"I don't drink alcohol, but it probably wouldn't hurt to blaze up after this meal, because we have a lot of eating ahead of us."
Fair warning. Yassin "Narcy" Alsalman is a professor, rapper, author, activist, and vegetarian. Today, Montreal's MC renaissance man is taking me to some of his favourite restaurants to discuss hip-hop, politics, and how food brings everything—and everyone—together, no matter how bleak things can get in the Middle East.
"I was brought up to be very open, and my parents told me to make my own choices," he says. "They guided me with their religion and my religion. I pray and believe in a higher force called Allah." And while Islam does impose a number of dietary restrictions on adherents, Narcy's vegetarianism has nothing to do with faith. He defers to more earthly authority when it comes to matters of digestion.
"My doctor told me to eliminate red meat from my diet because I was having digestive issues. I'm like the Arab Larry David: I'm neurotic and I have a bit of a nervous stomach. I also just prefer having a vegetarian approach, I don't want to get fat, and I don't want my fucking insides to rot with meat. But yeah, most Muslims love meat! I mean, they slaughter lambs for good luck!"
That's not to say that Narcy doesn't indulge in the meats on occasion, though it's not really a matter of choice. "I've been telling my mom, 'Look, I'm in my 30s. I don't eat meat!' She makes Iraqi staple dishes like timanjinzar which is rice, ground meat, and cinnamon. She kind of forces it on me, and I can't say no to my mom, I'm a good boy. "
Iraqi food like Narcy's mom's is nearly impossible to find in Montreal, but things are beginning to look up. Like the umbrella term"Chinese food" for pan-Asian restaurants a generation earlier, "Arabic" restaurants are beginning to reflect the richer, more regional demographics of a city that became a beacon for the thousands who fled the Lebanese civil war, and, more recently, the Syrian civil war.
Garage Beirut is one such restaurant, and a perfect first stop for Narcy and I. "This place feels like Beirut to me when I come here. The decor and the quality of the food is the same."
The name "Garage Beirut" is a reference to taxi stations across Lebanon which transport passengers between specific cities. Say, for example, you need a ride from Beirut to Tripoli: you'd just hop in any one of the service cars at Garage Tripoli. Conversely, if you are in Montreal and want to take a metaphorical cab ride to Beirut, then Garage Beirut would be the ideal point of departure.
"I remember when I lived in Beirut during the civil war. A bomb would go off and the first thing you do after that is call your friends who live near the attack like, 'Are you OK? Good. What are your plans for tonight?' We're used to it to the point that we don't care anymore. There's no electricity, too much traffic, but everybody goes out and dances anyways. They've been miserable for a long time, but khalas, fuck it!"
For Naji, who lived in Lebanon during its devastating 15-year civil war, the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War was the breaking point. "I said, 'Fuck it!' I nearly died twice and it's just going to happen again! So I decided to leave. I visited Montreal in July and it was green everywhere and people were dancing on Mont Royal—it was like paradise—and then I came back in January and said, 'Why the fuck do people live here? [laughs].'"
Eventually, Naji would get used to Quebec's brutal cold and open Garage Beirut, despite never having worked in a restaurant in his life. Here, he serves traditional Lebanese mezze inspired by the casual, bustling restaurants of his native city. It's also a city that's a huge source of inspiration for Narcy.
"Beirut is very inspirational, but very fractured," Narcy says. "Last time I was in Beirut was right at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. I was doing a show and a bunch of Syrian rappers had snuck into Lebanon to perform. So I went on stage wearing my jewelry and my clothes and rapping in English, and some guy in the crowd started shouting, 'Sing in Arabic!' So I had the DJ change songs and proceeded to dis that guy in Arabic. I recorded an entire project in Arabic after, mostly because of that guy in Beirut."
Next stop: Al-Baghdadi Pastry to pick up some knafeh for his wife and child and bask in the warm glow of their brick oven. On our way there, we cross the downtown campus of Concordia University, where Narcy now teaches a course on the history of hip-hop.
"I call the area around Concordia 'Little Palestine.' There a lot of young people from all over the Middle East coming to Montreal to study because it's cheap. When you look near Concordia, there's so many student restaurants like Al-Taib, Château Kabab, and then there's Baghdadi. Obviously, I love my country, and there isn't much Iraqi representation in the food game, so I was really curious when it opened. I now come here for teas and desserts."
'Little Palestine', as Narcy calls it, is where he spent his most formative years as a student and activist. "I studied political science at Concordia in 2000. And right after 9/11 was when the racism became more common—there was a lot of tension. There were riots at Concordia when Benjamin Netanyahu came here in 2003. We were protesting his presence and I got tear-gassed. Glass was smashed everywhere and there were snipers on the rooftops. It was crazy."
This infamous period in Concordia's history remains an important influence on Narcy's intellectual evolution. "Compared to McGill, which is more academic, Concordia has more radical and political thinking. It all shaped my music and my understanding of the world. My early material was super political and the course that I teach now is about hip-hop and how it's an art-form that can be a driver for social change."
"'Divide and conquer' definitely worked on the Arabs," Narcy says, referring in part to the Sunni-Shia tensions exacerbated by decades of colonial and Western meddling in the Middle East. "But breaking bread is the best thing you can do with people. I think the best conversations and decisions are made over plates of food. For most people here, I feel like 'Arab food' is a blanket term, but there are pretty big regional differences."
Local and regional tensions sometimes arise in conversations surrounding Middle Eastern food, like whether Aleppo truly is the culinary hub of the Middle East, proper pita-dipping etiquette, or the age-old question of who invented hummus. All of these issues were broached at some point during our day together, though none were evidently settled.
By the time we got to Kaza Maza, there were more pressing matters at hand. Namely, tackling the onslaught of little plates that came rushing out of the kitchen like fried pan-fried cheese, tabouleh, labneh, plenty of hummus, naturally, and kebab bil karaz, the Aleppo classic consisting of minced lamb, pine nuts, and sour black cherries. "This food is my genetic code," Narcy says. "It's like inserting coins into the arcade machine."
Fadi Sakr is the owner of Kaza Maza. Once a theater student and actor, Fadi moved to Montreal from Lebanon in 2003 and decided to open a restaurant despite no experience in the industry. Like Naji at Garage Beirut, his passion for eating was more than enough to compensate for a lack of formal background.
"When I lived in Beirut, there was a resto-bar there that was always full of actors, writers, musicians, and professors," Fadi says. "This was the inspiration for my restaurant." As fate would have it, Narcy, who is all of those things, has become a regular at Fadi's restaurant.
But Fadi doesn't buy into the myth that regional foods are so different. "I think that all of these cuisines of the Middle East are more similar than they are different," he says.
Narcy agrees, and it's something he frequently explores in his music. "Hip-hop is the bridge. Hip-hop bridged my two worlds—the East and the West," he says. And food, like music, is another bridge. Not only between East and West, but between people. Like music, food bypasses the rational mind whose job it is to categorize and label other humans.
"It's almost all we got left," Narcy muses. "What's left of our countries? What's left of Iraq and Syria and Palestine? What's left of those countries? All we really got left is the culture that we can carry along with us, and this is a big part of it," he says as he points to the mountain of food in front of us. "You can get to anybody with food."
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2016.