Cartoons meet cuisine at Beirut’s Tawlet

BEIRUT: For illustrator Maya Zankoul, being asked to create pieces for Tawlet, the Mar Mikhail restaurant run by the people behind Souk el-Tayeb and centered around wholesome, hearty Lebanese cooking, was a dream.

“I loved the place and the concept behind it,” she says at the launch party for the exhibition Thursday night. “So I was very excited to be part of it.”

The 16 pieces, which cover the main wall of the restaurant, are rendered with Zankoul’s trademark clean, flowing lines, vivid colors and sense of humor. The images are all familiar: literal interpretations of traditional sayings that incorporate food, the rituals of eating during the different stages of childhood, a recipe for stuffed vine leaves.

“When I came to Tawlet I was so happy to finally see something authentic,” she says. “Because so many restaurants, they are copies from other places, but we have so many resources here, so many things we can use from our own culture that are ignored.”

“The lunch that you have on a Sunday at home with the family, is beautiful, and this place is a celebration of that.”

This commitment to keeping things real chimes with Zankoul’s own approach to her designs, which give everyday events – the pains of traffic and slow Internet, navigating the intricacies of Lebanese society – a colorful and wry twist.

The works, which were created over the course of around a month, were inspired by Zankoul’s own experience of Lebanese cuisine.

“Every time I’d go to a restaurant I found the culture around the food beautiful. I fell in love with the food, so when I had the chance to illustrate it, it was a beautiful experience.”

She also drew inspiration from research into the country’s gastronomic traditions, in particular drawing on the experience and knowledge of her Lebanese mother and grandmother.

“So, for instance, one of the pictures is of the Lebanese lunch, the many different steps because it’s an endless process,” she says.

Over the past few years, Zankoul’s images have incorporated their way into the cultural landscape in Lebanon. Along with her two books, her designs have been used for campaigns against smoking, in support of faster Internet, and at the recent ArabNet conference.

She believes her success can be attributed to the fact her drawings reflect common experiences.

“Maybe because it’s things everyone identifies with,” she says. “They see themselves in it. It’s very normal [subjects]. But when you put them on paper, they have a different meaning.”

Indeed, it was this that originally attracted Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Tawlet, to her designs.

“When I met Maya, I was very impressed by her,” he says. “I love her book, because it’s like an anthropology of Lebanon. I like this critical eye on Lebanon and life … and she loves food!”

The exhibition “Samneh w 3asal” will be on display at Tawlet, Chalhoub building, Naher Street, Mar Mikhail, until the end of September. Call 01-448-129 for more information.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 06, 2011, on page 12.




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