I was born into a family from Lattakia, a Syrian coastal city. My childhood was blessed with amazing food, inquisitive intellects, music, curiosity and a big dose of social, cultural and religious open-mindedness. The Levant was in rapid development from the mid ‘60’s to the early 70’s fueled by optimism, trade and development funds from the massive oil resources of the Arabian Gulf countries. The new breed of educated Lebanese and Syrian engineers, businessmen and traders created a unique cultural blend of western advances influenced by centuries old traditions and talents.
Sadly this period was stunted by escalating conflicts and tensions with Israel and a civil war in Lebanon that started in ’75 that lasted well into the 80’s. Meanwhile, the newly developed Arabian Gulf countries continued to move at warp speed to construct whole nations from scratch – much of it fueled by Levantine talent, blood, sweat and tears.
We moved to Dubai in ’77 after it was no longer possible to stay in Beirut. The go-getting and welcoming atmosphere in Dubai was contagious and it became a true home. Dubai was a truly diverse environment – all nationalities imaginable working in all fields. The diversity was reflected everywhere and with it came the appreciation of other cultures, as well as getting a keen understanding of the enormous richness and value of the Levantine cultures and way of life. Essentially Dubai provided proof that the culture is exportable, welcome and adaptable to many environments.
I went on to study computer science as an undergrad in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and as a grad in Houston, Texas. I was fortunate to be studying CS at a time of great advances in the field and at the birth of the PC revolution. I went back to the middle east after my university studies.
At the time, there was no real work for my skill set – few companies needed serious programming – so I did some sales and sales support, while I wrote programs on the side for private clients. It was an interesting mix – on the one hand I had huge exposure to all types of people and personalities, and a work schedule that matched theirs (siesta or beach in the afternoon!), on the other I was trying to stay current with technology and make a career out of programming. A client approached me with a task: convert a program for the Mac operating system to support Arabic usage. While I was working on that I was approached by a Microsoft regional exec and eventually hired to do similar work at Microsoft – in Seattle!
Microsoft wanted to make their products work with languages that are written and read from right to left: Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Urdu… While potentially large markets, Microsoft wanted to spend a minimum on R&D until the revenue came in. They looked for an engineer that could do the Arabic adaptation, and then have the other languages be an easy translation.
In 3 years I shipped Arabic/Hebrew DOS, Windows, Word for Windows before going on to work on very different projects at Microsoft.
In summer of ’00, after a fun career at Microsoft, we moved to France to try something family oriented and different. We settled in Paris and had a full dose of joie de vie – it was a fantastic experience, four years of discovery, fun, travel, learning and interesting work.
A prominent feature in most Parisian neighborhoods is a weekly marche – a farmers market that takes place in a designated open area. You can find amazing meat cuts, fish, fruits, veggies, cheeses, wines, baked goods and… mana’eesh. Any marche you go to will have a stall that makes saj (domed grill) mana’eesh and a variety of mezze. Cross the channel to London and Levantine food is virtually a staple – entire high streets lined with mana’eesh, shawarama and varieties of Lebanese and Syrian restaurants. These thrive due to wide appeal to customers in their locales.
My work with a startup took me back to the US in ’06. We had many choices of where to go, but Racha and we wanted to be back in Seattle. It just felt right. It felt like going home. We didn’t think of it as a permanent move back, rather talking about it as an “indefinite” move. The return was a great relief.
Paris society has its cultural constraints – because of the closeness and the density, the Lebanese groups acted Lebanese, Syrians acted Syrian, and the French acted French. There was a lot of mixing of course, but we didn’t feel there were truly hybridized communities. Seattle, like many US cities, offers a fairly big hybrid community, albeit one that doesn’t have too many Levantine cultural elements. We felt a genuine open-mindedness and ability to absorb other culture’s elements proven by how well Seattleites adopted Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures and made them part of the daily lives.
Over the years we’ve expressed our cultures through a variety of ways, but the highest impact by far was when Racha prepared Lebanese, Syrian or Persian food and served at our dinners and parties. Of course the foods are delicious and accessible and she’s an amazing cook, but the main reason has to do with the reception and the way guests are treated the accueil.
The feedback from our friends is that our cultures are welcoming, accommodating, adaptable, progressive and contemporary but more importantly they remember the visceral delicious sensations generated by eating the foods, taking in the smells and sights. There is a direct correlation between a positive visceral stimulus with an unfamiliar context, resulting in this context being familiarized in a very positive way.
This was the “aha” moment for us and the start of the mission – we got excited about the prospect of building a business around these principles and to create the postive visceral stimuli and experiences accessible in the broadest way possible. It was also clear that we hoped to for the mission to be a progressive beacon that the local culture can be proud of.
This was the genus of mamnoon – and a fantastic problem for a geek like me to go work on. I don’t have a culinary background; I am not a foodie or wine connoisseur. I am not a typical sample of the Lebanese or Syrian cultures either, but I am very curious, I am a tinkerer and have a lot of humility to try new things and fail at them and I have no issues calling for help if I need it.
The mamnoon project was a complete collaboration between Racha and me entering into many areas that we have never been before, and like every other project I have been in, mamnoon is a headlong full contact affair – made more intense by the fact that Racha is fully in it as well. This is a new and intense family dynamic. We both bring it home and live it day and night. It has helped us do better for mamnoon in a very natural way, and has added a dimension of authenticity that is unparalleled.
I am talking about mamnoon in very personal way, but what really makes it relevant and vibrant to all of us today is the team that has gelled behind the mission. We are simply blessed to have some of the most talented individuals in the industry believe in what we are trying to do and to have taken on the mission as their own. This is a testament that what we have lived and believe in is universal. The excitement, passion and drive we see in the staff translates to amazing guest experiences and a net cultural transfer – all of it for the better.
As the main geek at mamnoon my work is endless, there is a lot I need to do tinkering here and there – helping on the technology, working on processes and learning what it is that we can do to make the mamnoon experience universally compelling. If you come by one day and see me around with a laptop, measuring tape, on top of a ladder, under a piece of equipment, or talking to a guest- don’t be surprised, I’m just geeking out.