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Austin's Oldest Festival? It Isn't ACL – But There Is Music. And Falafel.

Lynda Gonzalez for KUT
Traditional Greek dancers encourage passersby to join in the festivities at the Mediterranean Festival during the 85th annual Mediterranean Festival at the at the St. Elias Orthodox Church.

When you think of the oldest festival in Austin, you’d be forgiven for not immediately thinking of falafel and Arabic music.

But that’s what you get at the St. Elias Mediterranean Food Festival, which celebrated its 85th year in Austin over the weekend. 

For Nagi Saikali, who moved to Austin from Lebanon two years ago, the festival at the St. Elias Orthodox Church downtown reminded him of home.

People gather around long, communal tables, sharing food from each other’s plates; kids roam freely, jumping from the bounce house to the dance floor; and, of course, there’s the homemade Lebanese food.

The Austin festival first started after a wave of Lebanese immigration in the 1880s, when Lebanese Christians came to the U.S. to escape Ottoman rule and religious persecution. 

No one knows for sure why these new arrivals picked Texas, let alone Austin. But Mike Miller, managing archivist at the Austin History Center, has a theory. 

“Texas seemed to be a, a draw, possibly just because of economic opportunity,” Miller says. “They saw a hole here that they could fill, so they filled it.”

In 1932, a small group of Lebanese families banded together to build their own Eastern Orthodox church in Austin. Women of the would-be parish started baking Lebanese bread and pastries to sell along Congress Avenue to fund its construction. Eventually, the church got built, but the community kept on cooking, and the Mediterranean Festival evolved out of that.

David Jabbour is a third-generation Lebanese-American. His family goes back to those early days of the church.

Credit Lynda Gonzalez for KUT
The festival stretches back to the 1930s, when members of Austin's Lebanese community would sell food to raise money for the St. Elias Orthodox Church downtown.

“My grandmother would’ve been one of the ladies that would have prepared the Lebanese cuisine that was sold at Sixth and Congress Avenue – right on the street corner,” Jabbour said.

The festival has called the St. Elias Orthodox Church home since construction was completed in 1934.

Jabbour says the festival has been a big part of how he stays connected to his Lebanese identity. And he’s continuing his family history of contributing to the community – his employer, Twin Liquors, is one of the festival’s biggest sponsors.

Over the years, the festival has grown. It’s added a second day to accommodate the thousands of people who attend each year. It also expanded its cultural boundaries, adding regional cuisines from places like Russia and East Africa.  

And it’s the food that’s the real draw.

Credit Lynda Gonzalez for KUT
Rozena Woldegabriel serves a traditional Eritrean sampler plate at Med Fest.

Longtime attendee Jenna Kittley says it's the love for good food that works to bring people of different backgrounds together. 

“Everyone eats,” she said. “So, everyone’s really excited about good food, and I think that’s one of the things that brings it together. It’s kind of a melting pot of different kind of folks for sure.”

For Lebanese transplant Saikali the festival is about more than just the food.

“I think it's about marrying different cultures, origins, history, stories,” he said. “The media today is a very powerful tool. Nevertheless, it doesn’t necessarily show you what we see ourselves, what we know and what runs in our veins.” 

For Jabbour, it's that Lebanese community that runs in the veins of Austin’s past and its future. 

Credit Lynda Gonzalez for KUT
Syeda Sabeera dances with friends at the Mediterranean Festival.

“You know, if you’re ever talking to somebody and they say that, ‘Well, I grew up in Austin, and I’ve been here awhile and my family's been here’…it could be a good chance they’re Lebanese.” 

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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