Exiled to Israel, Lebanese brewer keeps up spirits

Thu Aug 6, 2009 11:08am EDT
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By Dan Williams

GOREN, Israel (Reuters Life!) - At a trim distillery within sight of the fortified border with his native Lebanon, Elias K. brings a taste of home to exile.

Arak, the syrupy yet acrid Lebanese liquor based on grape alcohol and stewed aniseed, drips off handmade, gas-fired copper alembics. The spirit goes into crenellated or jug-shaped bottles that have the classic look of the souk.

But alongside the Arabic on the labels are English and Hebrew, as well as rabbinical seals certifying the drink as kosher. This arak, Al-Namroud, has an unusual prime market: Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

Elias, a Christian veteran of the South Lebanese Army (SLA), a now-defunct Israeli-allied militia, relishes the twist.

"We used to be soldiers for Israel. Now that we're not serving in a war, I wanted to bring something else from the people of Lebanon to the state of Israel," he said.

The SLA collapsed when Israel ended its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, under fire from Iranian-backed Hezbollah and other Shi'ite Muslim guerrillas. Around 700 militiamen and their families were taken in by the Jewish state.

Some of the exiles moved abroad. A few went back to Lebanon, braving treason verdicts against them in military courts. Those who stayed, while shunned by Israel's Arab minority, find their assimilation eased by state subsidies and military pensions.

Though the 52-year-old Elias declines to publish his surname for fear of his SLA records surfacing -- Israel fought a costly war with Hezbollah in 2006 and has no diplomatic ties with Lebanon -- his provenance is good for business.   Continued...

<p>Elias K., a Christian veteran of the South Lebanese Army (SLA), the now-defunct Israeli-allied militia, poses in his distillery in Moshav Goren just south of the Israel-Lebanon border August 3, 2009. REUTERS/Baz Ratner</p>