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Lebanese American Festival blends Middle Eastern culture, food and music

If you’ve never experienced authentic Arabic cuisine, your chance is right around the corner.

Dozens of families in the St. Sharbel Maronite Catholic Church congregation have been busy in the kitchen cooking traditional Middle Eastern food and desserts for the past several weeks in preparation for the church’s eighth annual Lebanese American Festival, planned for Oct. 9-11 at the church, 10325 Rancho Destino Road.

“They are doing that for families with so much passion, all prepared from scratch — fresh and delicious delicacies,” said the Rev. Nadim Abou Zeid, who has led the church for the last eight years.

Live Middle Eastern music also is planned, as are folk dance performances from church youths, belly dancing, raffles, carnival rides, and a beer and wine bar.

Ten thousand to 12,000 people typically attend the event, said Juliette Hanache, office manager for the church and co-coordinator for the festival.

“It’s something really authentic,” Hanache said of the food that families are preparing. “This is the real stuff.”

Here’s what’s on the menu: fatayer, a pastry that can be stuffed with spinach, cheese or meat; tabbouleh, a vegetarian, salad-like dish; hummus; falafel; chicken kabob; kibbeh, a fried croquette stuffed with a meat, onion and pine nuts mixture; fresh beef and chicken shawarma, cooked on a spit and served in a pita; vegetarian falafels; and labneh, a creamy spread made from yogurt that is used on a pita with vegetables and herbs.

Dessert is set to include namoura, a spongy semolina cake garnished with almond; ghraybeh, a white butter cookie garnished with pistachio; katayef cream, a small pancake cooked on one side, filled with cream (kashta) and garnished with pistachios and sugar syrup; knafeh, a cheese pastry served hot, topped with breadcrumbs and butter and drizzled with sugar syrup; and baklava, a pastry stuffed with roasted nuts.

Church member Marlene Hayek is among the women planning to make the desserts, working 10 or more hours at a time in the church kitchen over two or three weekends. In fact, Hayek coordinates the effort.

“I started preparing a couple of items, and next week, hopefully, we’re going to start baking,” she said on Sept. 15. “We try to make it as traditional as possible, like the way we buy it at the store in Lebanon.”

Hayek said her whole family gets involved in the dessert preparations, much like those preparing the food and helping set up the property for the event.

Organizers said the festival exposes residents to authentic Middle Eastern culture and also helps natives of that region get a taste of home, particularly those who avoid traveling there due to the political turmoil.

“This festival is a cultural and family festival that brings the best food, homemade, to people to experience the special flavor of the Middle East,” Zeid said. “It shows the beautiful face of the Middle East — hospitality, sharing and caring, not what you see today on bad news.”

Proceeds from the event are scheduled to help the church build a larger community center on its property. The center offers religious classes and lessons on the Arabic language and serves as a safe haven for children who belong to the church, Zeid said.

Hanache said about 110 children are involved with the center’s programs, which are outgrowing the space. She said the classes there help Middle Eastern youths preserve their culture.

“These kids were born here, so they don’t know any word of Arabic,” she said. “Their parents are Middle Eastern; they’re (the children) born here.”

Festival hours are scheduled from 4 to 11 p.m. Oct. 9, 2 to 11 p.m. Oct. 10 and noon to 8 p.m. Oct. 11. Admission is $3 or free for children 10 or younger and for active-duty military personnel and their immediate families.

Visit lebaneseamericanfestivallv.org. For more information on the church, visit stsharbellasvegas.org.

— To reach Henderson View reporter Cassandra Keenan, email ckeenan@viewnews.com or call 702-383-0278. Find her on Twitter: @CassandraKNews.

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