back, but running away with a man’oushe was not a very smart idea.
Fifteen years later, when his savings had been squandered, inflation was eating away the flesh of the people, and a major economic crisis hit the country, he came back to the same spot. The bakery was closed, the birds were gone, his bank savings were no more. All he was left with was the distinct memories of the smell of a freshly baked man’oushe.