BEIRUT – Scattering spinach and hot peppers on soft flatbread in the Lebanese capital, Abu Shadi, 54, bemoans better times before the economic crisis when all Lebanese could afford his simple meals.
The veteran baker is famous for his rendition of Lebanon’s manousheh, a circle of freshly baked dough sprinkled with anything from thyme to meat, then folded in half and rolled in foil to go.
But Lebanon’s worst financial crisis in decades has driven prices up, and Abu Shadi says many of his three-decade-old customers can’t afford even this modest pastry.
“Since I started working in this oven in 1987, it has been nothing but kindness and blessings. But today it’s all gone, ”he said.
On the phone, he warmly receives a flood of orders.
He jokes with a customer while he waits for his breakfast and, from inside his shop, waves to an acquaintance as they drive by in their car.
Looking up from time to time to the flat breads he is filling, he greets old and young as he passes.
He hums loudly, stopping only to congratulate an old lady on her blonde hairstyle.
But nowadays Abu Shadi puts out the fire in his oven once he has cooked enough manaeesh (plural form of manousheh) to save gas.
Gone are the days when he would turn the oven on at 8 a.m. and not turn it off until 3 p.m.
“The manousheh is both a father and a mother for the Lebanese people. It is food for the rich and the poor, ”he said.
“Unfortunately, at the moment the poor can no longer afford to eat it,” he said.
Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs or much of their income in the financial crisis, which caused the Lebanese currency to lose more than 85% of its value.
A manousheh “used to cost between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds (0.66 to 1 dollar), but it now costs 5,000”.
The new price is less than $ 0.50 at the black market rate for the lucky few with access to dollars, but most Lebanese earn wages in local currency – and consider that up to five times the normal price.
The baker says that for three decades, customers flocked on weekends, ordering up to seven or eight manaeesh to take away for a traditional family breakfast.
But in the last few months, these customers have completely stopped coming.
“The manaeesh are just for the better off,” he said.
“Anyone who earns 30,000 or 40,000 pounds a day will not spend 5,000 pounds on a thyme manousheh. They have other expenses.
But Abu Shadi was forced to increase his prices to cover the rising cost of supplies, from flour and cheese to the paper in which he wraps the manousheh.
“We used to live a cushy life, but the living conditions of the people have really collapsed,” he said.
“We’ve never seen anything like it.”
But one customer, Mahmoud, says he will continue to buy the bread he has grown to love, “regardless of the price.”
“Whoever is used to Abu Shadi’s manaeesh cannot replace it,” he said, between bites of a cheese and meat filled.
Abu Shadi was helped by the fact that his clients keep coming back.
But he says he didn’t have to shut down like the other little bakers since he does the job on his own.
“After all this time and effort, I keep going only because I am working for myself,” he said.
“The money that others pay their staff, I continue to live on… I only have my hands and God.”
The Lebanese crisis deprives retirees of cash cushions.