The Story of Tanios-kishk
(from Amin Maalouf's The Rock of Tanios, 1993;
translated by Dorothy S. Blair)
...And when Tanios let him [Shallita, the village idiot] go, hurling him violently to the ground, he was heard to shout, in a voice suddenly intelligible, "Tanios-kishk! Tanios-kishk! Tanios-kishk! while banging his right palm with his left fist as a sign of revenge.
Revenge, it certainly was. Which could be read very clearly in the eyes of all those standing around Tanios, even more than in his own. some of the urchins had begun to laugh, but immediately thought better of it when they noticed the general consternation. Lamia's son took a little time to understand the name he had just been called. The elements of the terrible charade fitted together in his mind only slowly, one after the other.
The word kishk was never meant to be used as a nickname; it refers to a sort of thick, bitter soup whose basic ingredients are curdled milk and corn. It is one of the oldest and greatest culinary achievements still extant and is still prepared in Kfaryabda [Lebanon] in the same way as a hundred years, a thousand years, seven thousand years ago. The monk Elias refers to it at length in his Chronicle, in the chapter on local customs, detailing the way in which the corn is first ground, then left for several days in huge earthenware pans to "drink up" the milk. "In this manner a paste is obtained, called green kishk, that the children adore, and which is spread on a tanned sheepskin and left to dry on the terraces; then the women crumble it in their hands before sieving it to obtain a whitish powder which is kept in linen sacks throughout the winter..." Then a few ladlefuls only have to be mixed with boiling water to make the soup.
The taste may seems strange to the uninitiated, but to a child of the Mountains, no food is better to help withstand the rigours of winter. The kishk has long been the normal fare for a village meal.
As far as the Sheikh was concerned, he had without doubt the means of eating other things than this poor man's nourishment, but from preference, and perhaps also out of political acumen, he made a veritable cult of kishk, proclaiming ceaselessly that it was the king of foods and comparing in front of his guests the different ways of preparing it. It vied with moustaches as his favourite subject of conversation.
The first thing Tanios remembered, on hearing Shallita calling him by that name, was a banquet which had taken place two weeks previously, in the course of which the Sheikh had announced to all and sundry that no woman in the whole village could make kishk as perfectly as Lamia; she herself was not present at the banquet, but her son was, as well as Gerios, to whom he had turned on hearing these words, to see if he felt as proud as he did himself. Well, no! Gerios had seemed appalled rather, keeping his eyes down and turning quite pale. Tanios had put his reaction down to courtesy. Was it not correct to appear embarrassed in the face of praise from the Master?
But now the boy put a quite different interpretation on Gerios's extreme embarrassment. He knew in fact that it was said of several village boys, and also of some other slightly older people, that the Sheikh was in the habit of "summoning" their mothers to prepare some dish or other, and that these visits were not without reference to the children's births; then the name of the dish in question was bracketed to the individual's name: for example Hanna-ouzi, Boulos-ghamme... These nicknames were extremely insulting, no one would wish to make the slightest reference to them in the presence of the person concerned, and Tanios blushed when they were mentioned in front of him.
Never, in his worst nightmares, could he have suspected that he himself, the darling of the village, could be one of those wretches to whom such a disgrace could be attributed, or that his own mother was one of those women who...