We were standing under a large tent, which offered protection from the baking sun. A row of long tables occupied most of the space, but there was ample room for a dance floor.
A long line of men and women snaked through the tent, swaying to melodic Middle Eastern music, piped in through enormous loud speakers.
The dancers were from different age groups, and they were practiced. You got the sense the older folks learned how to do this intricate dance, in which they took a couple of steps and then stomped one foot, from their parents.
Nowadays, it's unusual to see teenagers dancing with older people, and enjoying it. This was a dance that bridged the generations.
Those who weren't swirling to the haunting music were occupied with another activity. They were smoking hookahs, which are tall water pipes. It was a strange sight, because it wasn't just the old men enjoying an after-dinner smoke. Teenagers and attractive young women also rented these pipes from a vendor working inside the tent.
Outside the tent, a friendly camel had parked and people were petting him and taking pictures.
Much of what I'm describing sounds as if it took place in a far-off land, surrounded by desert. However, everything happened in the United States.
Cities and towns with large Lebanese-American communities often hold summer festivals called Mahrajans. Visiting one is a way to immerse yourself in a foreign culture, without traveling too far from your house.
Where the Lebanese Settled
The United States is home to a large number of people of Lebanese descent. They started coming here in the latter half of the 19th century. By one estimate, there are now 3.3 million Lebanese-Americans.
The Eastern part of the country is where a lot of them settled, in places such as New York City, New Jersey, Boston and Fall River, Massachusetts. They also put down roots in the Midwest and in California and other Western states.
Today, most major cities in America have Lebanese communities. So you probably won't have to drive too far to find a summer Mahrajan. If you're looking for one of these summer fests, an Internet search will tell you where they are held. Simply "Google" the words “Lebanese Festival.”
Mahrajans are often sponsored by individual Eastern-Rite Catholic churches with a Lebanese flock. These churches have their own distinct liturgy, but are in communion with Rome.
The festival we attended was held in mid-August to coincide the the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is to observe the Catholic belief that Mary, the Mother of God, was taken up, body and soul, into Heaven.
Although this is not Biblical, the Assumption is a pious Catholic tradition, as our religion is based not only on Scripture, but oral tradition, as well as the 2,000-year deposit of faith.
If You Visit a Mahrajan
Feast days are big occasions in the Catholic Church. As the name implies, it's a day of fun, food and festivity.
If you visit a Mahrajan, you'll likely observe Middle Eastern hospitality. Strangers are more than welcome at these events, and the sponsors are more than happy to share their culture with you.
There will be loud Arabic music and, most likely, dancing into the wee hours of the morning. But one of the best parts about a Mahrajan is the food.
Our family loves ethnic cooking and visiting a local Middle Eastern festival was a treat. We were traveling out of town and looking for a restaurant when we spotted signs advertising the Mahrajan, which we considered a very lucky find.
After watching the dancers, we decided to eat. The offerings included baked kibbee, a dish made with ground meat and spices, and coated with wheat kernels and pine nuts. It might not sound very appetizing, but it's delicious.
Just as good were the stuffed grape leaves. I had about five of them, but I easily could have eaten double that amount. Other Middle Eastern favorites included rice pilaf, tabouleh and meat kabobs.
The food was much better than we would have found in a restaurant, because it was home cooked and very authentic. We got the sense we were eating recipes that had been in the family for generations.
It was touching watching multiple generations serving the food. A friendly teenager rung up our order and was able to process our payment with our credit card.
“The food was great,” said one of the members of our party. My son wasn't crazy about the grape leaves, but he liked everything else.
This was our second Mahrajan. My husband and I had attended another, years earlier, before our children were born. Both times, we felt as if we had traveled thousands of miles away, to a land of camels and deserts.
Inside a Middle Eastern Church
Another highlight of this festival was the church tour. The inside of the parish looked different from the typical Roman Catholic church. Most striking were the many Byzantine-style icons hanging on the walls and painted on the ceiling.
These are highly stylized pictures of the angels and saints, as well as Christ and His mother. They have a distinct style, with elongated fingers and facial features.
The icons are meant to depict people who are now in Heaven, and this is why they don't look quite like the folks living here on earth. Because Eastern-Rite Catholics have slightly different traditions, you see icons, instead of statues, inside of their churches.