Tough times for Lebanon’s biggest optimist

Anthony Rahayel’s work is guided by a simple premise he has repeated like a mantra in hundreds of online videos over the years: “Lebanon is the most beautiful country in the world.”

It was a brave assertion even before Lebanon’s terrible downfall over the past year or so.

For viewers in the large Lebanese diaspora, his daily excursions across the country stir a deep yearning for the tastes and smells of home – a filtered, more perfect version home they can live vicariously through him.

Rahayel embodies and promotes certain cliches about Lebanese – including their famed resilience in overcoming seemingly insurmountable crises and their creative, entrepreneurial spirit.

He is a man intent on cleaning Lebanon’s image, and generally making it more livable. He is not a rebel, nor even mildly interested in politics.

Still, life in his country has become so harsh that his telling of the story of Lebanon, “the most beautiful country in the world”, often feels like a critique of how bad things have gotten. Today, it is impossible to appreciate Lebanon’s great food, breathtaking nature, and the storied past of its inhabitants without thinking of the feckless political leaders who threaten the very existence of all of it. With that comes a call to action.

And that makes Rahayel an unlikely protagonist in the fight for Lebanon’s future.

“Why do it? I love it. It’s a mission, it’s a statement, it’s a passion, it’s making Lebanon a better place by spreading positivity,” he says.

His grandfather was a dentist, as was his father, and Rahayel too chose that profession and worked in the field for about 10 years, before taking up his passion for food.

In 2012, he launched No Garlic No Onions, a review blog named after his serious allergy to both vegetables, which happen to be staples of Levantine cuisine. “The idea was fighting corruption – to write honest reviews when everything else was paid for,” he said in an interview.

In 2014, he began filming his reviews and got into the kitchen, shadowing chefs who cooked traditional Lebanese food that most Lebanese had only ever seen made by their mothers or grandmothers.

With a gleaming smile that deepens the dimples on his rounded face, he glorified Lebanese cuisine as the best in the world, proclaimed those who cook it heroes, and said Lebanese should be proud of what their country has to offer.

He did so as the war in neighbouring Syria spilled into Lebanon, with a spate of bombings and successive waves of clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, who were also largely followers of different religious sects and inhabitants of different areas.

As his videos picked up viewership, he launched initiatives that took people from one side of the country to another, usually across lines of political-religious influence, including between Tripoli, a stronghold of support for the Syrian revolution, and Baalbeck, a city whose inhabitants sent hundreds to fight with Hezbollah alongside the regime. Little was said about politics, lots was said about food, and common ground was found, if sometimes tenuously.

In 2016 he travelled through multiple army checkpoints to Lebanon’s remote northeastern town of Aarsal, the outskirts of which were occupied by the armed groups ISIL (ISIS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

“I was wearing a Ferrari Jacket,” Rahayel says with a broad smile. “We stopped at six or seven places and I got on the news that night. They asked me ‘what did you see?’ I said manakesh,” he says, referring to the Levantine flatbread usually topped with local thyme or cheese.

“They asked, ‘no one shooting?’ I said ‘the people are amazing.’ They would pull me to the negative and I’d go positive.”

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