Souk al Tayeb: A melting pot of flavours
Beirut - Can food bring people together, especially in a turbulent region such as the Middle East? Lebanese entrepreneur Kamal Mouzawak was driven by the strong belief that it can be a means to cross cultural barriers and borders when he established Souk al Tayeb, Arabic for “Market of the Tasty”, 11 years ago shortly after the end of Lebanon’s civil war.
Farmers and villagers from various religious communities and parts of Lebanon travel twice a week to Souk al Tayeb in Beirut to sell organic produce and home-made food items to a loyal clientele. Every Saturday and Tuesday, the souk offers a colourful array of booths displaying fruit and vegetables and rural delicacies in two of Beirut’s most urban areas, the city’s downtown and the main shopping centre of Hamra.
The souk’s brouhaha carries the friendly exchange between visitors and farmers to the ears of passers-by attracting them to explore the scented premises.
“It is a way to celebrate food and the long-lost common human ethics,” Mouzawak said.
Souk al Tayeb is definitely a market with a twist. Over the years, farmers have developed strong bonds and identify themselves as a big, happy family.
Um Ali, a housewife in her 70s, has been part of the market since it began. Visitors queue up outside her stand where she prepares traditional “Lebanese pizza”, or mankoushe, a breakfast favourite, and sells home-made products, including cheeses and jams. Daughter of a Shia farmer from the southern Lebanese village of Majdel Zoun, she recalled that she used to tour the country with her father, travelling from one village to another to sell their produce.
“We used to sleep over at the houses of villagers who came from different religious backgrounds — Christians, Shias, Sunnis, Druze — you name it,” she said. “When I joined Souk al Tayeb, memories of my childhood came back to me, and I realised what I have missed for so long, namely the diversity of the Lebanese community.”
“Souk al Tayeb has become my family. We are closely bonded,” she added.
In recent years, the souk’s family tree extended its branches to Syrians and Palestinians who were given the chance to sell their traditional food specialties. The marketplace became an area where the famous Lebanese Tabbouleh salad met the renowned Syrian Fattet Makdous, a Damascene delicacy mixing meat-stuffed eggplant and yogurt, and the popular Palestinian chicken dish of Musakhan.
Nahrein Edbel, a Syrian housewife participant in Atyeb Zaman (Arabic for “delicacies of the past”) project for Syrian refugees, has become active in investing in her cooking skills. “When I enrolled in a cooking course under the patronage of Caritas (a charity organisation), I didn’t expect at all to be involved in a project where we are asked to cook our traditional food and sell it. What best could a person ask for?” she said.
Mariam Chaar, a Palestinian who heads the Women’s Programme Association in the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh, a southern suburb of Beirut, said Souk al Tayeb has helped the group conduct catering and food processing projects, involving 20 widows and divorcees from the camp.
During the six-month empowerment programme, participants developed solid friendships, Chaar said. They started a “WhatsApp” group to exchange ideas and experiences and organised outings together. “It wasn’t only about the project; it was also about therapy. Their involvement brought them financial and psychological relief and gave them a purpose in life,” Chaar said.
“They felt responsible and empowered, which is very important in such underprivileged and deprived localities, such as the Palestinian camps. In addition to that, the women who sell their goods in the souk always feel welcome and part of one big family.”
Food, heritage and cultural celebration seem to be a successful way to breach the gap between religious groups, political parties, races and the sexes. Migrant domestic workers from Africa and Asia also found a platform in Souk al Tayeb to introduce their exquisite dishes and share their exotic flavours with the Middle Eastern people.
“Through their fine cuisine, those people communicated their heritage, culture and history to the Lebanese and the neighbouring peoples of the Middle East,” said Mouzawak.
Driven by the motto “Let’s make food, not war”, he says he follows Ghandi’s example, stressing that “when you believe in something you should live it”.
The middle-aged Lebanese entrepreneur says that, hand in hand with each member of his team, Souk al Tayeb was able to redraw the map of Lebanon, Syria and the Palestine territories through traditional food.
His main goal, he said, is to bring people together to celebrate al Tayeb, meaning the good that is an innate human trait. “It is not a country that holds us together but a land which sustains us. The souk is a place where people don’t have to fight for their existence but where they can celebrate the fruit of their labour,” he said.
Mouzawak said he did not look at Souk al Tayeb as a business enterprise, adding, “All I care about is to look beyond our differences, find our similarities and breach the tremendous gap which has been created between humans because of their diversity.”