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Mouneh festival brings rural traditions to Beirut

A woman samples goods at the annual Mouneh Festival in Haret Hreik in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011. (Mahmoud Kheir/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: As the Lebanese autumn slowly creeps in, families across the country begin preparing the mouneh, making preserves and pickling vegetables ahead of the long winter.

In celebration of this traditional season, Jihad al-Binaa, the development wing of Hezbollah, is hosting a Mouneh Festival at Sayyed Alshohodaa Hall in Haret Hreik in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

In its fifth year, the festival brings together 234 cooperatives and companies, involving over 650 families, from across Lebanon. Many classic Lebanese foodstuffs are on sale, from pickled beetroot to every variation of labneh balls, and a vast selection of dried herbs, spices and teas. Other traditional products are on sale, from honeys and honeycomb to homemade soaps, lace and other handicrafts.

Many of the co-operatives displaying at the festival have been working with Jihad al-Binaa to develop their marketing skills, and the annual exhibition in Beirut provides an opportunity to showcase their work, sell products to a new market and to meet others in the industry.

Mohammad al-Hajj, general manager of Jihad al-Binaa, spoke to The Daily Star about the work of the organization and the Mouneh Festival itself.

“Marketing is often difficult for many of these women, who live in the middle of the countryside and have often had no training in the methods of marketing produce,” Hajj says.

“The resources are there but we just want to help these families to achieve their potential,” he adds.

The group has worked with 3,000 families over the last four years, netting $3 million in sales, half of that in profits. Staff act as mediators between producers and consumers, providing material and training to the producers – 95 percent of whom are women – and hosting events like the Mouneh Festival.

“Throughout the year we hold similar, smaller events across the country,” he says. “Through our work with the people they are able to find markets for their products, which is something a lot of them used to struggle with.”

At a stall selling kibbeh spices, zaatar, chamomile tea and rose and mint syrups, Fatima Abbas, from the cooperative Kheir and Barakh, based in Tyre, explains why she enjoys the annual festival in Beirut.

“People know of our organization in Tyre, and so we sell to them, and we come to various exhibitions like this throughout the year,” she says.

“We have come to the Mouneh Festival in Beirut every year since it started,” she says. “It’s special coming here though, as we get to meet new people.”

As Hajj adds: “This is a great event as it allows people to meet others in the industry and form new relations with people, swapping contact details and so forth.”

Faten Chehadeh originally studied interior design before setting up her shop ARYS, which sells homemade jewelery vases and picture frames in Assaha, the restaurant cum museum run by the late Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah’s Al-Mabarrat association on the Airport Road in Beirut. “The atmosphere at the Mouneh Festival is lovely,” she says. “People have more time to spend just wandering around and looking at things and it’s nice and relaxed.”

Its location, in the capital, is also vital, Hajj says, as it allows the younger, urban generations to connect with their heritage. “Most of the sellers at the festival have learned the culture of their parents and grandparents, and they have a knowledge of their heritage,” he says.

“But we want to strengthen this culture within Beirut also, and strengthen this culture of producing rather than consuming,” he adds.

While many young Beirutis may have memories of their grandparents preparing the mouneh every autumn, “they may have no way to take part in this themselves anymore.”

“We want to revive the memory and to introduce people in Beirut to this lifestyle and to teach them that they have the chance to produce these things,” he adds.

Marie Abu-Sleiman, who runs Honey Herbs in Byblos with her husband, normally sells their honey-based health and beauty products from a shop in the souks in the coastal city.

“It’s obviously a lot more touristy in Byblos, so it’s nice to come here – it feels more local in a way,” she says.

The festival also includes daily lectures on topics such as pickle-making, handicrafts, and food standards, the latter run by the Agriculture Ministry.

On its closing day Wednesday there will be a ceremony to honor the mother of Imad Moghniyeh, a senior Hezbollah commander killed in Damascus in 2008. Different martyrs are honored each year at the festival, Hajj explains.

“We are on the U.S. anti-terrorist list but we are just trying to help these families out.” – Additional reporting by Reem Harb

The Mouneh Festival runs from 10 a.m to 10 p.m every day until Nov. 4.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 28, 2011, on page 12.

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