In divided Lebanon, farmers' market is a model of unity
A farmers’ market in Beirut is bringing Lebanese together to make food, not war.On a parking lot in the heart of Beirut, Kamal Mouzawak has managed no small feat: uniting Lebanon's ever divided religious communities around the common passion of food.
Those such as Hussein Abu Mansour, from a Druze village in the southern Bekaa region, Mona al-Dorr from a Shiite village near the Israeli border and Sarkis and Lina Geryes from a Christian town in the north have all have joined together to battle it out on the culinary rather than the political front.
These and several dozen other small-scale farmers and producers come twice a week with their baked specialties, preserves, vegetables, olive oil, fresh fruit juices and other products to Souk el Tayeb, Beirut's first farmers' market.
"We don't even acknowledge politics at the souk," said Mouzawak, a chef and television personality who launched Souk el Tayeb in 2004.
The 40-year-old entrepreneur, who speaks passionately about his project, was born into a family of farmers and his aim through the market is to perpetuate Lebanon's rich culinary tradition.
"Tradition, after all, is heritage," he said. "And there is no such thing as religious cuisine in Lebanon. Whether Christian or Muslim, we all eat the same foods. The differences are more regional."
Make food, not war
The farmers at Souk el Tayeb want nothing to do with the political turmoil that has shaken their country in past years, pitting the different religious communities against each other.
Their interests revolve more around who can bake the best kebbeh, a traditional dish made of minced meat and burghul (crushed wheat), or come up with the tastiest tabbouleh, a parsley-based salad, or grow the most mouth-watering vegetables and fruits.
"It's a known fact that you can unite people through dialogue and that is what we have done here through food," said farmer Abu Mansour, 54, sporting the traditional baggy black pants worn by Druze men and a grey handlebar moustache.
For Rima Masood, 42, the market has been a blessing, allowing her to send her seven-year-old daughter to private school and to plan ahead.
"It has changed my life," said the mother of three on a recent Saturday as she baked manoucheh -- a flatbread topped with a thyme mix -- over a wood-fired spherical metal dome. "My family used to grow peaches and sell them in the summer and we would borrow money to make it through the winter. Now I can even think of renovating my house and buy things."
Shoppers at Souk el Tayeb find an amazing variety of high-quality products ranging from organic vegetables and fruits to honey, marzipan, cheeses, laurel soap and bread. The stalls are also laden with mouneh -- traditionally preserved foods for the winter.
Mouzawak has also endeavoured to revive grandma's recipes, including fassolia hammaniyeh, a bean dish from the northeast village of Hammana, thistle-based dishes from the Shouf region, and mwaraka, a baklava-like pastry, in a bid to preserve the country's culinary heritage.
The market, which caters to well-heeled Beirutis, has met with such success that Mouzawak in the last three years has taken his show on the road, organizing themed food festivals around the country.
"I am most proud when I hear a farmer say that the souk has changed their life," said Mouzawak, who refused to shut down the market during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel or through the political turmoil of recent years. "Our basic message is 'make food not war.'"
Ahmed Khodr Hussein, a Sunni farmer from the region of Akkar in northern Lebanon, couldn't agree more.
"I earn my living every Saturday and Wednesday at the souk," said the 53-year-old father of 15 who is known as Abu Rabii. "You have more than 47 families who live off this market, united under one roof. If only the entire country was like that."