A conversation with Lebanon’s culinary activist Kamal Mouzawak
Text by Katherine Clary
Photography by Maie Ruth & Rasha Kahil
Kamal Mouzawak starts our conversation with a celebratory note. “To a wide life!” he declares. As the founder of Beirut’s first farmer’s market, Souk el Tayeb, Mouzawak knows a thing or two about possibilities. In 2004, he recognized Beirut’s lack of local produce as an opportunity for productive farmers in the countryside, and the weekly Souk el Tayeb now includes over 100 farmers from all over Lebanon. In addition, he opened Tawlet, a “farmer’s kitchen” that invites a rotating cast of Lebanese women to create the restaurant’s daily menu. Mouzawak stresses that the market and the restaurant are not just about vegetables, they’re vital attempts to maintain the traditions of Lebanon and help people at the same time. It’s these qualities that make him proudest.
Can you tell me a little bit about Souk el Tayeb, the farmer’s market you started?
Souk means “market” in Arabic, and Tayeb means “good”––good as in good taste, good as in good person. In Arabic, when you say a man is good, it means he is alive. The market is about all of these things, but especially about good intentions. I started it in 2004, shortly after the first Garden Show in Beirut. The Garden Show was about promoting and supporting small-scale agriculture, focusing on things like quality production, organic produce, healthier life choices. It was about bringing attention to more holistic approaches to life. I was asked to be a part of that event and take care of the food section. At the time, I was a food writer and a macrobiotic food teacher. The Garden Show had a lot of success, and at the end I thought, why should I stop now? That ended in late May 2004, and the first market was opened on June 10, 2004.
I’ve heard it called a “producer’s market”; I like the sound of that.
The idea of calling it a producer’s market came about because the money for this food goes back to the producer: the farmer. It doesn’t go back into the system. And all the recognition goes back to the farmer, too. Society cares so much about developing urban areas; we forget about the rural population. It’s happening all over the world. We forget that the more we develop the urban areas, the more we need to feed these urban areas. We need to develop these communities equally. And it’s not just specific to Lebanon. It’s happening all over the world. For me, [Souk al Tayeb] is a development project. It’s not solely about food.
What is the geography of Lebanon like, and what does it mean for the crops in the region?
Lebanon is 10,000 square kilometers––it’s 200 kilometers along the coast by 50 kilometers deep. Most of the country is full of mountains––very green and there’s a lot of water, but very mountainous. That being said, most of the country is not very good for the agriculture industry. And we’re surrounded by Jordan, Syria and Turkey, which all have a huge amount of space and ample land. There is not a lot of easy-to-develop land for the agri-industry here, which is why we really need to preserve our small-scale farming. We don’t really have any other choice.
Did Souk al Tayeb develop from Lebanon’s demand for organic and local produce?
It was more about what needed to be done for the farmers, and for the tradition of Lebanon. There were some people that needed to be helped and a tradition to be saved. Whether or not it was needed didn’t matter––it was just a thing that needed to be done. It certainly helped that there was a demand, though. And it helps the consumer understand that food is not just a commodity on a supermarket shelf. I believe it’s really important to have direct contact with the person that created your food, when possible.
What are some obstacles you’ve faced with making the market happen?
Generally the farmers needed a lot of help with preparing their food for the market––things like making sure that the food is safe for the public, properly stored. We also help these farmers package their prepared goods and market their food. We created the “Capacity Building” for that, which has been a very important step. It was made to help improve the skills of the farmers and cooks in a variety of ways.
You’ve expanded the market into a dynamic platform for events and awareness in the community. Can you talk a little about that?
We noticed that there were a lot of people coming to the market, so we decided to use that platform for additional things. We’ve been holding events there and using it to talk about things other than food. On May Day every year, we celebrate the migrant workers in the region. We focused on international labor; now it’s become an annual event. In 2009 we created Tawlet in Beirut, which in Arabic translates to “table.” We have someone come from one region and prepare a menu with our sous chef and the team. It’s planned months in advance. She’ll plan the whole lunch––a buffet of 10 to 15 dishes. Every single day it is a different woman. It’s an expression of who they are and what they do. Our mothers fed us for centuries––we can only attempt to do the same. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.” This is what I live by. This is how we should all be––it’s our contribution to life. What do you know how to do? Do you know how to wait a table well? Do it. Do you know how to brew a beer well? Do it. Everyone should make the best out of their talents and their trades.
What’s the future of the market?
From the Capacity Building and the events at the Farmer’s Market, we realized we could do more than focus on “rural to urban.” We thought, why don’t we go back to the villages and celebrate the wealth of each of these villages? So in 2007, we launched a regional festival we call “Food and Feast.” If your village is known for tomatoes, we will go do a tomato festival there. Or a fish festival, or a kibbeh festival. We focus on the specificity of each village, and these people are so happy and proud to host others and showcase their talents. We also identify one woman of the village and have her prepare lunch for the visitors––for 400, 500, sometimes 1,000 people. So that was the start of looking at the cuisine of the region and not just the produce. It’s a pretty extraordinary way to meet a country. I think a lobster roll tells more about the region of Maine than any other thing. Food is the most sincere and authentic expression of one’s history and roots. It’s been one ingredient at a time. We’re still fine-tuning, evolving. And every time we find a solution, we look at each other and say, “How stupid we were! Why didn’t we think of that before?” Unfortunately, you can’t buy a manual on how to do these things. You learn as you go.