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Americana Popular With Lebanese

August 12, 1999

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ There was a time when American food and fashion were snubbed by picky Lebanese consumers, for whom a Made in France tag was the sole symbol of elegance, quality and good taste.

No more.

At first because the goods were cheaper, but increasingly because U.S. style is acquiring its own chic, Lebanese now are wearing Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.

A growing list of American treats _ Philly cheese steaks, jelly beans, pecan pies, pastrami, bagels and cheesecake _ are tantalizing taste buds used to chateaubriand, crepes suzette and the other French delicacies that have long dominated the former French colony.

Lebanese are scouring their pots with Scotch-Brite pads, staying at hotels managed by U.S. chains, spouting American colloquialisms and even naming their children Jesse, Ryan and Peter instead of Pierre, Jean-Claude and Michel.

Globalization has meant Americanization in many parts of the world. But in Lebanon, where many Lebanese still speak French as a first language and dough is flown in from Paris to make French baguettes, it encountered a hard-to-penetrate French defense.

``Our taste is more delicate and French than screaming like the Americans,″ said Jawdat Arnouk, a 30-year-old architect. ``French culture enriched and refined our lives. American culture is imposing and wants to change us.″

The French stranglehold on the cultural, culinary and consumer life of the Lebanese began after World War I, when the country was put under French mandate, and endured even after Lebanon gained independence in 1943.

Changes began a few years after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war ended. As the country’s postwar reconstruction campaign got under way, returning Lebanese who had fled the war mostly to North America, as well as local and Arab businessmen, began looking for ways to invest in the country.

Because the Lebanese economy was still shaky, investors looked for affordable, good quality alternatives to pricey European products. U.S. products provided the answer, especially after the parity between the U.S. dollar and European currencies dropped.

Patrick Smith, whose Beirut supermarket opened in 1953, began increasing his U.S. imports about three years ago.

``Clients get value for their money,″ said Smith. ``You don’t find the sophistication and finesse of European products, but you’ll find value.″

He noted, though, that if the economy had been booming, his customers wouldn’t have responded so well to U.S. products.

The lifting of a 10-year U.S. ban on travel to Lebanon in 1997 also helped open Lebanon to things American, allowing many U.S. companies to send representatives to aggressively market their products. The ban, which cut U.S. businesses out of Beirut’s postwar building boom, dated to the civil war, when bombings and kidnappings killed more than 260 Americans.

No Americans have been attacked in Lebanon for years. The last American hostage, former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, was freed in 1991.

The first few American ice cream and pizza parlors cropped up along Beirut’s seafront and across from the American University of Beirut, the pioneering U.S. institution in Lebanon, founded in 1866. The newcomers were a hit.

Anthony Alam remembers serving so many customers that there wasn’t time to go home to sleep when he helped open the first Pizza Hut in 1994. He’s now manager of Beirut’s Steak Escape, a Columbus, Ohio-based franchise.

Beirut has two Hard Rock cafes within a mile of each other, as well as franchises of popular U.S. restaurants, such as Washington D.C.’s J. Paul’s and Capital Grille _ both owned by Lebanese restaurateur Bishara Nammour. Nammour brought in an American cook to make J. Paul’s famous Buffalo chicken wings and fried green tomatoes.

Hala Ashkar, part-owner of Tribeca, the first American-style coffee and bagel shop in the Arab world, enlisted a New Jersey food and beverage company to help set up her cozy wood and brick restaurant with its imported stainless steel bagel oven.

Ashkar, who lived in Los Angeles a few years, spent a month at the company’s headquarters learning how to make bagels and how to infuse her coffee shop with the New York atmosphere she was so eager to transport to Lebanon.

Place mats inform the diners of a what a bagel is, helping out those who mistake it for a doughnut. Some customers give it a French accent, calling the roll a BAH-gelle.

Even Francophile Arnouk and his wife, Nicole, grudgingly admitted the bagel they thought was a round baguette tasted good.

And ``it’s got a cute shape,″ Arnouk said.

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