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Falafel rivalry pits brother against brother

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Two Lebanese brothers make their sandwiches with falafel, parsley, radish, tomato and tarator, a tahini sauce, all wrapped in thin pita bread. Fuad Sahyoun and his older brother Zuheir Sahyoun run competing falafel shops next door to each other on Damascus Street in Beirut, but their business rivalry is nothing compared to their sibling one.

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Brothers Fuad Sahyoun, left, and Zuheir Sahyoun are pictured outside their businesses on Damascus Street in Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 24. The fierce rivals have competing falafel shops next door to each other.

BEIRUT >> “Falafel Sahyoun” reads the awning of one storefront.

“Falafel Sahyoun” reads the awning of the other.

They’re right next to each other. Only a wall separates the two.

And little sets them apart.

Both have bright tube lights, mirrors on the walls, falafel balls bubbling in oil. And on both counters sit stacks of bread, plus shiny steel bowls of radish, parsley and a sauce of pounded sesame, known as tarator.

The menus are even identical.

Regular sandwich.

Sandwich extra.

Falafel dozen.

Small tarator.

Large tarator.

Soft drinks.

Yogurt.

But the rivalry runs deep. It is a rivalry as old as any in this part of the world: Brother against brother, falafel against falafel.

“My brother? I want him to stay away from me,” said Zuheir Sahyoun, the elder of the Falafel Sahyoun brothers, his chef’s shirt open midway to his belly on a steamy afternoon.

“I don’t have a brother anymore,” said Fuad Sahyoun, the younger, next door.

Once, there was only one Falafel Sahyoun. It was established by their father, Mustapha Sahyoun, on Damascus Street, just above downtown.

Falafel was considered a working man’s lunch, and Falafel Sahyoun catered to everyone.

Mounjad al-Sharif was a child then. On school holidays, he and his friends would come for a falafel sandwich, see a movie at the Automatique, and if they had money left, ride the tram home.

Beirut’s long, bitter civil war killed Falafel Sahyoun. The store shut down in 1978, when the fighting got bad, and this part of the city became the front line of a divided city, where rival militias installed their snipers.

The year the shop closed, Mustpaha Sahyoun died. The tram line is long gone, and so too the Automatique.

Falafel Sahyoun reopened in 1992, after the war ended — only to split in two in 2006, when Fuad Sahyoun broke away. He refused to explain why, saying only that it was for his own “peace of mind.”

Zuheir Sahyoun pointed to his brother’s wife.

“Pillow murmuring,” Zuheir grumbled. “His woman.”

“My business hasn’t been affected,” Zuheir quickly added. “I have the same clients. More.”

Zuheir’s shop bears a blue crown as its logo. Fuad’s has a yellow crown.

At lunchtime, people drive up to one or the other. They take away bags of sandwiches, or they scarf them down sitting behind their steering wheels.

Zuheir insisted that his is the original shop, and that he uses his father’s original recipe. He keeps a photo of his father behind the cash register.

“Tell your driver, ‘Sahyoun,’ and he’ll know exactly where to bring you,” he said.

Fuad dismissed the shop next door as “a fossil.”

He hangs a photo of the singer Bryan Adams, eating his falafel sandwich.

Across the street still stands an old office building, hollowed out by the war, its blown-out windows like mouths gaping at Falafel Sahyoun and Falafel Sahyoun.

Al-Sharif, now a documentary filmmaker, still comes regularly, but only to Fuad’s shop. The falafels here are lighter and better for the stomach, he maintains, and worth an extra 500 Lebanese pounds.

That is one difference between the shops. Zuheir’s regular sandwich costs 3,000 Lebanese pounds, equivalent to $2. Fuad’s is 3,500 Lebanese pounds. Fuad’s regular sandwich also has four falafel balls, while Zuheir’s has three.

Would al-Sharif consider trying the other Falafel Sahyoun?

“No. Why to risk?” he asked. He wiped a bit of sauce from the side of his lips and offered a morsel of free advice.

“There are two things in life: When you want to eat — eat well,” he said. “When you want to enjoy — enjoy. Next week, I don’t know. I may be dead.”

Youmna El Zein, visiting from Senegal with her four children, chose Zuheir’s shop. Her Lebanese cousins have told her to come to this Sahyoun, she said.

Samir Simon is less fussy. It’s just falafel, he said.

“This place, that place — it doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I go to whichever one. I don’t know the difference. It’s the same thing.”

The brothers have one thing in common. They are both fond of philosophizing.

“The most important thing in life is for the mind to be at peace,” Fuad mused. “If your mind’s not at peace, there’s no point to anything that you do.”

“Unity makes you stronger,” Zuheir said. When his brother first left, he used to wish they could get back together. “Now I’ve stopped wishing.”

Lately, the fight has taken a bit of a nasty turn.

Fuad has hung on his storefront an enlarged notice from the health department, penalizing Zuheir’s shop for a code violation. It has a red arrow pointing to Zuheir’s shop.

“He plays dirty,” Zuheir said.

What would he do to avenge his brother’s move? Nothing, Zuheir said, pointing his index finger up toward heaven. Then he took a drag from his cigarette.

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