Break­ing Bar­ri­ers



The sim­ple phi­los­o­phy to “make food, not war” guides Ka­mal Mouza­wak as he brings peo­ple to­gether and serves de­li­cious food across Le­banon. By Lau­ren Mow­ery

It’s Wed­nes­day, just be­fore 1 p.m. and Beirut’s denizens are fill­ing Tawlet’s wooden tables. Stu­dents shrug off back­packs next to busi­ness­men pulling news­pa­pers from their brief­cases. To­gether, they check the chalk­board for the day’s dishes, while wait­ing for the buf­fet to open. Ja­male, a cook from the town of Ba­troun, about an hour up the coast, works be­hind a steel ta­ble in the sun­lit space. Brow fur­rowed just be­low her white head­scarf, the sturdy mid­dleaged woman floats be­tween plat­ters of food, adding fi­nal flour­ishes be­fore the storm of din­ers rav­ages her work. She driz­zles olive oil over smoky baba ghanoush; strews fresh herbs and pome­gran­ate seeds atop stewed beans; dresses tangy lab­neh and greens with sliv­ers of al­mond and a sprin­kle of tart sumac. She wipes her hands on her apron, then adds a serving spoon to each dish. The af­ter­noon repast may be­gin.

Tawlet, which ref­er­ences both a ta­ble and a farm­ers’ kitchen, serves lunch Mon­day through Sat­ur­day. To the ca­sual ob­server, the laid-back self-ser­vice of this Beirut in­sti­tu­tion be­lies the im­por­tance of the so­cial ex­per­i­ment hap­pen­ing in­side. In­deed, the restau­rant is based on an un­usual premise: Ev­ery day, a woman from a dif­fer­ent vil­lage trav­els to the city to pre­pare dishes from her home­town, us­ing mar­ket pro­duce. These women hold the se­crets to recipes at risk of ex­tinc­tion as the coun­try’s youngest gen­er­a­tions lose touch with their stove­tops. And Le­banese food and travel writer Ka­mal Mouza­wak feels com­pelled to pre­serve those recipes. The first Tawlet opened in Beirut in 2009, but ac­cord­ing to Mouza­wak, the idea came not from an “aha” mo­ment but rather as an or­ganic ex­ten­sion of a se­ries of pro­jects. The seeds were planted far ear­lier, not long af­ter Le­banon’s bit­ter civil war ended in 1990. At the time, he be­came in­volved with a cul­tural cen­ter in a bul­let-rid­dled house in Beirut. “The idea was to bring peo­ple di­vided by the war to­gether,” said Mouza­wak. “Peo­ple who had been en­e­mies the day be­fore flocked to this house for art and cul­ture ac­tiv­i­ties—and this amazed me. It was a great teach­ing in my life. I un­der­stood the im­por­tance of hav­ing a com­mon ground.” In May 2004, Mouza­wak was asked to or­ga­nize a small pro­duce ex­hibit for a gar­den show in Beirut’s hip­po­drome. It proved to be so pop­u­lar that he se­cured a per­ma­nent space at a week­end flower bazaar, found­ing the first open-air farm­ers’ mar­ket in the cap­i­tal. The mar­ket, called Souk el Tayeb, be­came a demo­cratic space where peo­ple—no mat­ter their ori­gins, pol­i­tics or wealth—could come to­gether around food on a Sat­ur­day morn­ing. The mar­ket be­gat Mouza­wak’s next idea: trans­port­ing city-dwellers to the coun­try­side to con­nect with farm­ers in their vil­lages. “When you live in a city, you’re con­fined to

a box called an apart­ment. Then we’re amazed that peo­ple lose con­tact with na­ture,” he said. The goal was to cel­e­brate lo­cal tra­di­tions through re­gional food fes­ti­vals called Food & Feast. Need­ing lunch at the fes­ti­vals, Mouza­wak asked vil­lage cooks— by de­fault of tra­di­tion, al­ways fe­male—to pre­pare a buf­fet meal. The suc­cess of that ven­ture led to an­other con­cept: “Take the model fur­ther by open­ing a restau­rant on a daily ba­sis, in a reach­able place—beirut.” Thus, the first Tawlet was born. Driven by an ethos of eco­nom­i­cally em­pow­er­ing women and small farm­ers while unit­ing the coun­try through nour­ish­ment, Mouza­wak de­fined his grow­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion’s slo­gan as “Make food, not war.” With help and vi­sion from busi­ness part­ner Chris­tine Codsi, what started as a sin­gle mar­ket evolved into a string of six restau­rants and four guest­houses (called beits) across Le­banon. He’s quick to point out, how­ever, that he’s not a veg­etable ven­dor, restau­ra­teur or hote­lier: “I’m just creat­ing an ex­change. Ev­ery­thing we do is a hu­man de­vel­op­ment project. It’s about the peo­ple, not the prod­uct.” That last sen­ti­ment may be best ex­em­pli­fied by the work Souk El Tayeb does in refugee camps. Mouza­wak and his team, for ex­am­ple, raised money for women in­side the Pales­tinian refugee camp Burj El Bara­jneh to fund what is now a thriv­ing food-truck busi­ness (see page 4). Women have ben­e­fited the most from Souk El Tayeb. Nearly 700, in­clud­ing Syr­ian and Pales­tinian refugees, Chris­tians, Mus­lims, young and old, have been trained to work across the var­i­ous busi­nesses. He finds them, said Mouza­wak, through re­fer­rals, word of mouth, friends, sis­ters, moth­ers. When he opened his first B&B, a ren­o­vated his­tor­i­cal

Le­banese home in Douma, he hired Ja­male to run the kitchen and guest cook­ing classes be­cause of her rep­u­ta­tion within the vil­lage. Asked about her ex­pe­ri­ence of shar­ing her food, Ja­male beamed. “At first I was ner­vous,” she said. “I thought peo­ple in the city wouldn’t like it. But then they came; they told me it’s good. And I was proud.” Mouza­wak dreams about tak­ing Tawlet be­yond Le­banon’s bor­ders—any­where that women’s tra­di­tional home-cooked cui­sine could be show­cased. “It’s not about do­ing more my­self. It’s about get­ting more peo­ple in­volved,” he said. “It’s all about in­clu­sion.” LAU­REN MOW­ERY, J.D., D.W.S., is an award-win­ning writer and pho­tog­ra­pher, and con­tribut­ing travel ed­i­tor at Wine En­thu­si­ast. She’s cur­rently pur­su­ing her Mas­ter of Wine cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Rima Mas­soud stretches dough for bread she sells at the Beirut souk. She’s fa­mous for her bread, as well as pre­serves made from fruit grown on her farm—one that’s been in her fam­ily for hun­dreds of years. Since get­ting in­volved with Souk El Tayeb, Mas­soud has worked to mas­ter her vil­lage’s recipes so she can share them when she cooks in the Beirut Tawlet.

Drive about 37 miles south­east of Beirut and you’ll find your­self in the Shouf Bio­sphere Re­serve, a UN­ESCO site that pro­tects one of the largest stands of Le­banese cedar trees. Wan­der the re­serve’s 155 miles of trails through stands of these mag­nif­i­cent trees, then bed down at Souk El Tayeb’s Beit Am­miq guest­house (pic­tured here). It over­looks the Bekaa Val­ley, home to many Le­banese farms and vine­yards. Learn more about Souk El Tayeb’s restau­rants, guest­houses and mar­kets at

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