Bounded by modernization and heritage, Souk el Tayeb is not only a cutting edge social entrepreneurial venture, but also a site where a contemporary feeling of fraternity is established around traditional oriental cuisine from all of Lebanon’s corners. The project served as Beirut’s first farmers’ market, conserving the country’s culinary folklore and the practice of viable agriculture.
It was the idea of bringing people together around a common ground that initiated Kamal Mouzawak, a young Lebanese born into a family of rural producers, to found Souk el Tayeb (tayeb means “tasting good” in Arabic).
“Lebanon is quite unique, in terms of diversity but at the same time very fragile,” Mouzawak says.
Growing up during the civil war, Mouzawak had long dreamed of establishing an attraction that would make the most out of the country’s religious differences, rather than fight over them. What better than food to unite people around a table?
Lebanon’s Mediterranean cuisine is its people’s shared identity: Lebanese from all religions eat the same food. For Easter, the Maronites have maamoul, a stuffed buttery cookie with dates, walnuts and pistachios while the Sunnis and Shiites eat the same pastry for Eid al Adha, to celebrate the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
It occurred to Mouzawak that both agriculture and cuisine were handled identically despite geographical differences, and this is what brought him to establish a farmers’ market in 2004, in the heart of Beirut with ambitious producers from all around the country.
The intention behind the producers’ only market was to put them first, so that they could establish a direct contact with the customer and secure an equitable price for their goods. Harmony and cooperation was also meant to be one of Souk el Tayeb’s main characteristics: every Saturday, Shiite women from the south exchange warm pastries and organic soap along with Northern Sunni farmers selling their self-grown vegetables.
Besides bringing people together from various backgrounds to create a harmonious atmosphere, Souk el Tayeb reckons on the principle of fair trade by acting as a reliable business partner for modest rural producers. The organization places itself as a platform between producers and consumers, so that no artificial gain relative to the manufacturer occurs.
Souk el Tayeb especially wishes to enhance Lebanese heritage and culture by endorsing home cooking traditions and eco-friendly food preparation in a country where fast food consumption and other unhealthy Western culinary practices are rising.
Mouzawak’s ambition did not stop at the weekly farmer’s market in downtown. Having acquired experience in the Lebanese restaurant business, the idea of opening a place where the final result of his products could be shown came to mind. This is when the concept of Tawlet was born in 2009, with a kitchen in Mar Mikhael and Ammiq, Bekaa.
Set in a remodeled repair shop, Tawlet, which means “Table” in Arabic, offers an open buffet of local culinary varieties all freshly prepared by regional producers from different suburbs. The menu changes daily and is mostly based on Lebanese specialties such as kebbet samak and frikeh, a dish made of roasted chicken and wheat. Local culinary items such as cedar honey and natural, sugar free jam can also be purchased from the restaurant; however, be careful not to ask your waiter for any soft drinks. He might give you a deceitful look as the place is strictly organic.
Mouzawak is thankful for the power of recognition his project has given him. “We keep on receiving donations from European nations and nongovernmental groups, which made us, think: are we going to do more of the same, or should we do something different to give more? How can each of us make a change?” he asks.
This train of thought brought his colleagues and Mouzawak, with the help of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to provide an occupation to Syrian refugee women to improve their dreadful conditions.
On November 30, 2013, “Once upon a time… olden times delicacies of Syria” took place in downtown Beirut, an event that gave the opportunity for these women to present their own regional dishes such as mouhammariya from Deir Zor and meat and cherries from Aleppo. Caritas also participated in the project, whose objective was to enhance the skills of female refugees and make them feel productive while giving them hope and confidence.
“These women came to Lebanon with nothing, so it was necessary to give them a meaning for their existence and remind them of their dignity,” said Mouzawak.
He had the creative idea of redrawing the Syrian map through its culinary varieties, from Damascus all the way to Aleppo, along with Homs and other regions. “Food reflects the antiquity and culture of the country, and the cuisine of each nation has become the integrity of its citizens, wherever they wander” Mouzawak stated.
From bringing people together in peace around a meal, to encouraging sustainable, fair trade, and, finally, recruiting refugees to reinforce their dignity and pride, what is left to say about Souk el Tayeb and its founders? Only that it is truly a rare jewel among few Lebanese ornaments.
For further information or inquiries, please visit Souk el Tayeb’s websitehttp://www.soukeltayeb.com/ or call 01-442664.
Lebanese fashion designer and AUB alumnus Reem Acra (BBA ’82) announced that she would soon be designing for the Middle East after having based most of her work and clientele in the United States and Asia for the past three decades.
Acra enrolled at AUB as a business student, but had always had a penchant for the arts, especially craftsmanship and dressmaking. During one of the parties hosted by her parents, Acra captivated a fashion editor’s attention with an embroidered silk gown handmade from her mother’s dining room tablecloth.
The encounter eventually gave her the opportunity to exhibit her designs in her own fashion show at AUB’s Green Oval. Following the show’s success, Acra found her true calling and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Reem Acra’s client list includes numerous ‘A List’ Hollywood actresses such as Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Catherine Zeta Jones and Kate Hudson, to name a few. Being one of the few Middle Eastern women to have inaugurated her own house in the United States at the time, Acra thinks quite highly of herself and is especially bound to inspire other Arab women to start their own business.
The Middle East seems to be more focused on importing foreign fashion luxury brands and selling them, rather than encouraging local young creators on developing their talent. Acra is determined to help expand the local fashion industry although she admits there is a lot to be done.
Lebanese designers, namely Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad and, of course, Acra herself became famous for their unique type of art and craftsmanship; their mix of oriental delicacy with Western contemporary design paved the way to tremendous success worldwide. Most of the other Lebanese artists had to leave their homeland for the West hoping to build a promising career due to weak job opportunities and expenditure in the Middle East at the time.
Acra is not the first successful designer to have expressed the desire to return to her origins and expand the local fashion industry. The Starch Foundation sponsors and guides regional young artists while exposing them to the fashion business.
Rabih Kayrouz, Lebanese designer established in Paris founded the association with the hope to mentor and encourage the artisans who are seeing their potential and talent waste away due to the lack of opportunities for artists in Lebanon.
Acra is content about the Gulf’s economic growth, which has permitted the fashion market to expand in the Middle East. Dubai, for example, has recently served as a major international push by becoming the Arab world’s fashion capital.
With the region’s diversity of artistic talents, Acra is confident about her plan for the Middle East although it will require a great amount of patience; “Fashion does not get established in two days, fashion takes time”, she said.