Lebanon News

Souk al-Tayeb makes its way back to Beirut

Interview

BATROUN: Kamal Mouzawak has a regal nose, an easy smile and a head of hair that puts him somewhere between Seinfeld's Kramer and Macy Gray. Now five days shy of his 38th birthday, he has been a food writer and a photographer. He has helmed a culinary magazine and steered innumerable Beirutis toward healthier living on the television show "Sehtak bil Sahen" ("Your Health in Your Plate") with Miriam Nour.

But his baby is Souk al-Tayeb, the first organic farmer's market in Beirut, possibly the region. Souk al-Tayeb began in 2004, and every Saturday morning it takes over the parking lot in Saifi Village below the Bourj al-Ghazal building. Some 40 farmers from all over the country descend on this latter-day urban marketplace to sell lentils, chick peas, wild zaatar, sprouts, sea salt, a million variations of mouneh (produce from the summer harvest that is preserved for consumption in winter) and tomatoes the size of a small child's head or a large man's fist.

Souk al-Tayeb's mark of distinction is that it is a market for producers. One cannot, for example, buy and resell goods there. The people who grow and pick and preserve the crops are the same people who set up shop every Saturday and hawk their goods. "No one can sell better," says Mouzawak.

As such, Mouzawak speaks of these farmers as the Souk al-Tayeb family. Because Lebanon's agricultural lands were precisely, if incidentally, those targeted by almost five weeks of intense Israeli bombardment, the family has suffered tremendously.

It's not only a question of who was wounded or whose farm was destroyed. By luck or will, all of Souk al-Tayeb's farmers escaped the war unscathed. It's also a question of who lost what, and for how long those losses with reverberate and accumulate, putting businesses and livelihoods in jeopardy for a long time to come.

"It was peak season," says Mouzawak. "It was the height of the harvest. The farmers didn't lose a month. They lost a year. Even if the lands themselves weren't destroyed, even if the crops are still in the ground, you can't pick them now." Because so many people were forced to flee, agricultural fields were abandoned, and now many crops have spoiled.

Imagine Fadi Daou, who runs an organic food production plant called Adonis Valley. He has zaatar and capers and those huge tomatoes, all of them planted in Marjayoun. Enough said. Daou's dreams of perfecting sun-dried tomatoes and ketchup are ruined. His expected revenue has dropped from over $3,000 to zero.

"He had a perfect project and he lost everything," says Mouzawak. "He can't start again from scratch."

Imagine Nelly Chemaly, who, with help from an elderly woman named Umm Ali, developed a concept called Earth & Co. It has taken years for Chemaly and Umm Ali to convince farmers in South Lebanon to shift age-old techniques to organically sound methods and goods like vegan cheese made from cracked wheat and water. But they did it - in Majdelzoun, one of the hardest hit villages in the region. Earth & Co. has lost equipment and crops and suffered damage to goods.

"They are stubborn old farmers who just want to get paid at the end of the month. OK, I understand this," says Mouzawak. "But imagine the time it takes to convince them to farm organically. What is organic?" And by extension, imagine the time it will take to convince them to do it all again. It may very well be impossible.

"It is a catastrophe for everyone," he says, whether it is established businesses like Bread Republic, one of the souk's main founders and participants, or a small, independent farmer working a few plots of land.

Whether the crisis is political assassination or war, says Mouzawak, "We have to react with life. It's the only possible reaction, and this is very typically Lebanese. So when the war started, we said: 'OK, who can still come?'" Abu Ibrahim, a Druze sheikh driving his produce in a small truck from Rashaya? Ali Fahs, bringing his many variations of mouneh from Jibsheet, near Nabatiyeh?

As important, Mouzawak says, "we said: 'OK, and who can still buy? Where is the buying power?'"

The answer, of course, was Faqra. "Don't make fun," he chides. Souk al-Tayeb set itself up in a temporary home next to the northern output of Smith's Supermarket, a longtime supporter of the market, and opened every Friday afternoon for four weeks.

But now, Souk al-Tayeb is returning to Beirut. With luck and will, the market's 40 farmers will reconvene on Saturday morning.

"We are very emotional," says Mouzawak, recreating their reunion at Faqra: "You're still alive? I'm still alive!"

Putting down bowls of tabbouleh and okra salad alongside plates of hummus and mtabbal, Mouzawak tilts his head: "Not bad for a busy day."

He says he has been cooking and preparing food since before he can remember. "In Lebanon, there's no beginning, especially in a competitive family where the issue of who can make a better tabbouleh is a matter of heart and pride."

For him, the market is really much more than that: "We have bigger dreams," he says. "Souk al-Tayeb is one of the few places where you go beyond differences of confession or sect. It's about protecting land and tradition and promoting a healthier lifestyle. It's much bigger and it's there in every action."

So save your next shopping trip for Saturday morning.

 

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