Make food, not war

Kamal Mouzawak, who set up a farmers’ market and a co-operative restaurant in Beirut, believes in the unifying bond of sharing food

Kamal Mouzawak with one of the chefs at Tawlet in Beirut

Kamal Mouzawak with one of the chefs at Tawlet in Beirut

Sat, Nov 2, 2013, 01:00

If Kamal Mouzawak calls you cuckoo-crazy that’s a big compliment. The 44-year-old Lebanese restaurateur did something that many would have described as cuckoo almost a decade ago. He started a farmers’ market in Beirut.

The Souk el-Tayeb brought people in from the fields and farms around the city to sell food along what used to be Beirut’s Green Line between east and west, where trees and greenery had grown wild during the war.

Mouzawak’s idea was simple. Food unites people, dissolving difference and connecting place and a shared history of food memories. Tayeb is Arabic for “good”, but it’s a rounded version of the word that brings in ideas of tastiness as well as virtue.

His next move was to set up a canteen called Tawlet, a farmer’s kitchen where, each day, a different woman from the villages and countryside came to cook a range of traditional dishes. Helped by a staff of chefs, the indigenous cook brought her ideas to a city audience, 12 to 15 dishes at a time.

Mouzawak is a food evangelist, a believer in food as a pillar of humanity. He spoke at René Redzepi’s first Mad Food camp in Copenhagen two years ago about the power of food to create a common ground between diverse people.

Tradition wasn’t just a book that people opened and read, he said, but food that they tasted and shared.

It was an idea that worked in peaceful times and is now being tested in the instability threatening the Middle East.

In March last year Mouzawak took Tawlet to Ammiq, a village in a Unesco-listed Biosphere Reserve in the Bekaa Valley where they open at weekends in a large open air space and women come from surrounding villages to cook.

The area, a wheat and dairy region, is more land-locked than the Beirut farmers’ kitchen. It is also within earshot of bombs in Syria. And it is the “first door for Syrians to come to Lebanon, ” Mouzawak explains.

The country has taken in a million Syrian refugees, the equivalent to the total population of Beirut. And the instability has meant that Arab tourists who used to come to Lebanon are staying away.

As a food evangelist, Mouzawak’s slogan was “Make food not war”. In the Bekaa Valley, it’s too soon for slogans, he says. The fighting in neighbouring Syria has to stop and the economy has to start to function again before his or any other slogans can be shouted again.

He is struck by the emotion of Syrian refugees that he has spoken to about their food traditions. Their eyes shine when they talk about the things they loved to cook and eat. It’s an experience that reminds him how everyman and woman his idea is.

“I never wanted to have this project as just Lebanese,” he said on the eve of a visit to Dublin last month. “It’s about universal values that bring people together.

“Food is not a commodity you can buy on a supermarket shelf. Someone has to plant, produce and cook that. It has to be done by someone and if you are not doing it yourself you need to at least have a direct contact with someone who is.”

In Ireland, “where you are so rich in farming tradition”, it can be forgotten that there is someone behind the food, that cities could not have developed without the food from rural communities, he says.

Food and indigenous cooking also remind us who we are. “I don’t want to be eating the same thing all around the world,” he says. Industrially produced food may be cheap, but it is “costing you a lot individually. On a social level, you have people leaving the rural areas. It’s not environmentally friendly.”

He adores Ireland, he says, and sees Irish people as the Lebanese of Europe. “You love well, eat well, drink well and have big hearts.” He believes food has filled an emotional hole in a post-religious life where an absence of ritual has left us hungry for connections with other people.

“People watch cooking TV for hours. Cooking books are the most sold. You watch food TV, but you don’t do it?” You can tell by the tone of his voice he considers that to be just plain crazy.

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