Now reading Love in Times of War

Love in Times of War

A profile of Lebanese chef, author, and entrepreneur Kamal Mouzawak.

When Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, people who had been enemies for years had to find their way back to each other. This is what Kamal Mouzawak, the Lebanon-based creator of Souk el Tayeb (“the good (and/or tasty) bazaar”), Beirut’s first open-air farmer’s market, explains to me. Since its founding in 2004, Souk el Tayeb has expanded from a weekly market and nonprofit venture to help farmers to include for-profit extensions dedicated to supporting traditional agricultural practices and culinary traditions. The Souk hosts one hundred vendors selling handmade foods and goods from all over the country and serves as the anchor organization for projects focused on preserving culinary traditions for local and refugee populations. These efforts range from regional food festivals highlighting small farmers and local agriculture to workshops for women refugees on the marketing and sale of food products.

The most popular—and delicious—of Souk el Tayeb’s efforts is Tawlet (“table”), an eco-friendly, communal kitchen featuring cuisine from different parts of Lebanon. Tawlet features people Kamal describes as “home cooks telling the stories of a region through food.” Meals are prepared in an open kitchen and served at communal tables, reinforcing Kamal’s goal of reconciliation through food.

In a country once divided along ethnic and religious lines, food has served as an opportunity for empowerment and reconnection. “Lebanon is a place that’s half land people, half sea people; half Christian, half Muslim; half women in bikini, half in burka,” Kamal says. “The concept of ‘other’ doesn’t exist. We all grew up with war around us.”

And lately, it’s being carried over from the neighboring country of Syria: Lebanon is home to the most refugees per capita in the world. Around 20 percent of the country’s population is comprised of those who have fled the Syrian conflict.

Our interview unfolded over several days, starting on email and moving to in-person exchanges in New York City and upstate New York, over multiple cups of tea and cider, and impromptu plates of bread, hummus, and produce from the Hudson Valley. Every sip and bite brought us back to the exploration of how food helps us heal and rebuild.

You were six years old when the Lebanese Civil War started in 1975. Tell me about growing up outside of Beirut with “war around you.” How did this impact what and how you ate?

The second you heard something going on, you had to go stock up on bread. People used to queue for hours just to get a bag. And you needed to stock up on tinned and dried foods, things that could keep.

We had a garden, so [fresh food] wasn’t really an issue. But in the last Lebanese war, during the Israeli invasion [in 2006], I really understood food mapping. Coriander was planted in a part of the country that was cut off from the rest, so Lebanon was out of coriander for a week or two. The things that you don’t realize. When you don’t have an airport anymore, you don’t have access to products that used to be transported by air.

What about now? Lebanon has absorbed more Syrian refugees into its population than any other country in the world. Has this shown up in what people are eating?

Each land has her tradition. Damascus, [the second-largest city in Syria,] for instance, is a very sophisticated, rich city, so it would express itself with sophisticated and rich cuisine. Yesterday I used cardamom in something, and my colleague Georgina al Bayeh was shocked because she is from a village that never uses cardamom. She straightaway said, “Ah, they only use that in Tripoli.” Tripoli is only ten kilometers [about six miles] away from her village. Tripoli has the same traditions as Damascus, and you know how far they are? Tripoli is in Lebanon on the sea, Damascus, the capital of Syria, is inland, but both of them are important, rich, sophisticated merchant cities, with a lot of Sunni Muslims, so they have the same traditions.

If you go farther up the mountain from Georgina’s village, there will be people who would have never used coriander in their life because it is very sophisticated. It’s city food. Instead they use mint. It’s very rustic food, completely different. Sophisticated means elaborate preparation, like baklava. Or sophisticated ingredients.

I’m struck by the diversity of agricultural traditions in such a small country. (Lebanon is tiny—roughly 4,000 square miles, more than three-fourths the size of Connecticut, and about a quarter of that land can support crop production.)

What amazed me was the people. How all of these people from different regions, different origins, different religions and everything, could be enemies. Now, if you come to them with an open heart and open arms, they would have wider arms.

This is life for me. We’re the doers, we’re the builders, and, by the end of the day, the destroyers. What are we going to do with ourselves—and all that surrounds us? How much are we going to destroy? And how much are we going to build? It’s not about being similar. It’s about looking for a common ground, looking for similarities beyond differences.

When the war ended, I worked at this cultural center, Art et Culture, and every last Friday of the month we did a thing called Invitation de Voyage. People traveled, came and showed their slides, and told us about their trips. At the same time, we’d be cooking a dish from that country in the cafeteria.

I was amazed, you know, being in this part of Beirut, and seeing people coming from north, from south, from here and there. Where were they coming from? The roads were very bad. It took hours—two, three hours—to drive sometimes. It was there I understood the importance of a common ground. You need a date, a time, and a place to get together physically and start building something.

Soon after, I organized a trip to Aleppo, Syria—one of the big loves of my life. Afterward, one of the people on the trip said, “It was wonderful, please do the same in Lebanon.” So I started touring this country that I had heard of and never visited—my own country. It would be like, in the U.S., if your parents told you, “Oh, you know, when you were kids, before the war, we used to go to the Catskills, and they have wonderful fish. But you can never cross to the Catskills now because there’s a border, and they would kill you if you go there.” Then, one day everything was, again, open. I had an old Oldsmobile. For two years, I toured this country, discovered it, and wrote a book about it.

In your book Lebanese Home Cooking, you weave stories about Armenians, Palestinians, and Syrians through your recipes. In our earlier conversations, you reminded me that the Lebanese population is Muslim, Druze, and Christian. You say there is no “other,” but at the same time you’re celebrating, through your work—through the restaurant, through the market, and emphasis on place—specific identities.

Identity beyond segregation. Link to your identity—but don’t use it as a sword to eradicate me. Just bring it as one other flower in this bouquet of different flowers and different additions.

In your recent presentation at the Chefs Collaborative Summit, you said the best way to tell a story is through food. Why is food your vehicle for connection?

It was always a passion of mine even when I was a kid. What amazes me is metamorphosis. At Tawlet, the farmers’ kitchen of Soul Al Tayeb, Rima Massoud makes the best saj. [A bread Kamal describes in his book as “a single layer, baked on a convex steel sheet, and is nearly 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter!”] I defy anyone to bake a better one. She does it like the pizza—it’s as big as that. And it’s thin, like a towel—very, very thin. It’s the best ever you can have. How can Rima take flour, water, and salt, and make something out of it? Taking different ingredients and putting them together—sometimes it makes an atomic bomb, sometimes it makes something extraordinary. See what she did. Go see her dough, how it’s living now. It’s living. She created life. There’s no yeast in her dough. It’s going to naturally leaven. This is called life, Simran. From three stupid ingredients, she created life. And she is filling me not just with her bread, but by her life, by her story.

Our identity shows up so powerfully in and through food. How do we help people express that creativity?

It’s a long process. It’s a process of integration first of all. It’s a wonderful slogan to say, “Make food not war,” but, as I also say, “When you are under the bombs, you fucking go to a fucking shelter. You don’t talk bullshit.”

First of all, we stop the bullets. But even before that, there’s also a base level of civil rights that people must have. Later on, we’ll talk about reconciliation. We cannot manifest reconciliation from two different standpoints or two different levels. Reconciliation means we are sitting on the same sofa together, and we’re talking. You’re not sitting upstairs. If you are sitting upstairs it’s not called reconciliation. It’s called, “I’m gonna tell you what to do, and you’re gonna do it, and I don’t want to hear you.” It’s not a question of reconciliation in Lebanon with the Syrian refugees; it’s about forging a relationship and empowering them a bit.

The most important thing is recognition. Refugees need a job to have a salary, that’s for sure. But they also need pride and recognition. My colleague Zeinab Kashmar is Shiite [Muslim] and veiled, but no one sees her that way. Rima, Georgina, myself, and Zeinab, we were at an event in the South of France, like, three years ago. Burning sun, six hundred people. At one point, Rima says, as we’re sweating away, “For this feast, we do this kind of cookie.” It was a Druze feast. Zeinab looks at her and says, “Ah, you are Druze? I never knew you were Druze.” This is achievement. Zeinab is religiously engaged, but she worked with Rima for five years and never wondered what she was. We created a space of trust where you can be who you want to be without stepping on others’ rights or space. And they were on a common ground for five years beyond the religion and beyond the differences.

This is something I am sharing with you now, but it’s not common in Lebanon. Because, when we bring it up, people are protective of their religious identity. Forget it. Just keep it aside. You’ll do yours as you want, I’ll do mine as I want. If you are around, let’s go pick the mint, let’s talk about the mint, let’s cook the mint. We’ll be busy doing something together, and we’ll forget our differences.

This ties into Atayeb Zaman (“the delicious past”)—the culinary training program you helped create that teaches female refugees how to market and sell the foods they’ve been cooking and eating their whole lives. It’s a source of income, and it builds a bridge between the past and future: their Syrian homeland and their new life in Lebanon.

When we do any of our capacity-building programs, the first session is always very, very tense. Like one time, we were in Tripoli—on a warfront with people from both sides—with widows or those who had lost a son or a daughter. And you’re talking about nothing—cutting techniques, knives, on and on. You should have seen those people at the end. Everyone didn’t stay; some people left. But you should see the results in those who stayed.

They discovered the other was the fucking same. They discovered that the other had the same fears, the same expectations, the same problems. I’m the reason for your problems—and you’re the reason for mine. Can both of us move on to something different, rather than “I’ll hit you, you hit me; I’ll hit you, then you hit me?” Then what? We’ll both kill each other, right? Or we’ll both stop at the same time and say, “Okay, let’s move on.”

You’re talking about conflict resolution and capacity building, but, at the end of the day, this is really just about breaking bread. This is really just about—


And thriving.

Thriving, yes. But isn’t this just what food should be? How can we not celebrate what we’re doing? Are we so busy we have to drink coffee in the street? Let’s wake up five minutes earlier in the morning and have those minutes to just sit because we respect ourselves. And because each act we engage in is an act of adoration—each and every act.

For me, food is used as an expression to do something else. It’s for human betterment, which means me, you, the reader, the producer, each and every one of us. You use writing as a tool. I use storytelling and developing projects. Georgina uses a tool called kibbe; Rima uses a tool called bread.

How can everything we do be part of a bigger picture? And can it contribute in a positive way to Life, with a big L? I choose the medium that I like and that is very easy for people. What else can people relate to more than food? Reading? Art? Music? Nothing. Nothing at all. Food is the one and only thing that we can relate to the most. We’re eating with everybody—all the time. So we’re going to use food as a tool. Not as an end, but as a purpose.

People have different traditions, different skin color, different shapes, but people are always the same, with the same fear, with the same expectation, with the same love.