In Qaa, a small village in Northern Lebanon, when they are not giving French lessons to the children of CLAC, the volunteers take part in agricultural work with the inhabitants. Today we find them in the eggplant fields, a particularly appreciated vegetable and the staple food for makdous, a traditional dish that is very famous in the Middle East and in some Gulf countries!
It is 6.30 am, the sun is not yet visible in the sky, but the orange light of the early morning is already illuminating the plain, giving the arid mountains a particular hue.
As we leave the centre of the town of Qaa, we admire the landscape of the Bekaa in the early morning, caressed by the still fresh night breeze. After 15 minutes of walking, we find a small plot of land at the end of a path where Georges and his wife, the owners of the eggplant field, are waiting for us. We are there to help them harvest this vegetable, the basis of makdous, the culinary specialty of Qaa.
A few moments after our arrival, the sound of a small motorbike announces the arrival of Nimr, an inhabitant of Qaa, a Syrian refugee with whom we had already shared coffee. According to local custom, he is accompanied on the same saddle by his wife Marie and his little daughter Mariam, aged 8. Very proud of his only vehicle, he doesn't fail to greet us with a little honk. The little family exclaims with a big smile: "Marhaba, kifkoun?" (Hello, how are you?).
Everyone greets each other warmly, as usual, and after brief explanations, they invite us to follow them to start work.
We are quickly surprised by the small size of the plot: no more than 2000m², but here everything is done by hand. Oil is expensive and not everyone has a tractor. From planting to ploughing, without modern equipment, the farm must remain manageable for tillage by hand, on human scale.
Under Nimr's wise and benevolent supervision, with a bucket in hand, we conscientiously inspect each plant, choosing the largest eggplants. They must not be too small and must have a purple colour which tells us they are ripe. Eggplants sometimes hide under the leaves and we need the expertise of our host to choose them well and not to forget any. Little by little, we get the hang of it. As we progress, the sun warms us up and tells us that the day will be hot.
The buckets quickly fill up and we are able to fill, with Mariam's help, large bags. We carry them to the farm. It takes us about an hour to harvest the whole plot. A quick break allows us to contemplate the seven seven big bags generously filled.
I understand from Nimr's explanation that the harvest is not quite what he expected. The eggplants are smaller than in previous years. No time to feel sorry for ourselves, we load the bags into the pick-up and head for the farm. On the scales, the morning's harvest amounts to 170kg.
Georges' wife asks us to put aside the biggest ones, they will be used to make makdous. In this recipe, the eggplants are stuffed with nuts and peppers and then preserved in olive oil for several months.
It is a poor man's food here in Qaa and the staple diet of many households during the winter months. Unfortunately, as the price of nuts and oil is getting higher and higher, it is becoming difficult for some families to afford them and to prepare makdous.
Once weighed, the eggplants are then divided between the three families who live from this small production. We carry the bags to the terrace of the house and pour the fruits of our harvest onto them.
Sitting in a circle, we start to remove the stems. Our work is done while we chat and sip a strong Lebanese coffee! Despite the difficulty of the daily work, everyone is in a cheerful mood.
After an hour's work, the topping is finished, so, we sit on the terrace and share breakfast with the children (who have recently woken up), talking about everything and anything thanks to our rudimentary Lebanese. They all make a great effort to understand our mix of French, Arabic and English and our hand gestures. We are very touched by their generosity, because despite their poverty and difficulties, this family gives without expecting anything in return.
If the day is just beginning, our mission here is coming to an end and we head back home, a jar of the famous makdous under our arm.