BEIRUT: “Out!” The shout echoes across the sunny car park, and from the edges of a painted cricket field, clusters of spectators clap or shake their heads according to their nationalities. A Sri Lankan batsman walks off into a crowd of teammates eager to dissect what went wrong.On the outskirts of the crowd, Nour Haidar shuffles along in a line of people under a tent and scoops a spicy looking stew of various sized lentils onto her plate next to a vibrant cucumber and tomato salad.
“I don’t normally watch cricket,” she says with a sigh, “unless my boyfriend has it on the TV – which can be quite a lot.”
She picks up a large dumpling-esque pastry filled with spiced potatoes and takes a bite.
“But this festival is amazing, I wish I had known about it before.”
Cricket tournaments are hardly anything new in Lebanon among the country’s largely Asian migrant community, most of whom work as domestic help or do other labor-intensive jobs. Almost every weekend, the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan communities in particular gather to practice their national sport – both as participants and spectators.
This past weekend, however, saw something a bit different take place.
The St. George’s Day International Cricket Tournament, held in a Université Saint Joseph parking lot in the capital’s Monnot neighborhood, was the second iteration of the multicultural event that brings together sport and food and allows migrants and locals to mingle in a unique way.
The main sponsor of the event was Xpress Money, while XXL, Mike Sport and Caritas also gave their support.
“There should be more of these things happening,” Haidar mulls. “Quite a large chunk of the population is just put on the side normally, Lebanese just don’t normally interact with migrants in a social way.”
“We need to break this mentality about these people all being domestic workers, we need to get to know them in a different way.”
If there are two things that can level the playing field without the need for language skills, it’s sport and food.
“Sport is such a leveler,” agrees Briton William Dobson, the organizer of the event. “When you step on the field, nothing else matters apart from your sporting abilities. ... That’s great for people in society who are on the periphery or who are made to feel second class.”
“I also decided to make the food a big part of it this year because so few people in Lebanon actually know what cricket is, I thought it would bring in people who might not be interested in cricket.”
“It’s also a nice way to showcase the different cultures.”
Apart from an independent Sri Lankan food stand, the bulk of the offerings came from a tent run by the indefatigable Souk el Tayeb.
“This is the first outing of a new project we are doing with the International Labor Organization,” explains Pamela Chemali, Souk el Tayeb’s manager. “It’s all about ‘al-tayeb shtegel bil beit,’ or tasty homemade food, and we’re working exclusively with migrant domestic workers.”
Although the project doesn’t officially launch until May 24, those at the cricket tournament were able to get an early sample of delicious Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi dishes cooked by people whose cuisine is hugely under-represented in a country of international gastronomes. The final project will also include chefs from three other countries in Asia and Africa.
Libi Khan, a 37-year-old cleaner from Bangladesh, proudly explains her five dishes to hungry customers as they line up with empty plates.
“This is chicken biryani, and this is biryani with beef,” she says with a smile, pointing to mountains of rice dotted with chunks of meat.
“This is chopoty, it’s made of different lentils, green peppers and coriander. Then there is salad, and finally singara – which is like a potato samosa – and peajeo, a fried lentil cake.”
As the queue moves along, another woman takes over the commentary.
“This is the Sri Lankan yellow rice,” says Anna Fernando, a 42-year-old domestic worker wearing matching purple earrings and dress. “This is chicken curry – very spicy.”
“Also, there is cashew and peas with curry sauce, a fresh pickle salad and fish balls with potato inside,” she said.
Fernando, who is also active in rights group Kafa and the Migrant Community Center, grins widely. “This is my first time selling food. I’ve asked many people if they have enjoyed it, and they all said yes, so I’m very happy.”
She gestures encouragingly to one nervous looking customer hovering over the fish balls.
“Plus we have our games in the background, so it is a good day.”
Cynthia, 24, said that she had never eaten any of this sort of food before, but liked it: “It was quite spicy, but I enjoyed getting to know some other cultures.”
According to Dobson, each of the six women involved in the Souk el Tayeb tent made $100, a great boost for women who are often subject to poor pay and working conditions.
For Souk el Tayeb’s Chemali, it’s about getting people to see those who cook their meals, look after their children and tidy their houses in a different light.
“As ever, we are trying to make the change we want through food by integrating the communities around us,” she says.
“In the U.S., domestic workers are usually Hispanic or Mexican, and Americans eat a lot of their food. Lebanese people don’t do this, but maybe this will be the time for them to start.”