Make food not war

Beirut's Farmer Market

Lebanon, well known for its religious and ethnic diversity, is an ancient country; there are towns and villages that date back to Biblical times – the Old Testament, that is. This fertile stretch of 10,400 square kilometers that runs along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea is dotted with some of the finest Greco-Roman ruins still in existence. Its cup of history overfloweth. Many of the almost four million people who inhabit this country live traditionally: on small farms, mountainside villages and seaside towns, making their livelihoods as farmers, fishermen, craftspeople and food artisans, like our very own Food Artisan, Kamal Mouzawak.

Made in Beirut

Kamal launched Souk el Tayeb in 2004. The name translates to Cute Market (yes, this definitely works better in Arabic), and it’s a weekly farmer’s market in Saifi Village, a neighborhood in the heart of downtown Beirut. During the war, this area was referred to as the Green Line. It was completely devastated and pounded to rubble but has been lovingly restored to its former grand elegance.

Beirut is a fabulously fab city. Western and Middle Eastern jet-setters converge and indulge here, in the most cosmopolitan metropolis of the region. It is against this spectacular backdrop – gorgeous women (the men too, in fact), fast cars and designer everything – that every Saturday morning Souk el Tayeb comes to life, vibrant with market stands showcasing goods from all over this small nation. Muslim, Druze and Christian producers sell their goods, one next to the other, offering the best of their respective domains.

Lebanon is classified as a developing nation and is still recovering from the scars of recent wars, but here in the midst of the old and the new, the restored and the shell-shocked, is the Souk el Tayeb sprouting with new life: fresh fruit and vegetables, homemade preserves, savoury pastries, olive oils, soaps, cookware and even handcrafted jewelry. Beirut’s chic set come and fill their panniers with goods unique to this country, delights made with recipes almost forgotten, all of outstanding quality and freshness.

The producers at the Souk showcase their traditions, some of which were on the endangered list but now, thanks to Kamal Mouzawak, are consumed with great delight and nostalgia. Most Beirutees have a great attachment to the land and can trace their families back to villages such as those represented at the Souk. It is a win-win situation: The producers have the opportunity to share their goods with a wider audience and increase their livelihoods, and the urbane get to experience the richness and bounty of their homeland.

Rima Masood, a mother of three, has a stand where she makes the best breakfast sandwich this side of Abou Dabi. She bakes fresh manouchi (a very thin flatbread), and wraps it around delicious ingredients such as pressed yoghurt, black olives and zataar (a dried thyme and sesame seed mix), and tops it off with a drizzle of olive oil. Rima’s stand is very popular, so be prepared for your stomach to rumble and your mouth to water as you wait for this delectable start to the morning. The Souk has allowed Rima to expand her business from her village, and her success has enabled her to send her daughters to private school.

Kamal Mouzawak, along with the more than 50 families that participate in Souk el Tayeb, has created a place where Lebanese of all backgrounds and beliefs come together to share food, feed their fellow countrymen and relish in the culinary traditions of this tiny nation. Souk el Tayeb has been recognized internationally on numerous occasions and has been written up in the New York Times, and Kamal enjoys a degree of celebrity well earned by his contribution to his homeland.

The Lebanese are a resilient people with an inherent pride in being Lebanese, and are little impressed with such things. The discussion rarely moves to boasting about one’s accomplishments; rather, the running joke among the vendors here is “We make food, not war.”

This article is borrowed from Research for this article:

"Food Economy Unites" by Jocelyn Zablit