BEIRUT: There aren’t many places in Beirut where you can get lunch for a few thousand liras and have a chat about post-colonial feminism on the side. With this week’s official opening of Nasawiya’s Café in their space in Beirut’s Mar Mikhail district, there is now one place where those things are just about guaranteed.
“One of our main reasons for moving here was that we wanted our own community space,” says member Farah Salka of their January relocation to the open-plan, ground floor office in the fashionable district.
The venue is about as informal as you can get, actually somewhere between an office kitchen and a cafe, with self-service and a pay-what-you-can policy.
Salka says they expect it to attract mostly Nasawiya’s 250 members at first, building reputation and capacity until it can cater to regular customers. Though not quite buzzing during the day, there’s a rush around lunchtime, and it picks up again in the early evening as members come by after work or university.
The space is luxuriously quiet, with desks, sofas and chairs where people work, chat and plan. In one corner, and another member of the Anti-Racism Movement discuss their upcoming strategy for the group, which has been vocal in lobbying for rights of migrant domestic workers.
“We want it to be known as a place where people can come and use the library, work, join meetings, propose ideas,” Salka says.
The cafe has a practical purpose, as a way to raise funds as part of Nasawiya’s strategy to become self-sufficient.
“We want there to come a time when we don’t have to continuously look out for grants etc.,” Salka says.
Since its inception in 2010, Nasawiya has grown from having just one project, gender awareness training, to their current 21, which include domestic violence and nationality rights for women. They have also increased their membership, which includes men and women, tenfold.
It’s the country’s most prominent feminist group, although Nadine Moawad, one of the group’s nominally full-time members, says the number of those has grown substantially since they appeared on the scene, and it has become something of a hub for some of the country’s most active grassroots organizations, including the Anti-Racism Movement and anti-harassment group Adventures of Salwa.
Until now the organization has been receiving funding from one Dutch foundation, Mama Cash, but Moawad says this type of sponsorship can be problematic. Not only is it unreliable, particularly as at the moment funds are being directed toward Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, but it builds a dependency which she says can change the way organizations work.
“Funders don’t want to give money to the type of work we do,” she says. “We do grassroots work, and they want big, flashy ad campaigns.” The result is that NGOs end up tailoring their work to suit what the funders want, rather than what is needed on the ground.
“I think it’s been the death of many NGOs in Lebanon,” she says. Nasawiya now aims to be able to fund itself by the end of 2013, largely by renting out their space, as well as smaller projects such as selling T-shirts, and, of course, the cafe.
“The only thing that [really] works in Lebanon is food,” says Moawad. “People will spend money on food.” At Nasawiya, she adds, people can find affordable prices, spending what they can and staying for the day.
The food is home-cooked, largely by the mothers of Nasawiya’s members, and members themselves.
“The cafe works the same way as the collective itself,” says Salka. “Everyone is pitching in.”
For more information see Nasawiya Café’s page on Facebook.
This article was amended on Thursday, June 21 2012
The names of Farah Salka and the anti-sexual harassment group the adventures of Salwa have been corrected.