Increasing National Identity and Community Ties through Love of Quality Food
Kamal Mouzawak is working to bring the Lebanese people, divided by confessional and sectarian differences, together through their common heritage and traditions. Kamal is using food as a means of bringing the Lebanese together. He is confident that he can channel the Lebanese culinary heritage to create a common identity to foster national pride, and, perhaps one day, nostalgia for Lebanon and the Lebanese. Kamal founded Souk el-Tayeb in 2004, Lebanon’s first farmers’ market. His philosophy is to provide venues where Lebanese of all confessions can mingle and connect through the one passion they all have in common: love for their food. In the Souk, people from all sides of Lebanon – social, geographic, class, culture, and sect – can meet without discussing politics or religion, discussions which inevitably heighten tensions. In the Souk, citizens are free to interact with each other as if their country had been at peace with itself for centuries, simply partaking in the daily routine activities of buying and selling food. Cross-confessional relationships have started and flourished at the Souk, even business relationships, between customers, customers and producers, and between producers. Somehow, in the Souk, a truce is declared. Additionally, the Souk has become a vehicle for the safeguarding and promoting knowledge about Lebanese heritage, with a focus on food traditions.
The Souk el-Tayeb initiative is unique in the Arab World. It is one of very few initiatives focused on building solidarity and normalizing interaction between citizens by focusing on common heritage, instead of trying to resolve conflicts after they happen. Also, the tools the Souk employs are unique – being Lebanon’s first farmers’ market, it is the first agricultural initiative to foster social change through quality produce, bringing the concept of slow food to the Arab World.
“For five million Lebanese in Lebanon, and 15 million around the world, it’s not their language, history, costume or architecture that they get nostalgic about; it’s the kibbeh, tabbouleh and those huge red tomatoes that grandpa used to talk about” (Alef Magazine, “Market Maker,” about Kamal and Souk El-Tayeb). Kamal is using the revival of culinary heritage to bridge his primary goal of building national solidarity with his secondary goal of supporting Lebanon’s farmers. In addition, Kamal wants to export the model to Egypt, followed by other Arab countries, in order to expand his vision of building national unity through appreciation of culinary and agricultural heritage.
In a small country like Lebanon, such an initiative is changing perceptions of “the other” and dismantling psychological barriers, and eventually will improve the political situation and the sectarian crisis it currently reflects.
Ask a ‘Lebanese’ man or woman about his or her roots and you will almost always get an answer about religion or community. After decades of civil war and against the background of the current political crisis in which no political party (all of which are based on religious identification) can form a majority government, the word ‘Lebanese’ has a very weak and tenuous meaning for many citizens of this small Mediterranean country. There is no real national identity or pride, and few vestiges of fraternité linger from the rule of its colonial master. Confessional communities, especially in less affluent areas, can be extremely insular, where even simple social interactions with members of different sects are frowned upon.
In the 1970s, class, religious and ethnic divisions, sharpened by the presence of armed Palestinian refugees, erupted into civil war and led to military intervention by Syria and Israel. In 1989, The Tai’f accord was signed to put an end to civil war in Lebanon. Several conflicts remained unresolved until this day, including the dispute over the Israeli-held border zone Shabaa Farms. In September 2004, the United States and France sponsored Resolution 1559 calling on Syria to end its occupation reminding all of Lebanon’s incomplete sovereignty. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 led to the eventual withdrawal of the Syrian troops in April 2005.
One of the most significant characteristics of Lebanon is its population make-up. Unique in the Arab World, Christianity has been present in Lebanon since its early days. According to recent estimates, Lebanon is approximately 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. Shiites comprise the largest Muslim group; other Muslims include Sunnis and Druses. The largest Christian domination is Maronite; other Christian groups include Eastern/Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Greek and Roman Catholics, and Armenians. There are also some 400,000 Palestinian Arabs, many of whom are confined to refugee camps. Sentiments of national belonging and common heritage are weak. There is a force of division among Lebanese youth from different confessions and regions especially in the aftermath of the civil war. Youth find it hard to relate with others from different confessions, creating psychological borders that would eventually threaten the sentiments of national unity and common heritage. Multiple identities arise as a result of the confessional gaps made more profound in this age of globalization and cultural interdependence. The longer the Lebanese are convinced that they have nothing in common, the stronger the possibility of internal strife and disconnect from the land and national heritage.
Against this backdrop, Kamal Mouzawak founded Souk-El Tayeb in May 2004 in Beirut. His philosophy is to provide venues where Lebanese of all confessions can mingle and connect through the one passion they all have in common: love for their food.
Recently-elected Ashoka fellow Joanne Bajjaly is working towards the same goal, but with a different strategy, tools, and target group. She is working to surpass the sectarian and religious divides in the Levant through a culture and heritage community building approach that equips children and young adults, their teachers, and their parents with historical knowledge to enable them to move beyond sectarian tension and realize they belong to one nation. She does this through interactive learning techniques, such as all-sects field trips to historical sites and monuments.
Additionally, in a world increasingly driven by profit margins, Kamal is focused preserving and revitalizing Lebanese traditions, particularly its rich agricultural and culinary heritage and appreciation of farmers.
There are other initiatives in the Levant region seeking social change through agriculture-related initiatives. Eco-Baladi is one, an environmentally-friendly and sustainable eco-farm in Palestine. Its goal is two-fold: economic empowerment of the Palestinian farmers and the development and expansion of green farming practices in the region. An extremely positive and needed initiative, nevertheless Eco-Baladi differs significantly from Souk el-Tayeb in terms of the social problem it is seeking to address and its primary target population: farmers. Souk el-Tayeb’s focus is uniting its customers and producers, who are historically divided along sectarian lines to a degree not present in Palestine, where Palestinians are at least largely united by a common identity. For this reason, Souk el-Tayeb is a unique initiative in the region and indeed in the Arab World
Kamal founded Souk el-Tayeb in 2004, as an organic response to the heightened tensions Lebanon experiences before, during, and after the civil war. Inspired by the people he met traveling throughout Lebanon, writing an insider’s guidebook, he was in the right place, with the right expertise and experience, at the right time. His vision for the Souk was a place where people from every confession could mingle freely over something they all cherished: Lebanon’s food.
Currently, there is only one Souk el-Tayeb, which convenes weekly in Beirut. This Souk has been operational since 2004 and has been an extremely successful pilot, giving Kamal confidence in the quality of his idea and a drive to expand the project. Through Souk el-Tayeb, Kamal has organized regional food fairs, to bring different Lebanese cultures together, promote quality Lebanese produce, and educate people about different kinds of food, and farmers about best agricultural practices in the region.
In the next 5 years, Kamal plans to expand his project throughout Lebanon, first in Saida, in the south, and then Tripoli, in the north. He has developed a framework for the market’s expansion, with rules and regulations to be the basis of any replication, adapted and fine tuned with local partners.
He also has a 10-year plan to expand into other Arab World countries. In particular, he is considering opening branches in Egypt, as he laments the wasted potential for agricultural quality in the fertile Nile Valley. To this end, he has initiated the first steps, cultivating points of contact with the Egyptian agricultural private sector.
In the near future, Kamal also wants to design a more permanent home for Souk El-Tayeb in Beirut, Eco-Souk, an environmentally-friendly and architecturally avant-garde market. This will serve as a model for Souk el Tayeb’s future expansion efforts and for similar projects world-wide.
He also plans to start Beit Loubnan, communal homes of tradition in different Lebanese regions, to increase cross-communal understanding, appreciation, and awareness, while strengthening Lebanese identity and national unity.
In his quest to foster cross-confessional solidarity, Kamal and the Souk have produced a secondary important result, increased support for small farmers. Having grown up on a farm, Kamal has a unique understanding of the challenges facing Lebanese farmers. The biggest challenge these farmers face is finding a steady market for their products, where they can consistently sell them for fair prices. As a cook and food-lover, Kamal has an acute sense of quality; Souk el-Tayeb boasts only organic produce, supporting the viability of small-scale, quality-oriented farmers. Souk el-Tayeb represents the best of both worlds, for the farmer and the average consumer, by bridging the ends of the market and eliminating cost-inflating middlemen.
In addition, he will create a forum for the empowerment of farmers and other agricultural producers, called Tatweer, to build capacity, assist with market-development, and provide an organization through which they can advocate for better working conditions and other changes in government policy.
His latest project is the opening of a restaurant, which will use only Souk El-Tayeb products, called Tawlet Souk El-Tayeb, a cooperative for farmers and cooks of the souk. Each day a different producer and chef partner to prepare typical specialties from their particular region of Lebanon.
Kamal founded Souk El-Tayeb Press in 2007, publishing a monthly newsletter and books on food and agricultural best practices.
Kamal is also very concerned with the state of child and adolescent nutrition. Throughout the Arab World, the eating habits children learn from school-provided food lead to unhealthy lives and frequently problems with obesity. To ameliorate this problem, Kamal is in the process of partnering Souk el-Tayeb with Lebanon’s schools, calling Souk at School, to provide healthy, nutritious, cheap, and delicious food for students’ lunches. In addition, these programs will include an element of cross-cultural education, in accordance with Kamal’s primary goal.
Kamal fondly recalls how, as a child, it was his grandmother’s legendary cooking that brought together his large family, making them forget any differences they may have had. Born in 1969 to a family of farmers, Kamal studied graphic design and held various jobs before writing a guidebook on Lebanon, reflecting his pride in Lebanon’s cultural heritage. In 1993 and 1994, he navigated the country in a gigantic Oldsmobile coupe, alone with his thoughts. Families from small villages invited him into their homes. He discovered the true Lebanon for the first time, and fell in love with it. Kamal became a full-time travel writer, and then a food writer. In 2003, he began weekly appearances on the cooking show “Sohtak bil Sahenn,” or “Your Health in Your Plate,” a program hosted by Mariam Nour, a Lebanese macrobiotics and spirituality guru. Broadcast via satellite by the Lebanese television station NTV, it had a fan base that spanned the Arab world, and he frequently traveled to Arab cities to host cooking workshops.
Kamal founded Souk el-Tayeb in 2004, Lebanon’s first farmers’ market, which aims to “safeguard and promote the knowledge about food traditions and heritage.” He sat on the board of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in Bra, Italy for several years. However, he became disillusioned with the politics of the movement, and decided he could achieve more by working at a grassroots level in his own country.
Since leaving, he has instigated project after project, designed to preserve, promote and celebrate traditional Lebanese cuisine. Initiatives include the Kitchen Workshop in Batroun, a culinary institute that offers cookery seminars and classes, and the first insiders’ guide to his country, featuring essays on architecture, music and cinema by key Lebanese figures, as well as more practical information on places to stay and eat.
Kamal wants to use food as a means of bringing people together. The starting point for him is the land and the products that come from it. His ingrained respect for farmers explains his fierce desire that Souk El Tayeb remain independent, showcasing only local products. Kamal is also determined to ignore politics. As a result, he finds himself able to move freely among different confessional communities.
One of Kamal’s most memorable achievements came on National Unity Day, April 13, 2005. On the 30th anniversary of the start of Lebanon’s brutal civil war, which lasted 15 years, farmers and food producers gathered in Martyrs’ Square, gave out brochures designed like Lebanese passports, and hung aloft a map of the country, embellished with regional food specialties. Community-minded projects like this inspired the filmmaker Iara Lee to partner with Kamal in starting Make Food Not War, a nonprofit organization that aims to promote human rights, conflict resolution, and understanding by raising awareness of “a shared culture of food.” “Food is a way to bond people, to build solidarity,” Lee said in an interview. “A Sunni can go share a meal with a Druze – they can create a bond that not even a hundred pages of political analysis could produce.”
As Kamal says: “In Lebanon we have many different religious sects with seemingly nothing in common. Except food. Muslims and Christians in the north eat the same food. Muslims and Christians in the south eat the same food. The differences are merely regional.”