Until recently, describing something as being like ‘Downtown Beirut’ was a simple, somewhat insensitive synonym for the ravages of war and utter civic collapse. The French-colonial art-deco buildings and Levantine laneways packed with bars and cafes meant that Beirut was once crowned the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ however all that was liquidated during a 15 year long civil war that saw the city become the stage for a tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude. Lebanon’s defining characteristic has always been its unique ethnic and religious diversity which had long underpinned its status as the most cosmopolitan city in the Middle East. Sadly, these differences were easily exploited and the Lebanese people became puppets in a wider sectarian struggle that pitted Christian against Muslim, Shia against Sunni and everyone against Israel. The civil war is still closer than a distant memory and the city last saw conflict with Israel as recently as 2007 but that has not stopped the world’s attention being placed firmly on the city as a moneyed diaspora pours its resources into its phoenix like rise. As its reputation as the centre of Arabic avant garde and as a sultry adult playground is quickly restored, Beirut now has more common with Berlin than the ‘city of lights’. As the concrete of development continues to be hastily poured over its raw wounds, traditional farmers, chefs and some very patient teta’s (lebanese for grandmothers) are collaborating together at Tawlet, a radical ‘producer’s kitchen’ that is drawing on Lebanon’s only truly secular asset for renewal and reconciliation, its legendary food.
On Saturday morning, in the rebuilt Saifi district, adjacent to the where the ‘green line’ once divided the city into east and west is a farmers market. It is a market like many others in gentrified areas in metropolis’ around the world however on closer inspection the Souk el Tayeb reveals itself to be one of the most extraordinary developments of Beirut reborn. Established in 2004 by travel writer turned guardian of the Lebanese culinary tradition Kamal Mouzawak, it has become a symbol of the unifying power of food in a country where just about the only thing that binds people is their mutual love of hummos and baklava. It is a place where producers from all communities – Palestinian, Muslim, Christian, Druze – come together once a week to sell their produce. During the Hezbollah-Israel conflict in 20007 as the bombs rained down, the market remained open and garnered international headlines for its ‘make food, not war’ stoicism.
You would think that initiating a famers market that brought the fractured communities of Lebanon together in the place where they ripped each other apart was radical enough, however it is Tawlet that is masterstroke. Meaning ‘the kitchen table’ in Arabic, he has created a revolutionary concept for an eating house that has managed to commune Lebanese people no matter what their political stripe, ethnic background or religious conviction to gather at the table and break pita. Drawing on his many, varied contacts throughout the small country and the network of goodwill he has built with the market, Mouzawak now curates this ‘producer’s kitchen’ where each day a different farmer, grandmother or shepherd comes to commandeer the space for lunch. It is a fascinating thing to behold as each day brings new recipes, traditions and stories. In the kitchen the language wafts in and out of english, french and arabic as the young staff are instructed at first timidly and then often with chiding authority by the grandmothers. The buffet is laid out with whatever the producer decides and always includes dishes from beyond the typical realm of mezze. Slow cooked stews, goat kibbeh in yoghurt and vibrant tabbouleh and fattoush are piled high in the stylish white platters alongside whole perfectly ripe organic tomatoes, clumps of mint, fresh labne and tiny crisp cucumbers.
Mouzawak views Tawlet and Souk el Tayeb as a ‘development project’ but there is not a trace of a patronizing attitude in this approach, nor does it feel as if you are giving a donation to a worthy cause. Tawlet inhabits a chic and open space would be as much at home in Tribeca or SoHo as is in Burj Hammoud, the Armenian quarter of Beirut. The food is varied, of exceptional quality and the parties involved conduct themselves with a rare degree of pride and care. The cleverness of the Tawlet experiment is that it does not make the producers and their food a curious time capsule but elevates and dignifies their work and in the process normalizes it. The glorious diversity and secrets of the Lebanese culinary tradition, once only possible to witness in the privates homes of the aged and under threat from conflict and migration, is now celebrated, shared and ultimately, rescued.
© Vogue Living, October 2010, Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora