Food for thought - GulfToday

Food for thought

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Beit El Baraka was launched by Maya Chams Ibrahimchah last year to offer a helping hand to elderly and retired people abandoned by the Lebanese state. (Supplied)

Beit El Baraka was launched by Maya Chams Ibrahimchah last year to offer a helping hand to elderly and retired people abandoned by the Lebanese state. (Supplied)

“Doing well by doing good,” has become the motto of Souk El-Tayeb and Beit El-Baraka, two recently founded multi-purpose operations among scores of non-governmental organisations doing jobs Lebanon’s dysfunctional state should be performing. Both are located in East Beirut near the port area devastated by the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion which killed 2019 and rendered homeless 300,000.

Souk El-Tayeb, the “Good Market,” was founded in 2004 by Kamal Mouzawak who began with a farmers market to enable growers and food producers to earn money and promote cooperation among rural communities neglected during 15 years of civil war (1975-1990) and the unstable aftermath.

Since its creation, Souk El-Tayeb has established restaurants (Tawlet) featuring Lebanese food, guest houses (Beit) in traditional homes, a shop (Deknet) selling farmers’ products and Matbah El Kell. Born in response to the port blast, Matbah El Kell or Community Kitchen began by providing daily meals for 1,200 and is currently supplying 600 meals to elderly men and women who cannot afford nutritious ingredients or bottled gas to cook for themselves.

Matbah El Kell, located in the Souk’s premises, and the Tawlet upstairs employ 20 people on a regular basis as well as part-timers in rotation. Produce is also on sale in the Beirut Tawlet which serves lunches and dinners cooked by different chefs from around the country. There are Tawlets also in north Lebanon, Sidon, the Chouf, the Bekaa, and Paris. Profits are ploughed back into the organisation which seeks to become self-financing.

Gulf Today visited Souk El Tayeb in a converted warehouse where the farmers market takes place Saturdays while during the week chefs in a well-appointed enclosed kitchen prepare meals for Matbah El Kell and relays of men and women spoon the food into containers for delivery to Beit El Baraka’s mini-supermarket.

There a wide range of food, cleaning and hygiene products are free. Shopping in this narrow store with goods-filled shelves both provides customers with their needs and preserves their dignity, Christine Codsi, Souk El Tayeb managing partner, told Gulf Today. “Make food not war,” is the organisation’s other slogan.

At the supermarket entrance cheerful women in their best dresses sit for a chat as they collect their meals while shabby men — ashamed that they cannot provide for themselves or their families — furtively thrust food packets into crumpled plastic bags and disappear.

Beit El Baraka, the “Blessed House,” founded By Maya Chams Ibrahimchah to aid families in acute distress and prevent the middle class from descending into poverty, is a far larger organisation. It emerged in 2018 only a few months before the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising which filled the streets and squares of the country with hundreds of thousands of angry Lebanese demanding that politicians be held accountable for the economic crisis afflicting the country and calling for an end to the sectarian system of governance.

Before the port catastrophe, Beit El Baraka refurbished homes to provide decent living conditions and settled unpaid rent and bills for electricity and water; covered medical treatment for members; established the supermarket; and provided psychological care for chidren and families traumatised by Lebanon’s dire situation. After the port blast, the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II, this became essential for many mentally stressed victims and families.

Beit al Baraka has registered more than 225,000 people in need and depends on 25,700 donors. It has refurbished 3,011 homes and invested in small businesses, solar panels, computer labs in underprivileged neighbourhoods, parks and public spaces. The charity has also created several organic farms on 500,000 square meters of land for producing vegetables, grain, and fruit and raising sheep for dairy products, poultry for eggs and consumption, and honey from bee hives.

Beit El Baraka also aims to promote a return to the land by millions of farmers who in previous decades migrated to cities transforming Lebanon from a producer of its own food to an importer of 80 per cent of consumption. This effort complements the work of Souk El Tayeb among existing farmers.

In late 2020, the organisation also launched Kanz, “Treasure,” a culinary collection of delicacies recovered through research in Lebanese history and tradition. Wearing hair nets and covid masks, my colleague and I were ushered into the Kanz kitchen by grants department manager Natasha Gideon. There we met chef Elissa, who trained both in Lebanon and Spain, and who shared with us chocolates made with hummos (chickpeas) rather than almonds and beautiful sweets made of nuts in the the shape of horns. A traditional Lebanese house near the Sursock museum in Beirut is currently under renovation as a restaurant which will serve dishes which have been forgotten and lost while Lebanon has been beset by equally destructive modernisation and politico-socio-economic troubles. The restaurant will raise funds to finance Beit El Baraka’s projects.

Lebanon’s travails have brought out the best in many people. During a chance meeting on a street in Mar Mikhail, Hashmeg Khaniyan described how her niece was wounded and trapped by the port blast in her fifth floor flat in a badly damaged apartment block. Hashmeg begged two young volunteers on a mmotor cycle to rescue Tanya before she bled to death. “Please, Ali, please, Ali, save her.”

Ali and his colleague risked their lives to climb the stairs to the apartment to bring Tanya down and take her to hospital where doctors sewed up huge gashes on the left side of her head and along her arm and leg. “You know, Arabs and Armenians are good friends,” she said repeatedly.

Hashmeg proudly showed us the handsomely restored apartment block rebuilt by an NGO and introduced us to fully recovered Tanya, a beautiful young woman whose scars were hidden by her hair, her long-sleeved shirt and trousers. Lebanon’s wounds from the port blast are deep and for life.   

Dedicated Lebanese men and women have assumed the responsibilities of the absent Lebanese state, but need is monumental and financial resources are severely limited while tens of billions of dollars are being invested in weapons and reconstruction for Ukraine. The difference is, of course, that Ukraine is in Europe and Lebanon is in Eastern Arab World.

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