SIDON, Lebanon: When Sleiman Moussa was carrying a machine gun and fighting in the Lebanese Civil War against Israel, he did not expect to later become the owner of a popular sweet factory.
Moussa, who was wounded in the foot by Israeli bullets, says from his modest workshop inside the Palestinian camp of Ain al-Hilweh, “I hope one day I will be able to sell these popular sweets in Akka in Palestine.”
Everyday Moussa makes around 3,600 cream-filled biscuits covered in chocolate or coconut.
Children call the sweet treats “mehsheh ” or stuffed.
His life, Moussa tells The Daily Star, has been transformed from one defined by war to one of peace.
“I learned the trade on my own out of necessity. During the war with Israel I was wounded and I started taking risks.
“For a while, I sold potato chips, but things kept falling apart. The idea of the mehsheh biscuits then came to me. As a Palestinian, I receive financial assistance from UNWRA [U.N. Work and Relief Agency] every three months to compensate for my injury. I used the money, around $5,000, to open my small project.”
Moussa says he chose to make mehsheh biscuits because they have been a children’s favorite for decades.
He says he used to make the treats from halawa extract, which served as a natural preservative, with biscuits and sugar.
Several years ago, he had to sell all his biscuits in a day because he had no means of preserving them.
But today, Moussa makes his biscuits from egg whites and sugar, meaning that they will keep for up to six months.
The cream is cooked and then, using a mold, the mixture is poured onto one biscuit before a second is placed on top. Then it is covered with chocolate and coconut.
The biscuit-maker says the best time to enjoy the sweets is between mid-September and March.
Each biscuit costs LL170 to make and is sold to shops for LL188. The biscuits retail at LL250 each.
“It’s a poor man’s sweet. A father who has seven children can’t afford to give each an allowance of LL1,000 a day,” Moussa says.
The mehsheh biscuits are sold in Sidon’s schools as well inside Ain al-Hilweh and Mieh Mieh camps.
According to Moussa, in the 1970s each biscuit used to be sold for 5 piastres, and there was a gift of a 5 piastre coin inside some of them.
“Today we developed the idea of a gift,” he says. “We started putting seven gifts in every 30 biscuits. The gifts would be pieces of paper with LL250, LL500 or LL1,000 printed on them.
“We would wrap them with aluminum foil and when a child finds one of them he can use it to either get the monetary value written on the note or to buy more sweets,” he says.
“Also in every 3,600 biscuits we distribute LL5,000, LL10,000 or $5 papers,” he adds.
The owner of a small sweetshop in the camp, called Uncle Sader, says “these sweets are very delicious.
I love them because I don’t have any teeth. The children love them as well. Because of the poverty here, I imagine some of the families here give them as a gift .
Sawsan Abed says, “My children love these sweets. They’re cheap but delicious. And I can buy a whole package that will last a week.”