It's going to be an unusual column. It will tell the story of a Lebanese organization, while I have never met the people who operate it. It will try to describe places where I have not visited and cook food that I have not tasted, and probably never will. At least not in the visible years. I do not usually write about people I can not write about, nor about places I have not been in. But just as I am interested about culinary activism that impresses me in Brazil, Australia, Japan or Italy, I felt lucky to be exposed to ideas worth sharing, that are just beyond the mountain, a touch away from us in Israel.
Sumac from Lebanon
Since a culinary tour in Lebanon is still not a possibility, and because the people who I’m writing about, although approved the publication of this article, for obvious reasons have refused to be interviewed directly, the story will be passed through the eyes of Alida Borgna - a half Italian half American, a gastronome, a food researcher and a professional cook, that made a two months of internship at Souk el-Tayeb in Beirut, and is now writing her thesis on social-culinary entrepreneurship in conflict zones.
Souk el Tayeb is literaly means a good food market. This inspiring project, which began as the only farmers' market in Beirut and became an active and influential culinary organisation in Lebanon, was founded by Kamal Mouzawak in 2004. It started with only ten farmers who came to sell their produce in a city that had no access to the rural nor any traditional quality products. "Tayeb means good food, good people, but also good life." This is how Mouzawak opened his TED lecture that took place at 2012. "Lebanon is a unique place in the sense that the concept of 'the other' simply does not exist. There are no minorities in Lebanon because there is no majority; there are half-half: half Muslims, half Christians, half looking towards east and half towards west, half sea people and half mountain people. There is no ‘one’ and there for no ‘other’. And this is a fragile texture, which often becomes a catastrophe, but on the other hand, there is often a celebration of diversity among different people."
Mouzawak, a Slow Food person in Lebanon, studied graphic design and began working as a reporter for a local traveling magazine. Although Lebanon is a little more complicated and full of layers than the “half-half” structure that Mouzawak talks about, it still did not prevent him from realizing a dream of bringing people together through food. Born in 1969, he spent his childhood in the shadow of the civil war that began in 1975. "The borders between the areas were blocked and it was impossible to travel beyond them." In 1991, when the war was over, the borders were reopened. "So I wanted to find out-who are those 'others' I've always heard of as my enemies, those who want to kill me and my family. Of course I discovered wonderful people. After all, we are all the same, if I will go towards them with a rifle - they will shoot me, but if I come with open arms they will embrace me. " And so the idea of the souk was born - "I understood that in order to resolve conflicts we must first think of a joint project, a dream we can all dream together."
"This is the only way for people in Beirut to get access to rural food and farmers, to traditional education for regional food," says Borgna , "Kamal is a kind of devoted advocate of the Lebanese food tradition. The markets that existed before the civil war in Lebanon disappeared completely during and after the war. So Kamal began to act out of a clear longing for the past. He wanted to remind people that there is traditional food in Lebanon, and not to let tradition disappear. "
The market in Beirut (picture from http://www.soukeltayeb.com)
But with a population of 6.2 million, divided between different ethnic groups such as Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians and Kurds, and between 18 religions officially recognized by the Lebanese constitution, including Maronites, Shiites, Sunnis, and Druze, what tradition does Mouzawak talk about?
"The criteria for acceptance of the farmers into the market began with strict conditions but on the other hand also very much accepting and containing, which remain to this day - the farmers must be on a small scale producers, not industrial, organic and above all - loyal to their tradition." And indeed, the farmers who come to the markets are Christians, Muslims, Shias, Sunnis, Druze, Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians, and more ... "People from all over Lebanon come every week to buy the produce. Around the market a fascinating meeting point was created, it’s a shame you can not come to see. "
And it is a shame, because there is so much to learn from the activities of this Lebanese organisation . Today the market operates twice a week, with 70 farmers. Another market was recently established in Zahle, which is located east from Beirut. The organisation operates the market as a non-profit - the farmers pay only $25 per year, an amount that has not changed since the beginning of the project, and all profits go directly and exclusively to them. In 2008, the success of the market led to the interest of marketing woman Christine Codsi, who has since become a business partner of Mouzawak. Together they established “Tawlet” - “a table” - a sort of chain of small restaurants that operated as a buffet of lunches only. The restaurants, spread over six cities and towns in Lebanon, employ about 15 women each, who cook in rotation. "The concept is to invite women from all over the country to cook and prepare their own traditional food, according to their region and origin", says Borgna. Here, too, the idea is to encourage women to cook food, which the meaning of its cooking and consumption is preserving the tradition. "This is a beautiful system, because there is no "Lebanese purity” here - they all have entry - Armenian, Syrian, Palestinian refugees - all invited as long as they cook their traditional food". Mouzawak believes that different cultures are meant to meet through food. "We are also working with Palestinian refugees on a project to develop a Palestinian product line that is unique to the Palestinian tradition and kitchen. Nothing speaks to those women more than food and memory. "
Lachma Ba'ajin, learnt in Lebanon, made in Italy
And that's not all. In the past year, the many "Tawlets" which operating for lunch as a profitable business, have been started working in the evenings as "soup kitchens" to feed people with lower income. I ask Borna to describe the dishes to me. "The food is the same as the one served in Tawlet - a taboule salad with lots of parsley, various vegetables, lots of eggplants, sometimes fish and seafood, and of course meat. The idea is to give the less fortunate people the experience of eating out and, of course, there is the educational value of learning tradition through food". Beyond the education and preservation of traditions, “Souk el Tayeb” also deals with empowerment courses for women, which they call “capacity building” - for women coming from periphery, Syrian refugees, and women from low income families who were missed by the education system - "Many of these women have been through traumas, but they have a great potential to get an income through cooking, and on the same time to produce something that connects with their tradition and preserves it. For example, there is a course that teaches body language, which teaches women how to look in the other person’s eyes, to stand upright. The body is an important tool for communication, but it's even more practical than that - this course is teaching them how to write recipes, how to keep hygiene in the kitchen, how to calculate their quantities and multiply them in large numbers to eventually create a catering business they can profit from. It is ultimately the creation of networking for these women, a tremendous business opportunity leading them towards economic independence". The activity of the Souk el-Tayeb organisation is gaining recognition and respect in the world. Furthermore, it appears that Mouzawak and Codsi have succeeded in creating a culinary organisation that manages to emerge from the limits of just small tasty pleasures and create a deep, genuine and sustainable change. "What is good about such an initiative is that the conflict is present, but the idea is to create normalization. They do not talk about conflicts, they talk about food. Everyone can eat this food. Food is this place that everybody has access to, and it's delicious, it’s good, it’s tayeb", Concludes Borgna. "I've interviewed and talked to so many people of all ages, and it's hard to describe how much tension there is between so many different ideologies. The Lebanese exist in tension with the Syrians, the Israelis, and the Palestinians, all who have imposed their own agendas into the tiny country. If at the beginning I thought that this tension is mostly rooted in the shared resources and lack of employment, when I asked them, most of the answers I received was: They killed my family”. (in 1948/75/2006 etc…)
So how do you explain the success of Souk al-Tayeb?
"My research is trying to understand how social entrepreneurship works within the conflict. But when you think about it, there are also so many problems with social entrepreneurship which exists within a capitalist society like New York, for example. Maybe even more problems arises there. I'm still trying to figure out why and how it works so well, almost in an utopian way, though and maybe because of the difficult odds. This organisation was born out of a real need, and perhaps because of this, the change they are making, creates immediate opportunities for women and farmers, but it also creates sustainable infrastructures - the empowerment of food manufacturers, something that can sustain them in the future. Moreover, it raises awareness within the country, it preserves peace and opens a door to acceptance. What they do is not too complicated nor most revolutionary, but it's necessary there, so it's important. It might sound like a cliche, but we need this kind of organisations now more than ever".
** The article was forwarded to Kamal and Christine, who preferred not to respond directly, but confirmed the publication of the article.