Make Food, Not War: The Role of Food and Intimacy in Spaces of Conflict and Tension in Lebanon - the Case of Souk el Tayeb

Make Food, Not War: The Role of Food and Intimacy in Spaces of Conflict and Tension in Lebanon - the Case of Souk el Tayeb

‘What is it about food?’ I ask Jihane. She replies, as though it was obvious, ‘Food unites everybody, don’t you like to eat?’ This attitude pervades everything Souk el Tayeb does. From their weekly farmers’ market selling locally sourced and grown products, to their Capacity Building Programmes, to their restaurant Tawlet, Souk El Tayeb actively fosters a culture of positivity, promoting the idea that food can heal the wounds of political and personal conflict. Jihane continues, ‘Our slogan is “make food, not war.”’

Creator: Joseph Kai. All rights reserved.

‘What is it about food?’ I ask Jihane. She replies, as though it was obvious, ‘Food unites everybody, don’t you like to eat?’ This attitude pervades everything Souk el Tayeb[1] does. From their weekly farmers’ market selling locally sourced and grown products, to their Capacity Building Programmes, to their restaurant Tawlet, Souk El Tayeb actively fosters a culture of positivity, promoting the idea that food can heal the wounds of political and personal conflict. Jihane continues, ‘Our slogan is “make food, not war.”’

In 2004, Kamal Mouzawak founded Souk El Tayeb, one of the first farmers’ markets in Beirut, bringing together farmers from different regions of Lebanon and gathering people from different religions, sects, and political backgrounds in a mutual appreciation of food and agricultural traditions. As Quality Assurance Director, Jihane Chahla, explains, ‘you see all these different producers from different backgrounds standing beside each other and no one is discussing [anything] except food. How you make your jam, how you grow your tomatoes, etc. And the main aim of Souk el Tayeb is to highlight the culinary traditions of Lebanon, to empower it, and to empower those small scale farmers, producers, cooks, and housewives.’[2]

In Lebanon, food has often served the role of peacemaker. As an integral part of Lebanese culture, culinary traditions revolve around the sharing of food with friends, family, and strangers alike. Food undeniably played an important role in the post civil war reconstruction effort. As neighbourhoods and regions became more and more segregated around the system of sectarianism, public space that had a focus on food became some of the most integral in bringing people together from opposite ends of the conflict. [3] So what is it about food? What makes food a particularly important mediator in spaces of anxiety and even violence? This paper argues that the materiality of food (from production to consumption) acts as a cultural mediator with the potential to instigate social change and forge new social relationships across difference. Souk el Tayeb’s Capacity Building Programmes with women from diverse political, national, or religious communities illustrates this potentiality, shedding light on the important entanglement of food, history, memory, and the intimacy of conflict.

Drawing on Brian Massumi’s (2002) characterisation of the term mediation, if food is a cultural mediator, then perhaps we can see culinary practices as part of a process of social change constituted in small acts of resistance. Massumi says, ‘mediation, although inseparable from power, restored a kind of movement to the everyday. If the everyday was no longer a place of rupture or revolt, as it had been…it might still be a site of modest acts of “resistance” or “subversion” keeping alive the possibility of systematic change.’[4] In the context of Lebanon, food may act as a mediator that brings together unlikely groups in unlikely ways. While the forging of solidarity between Lebanese and Syrian women, for example through the cooking of Kebbet Beit or Kebbet Banadoura, may not rupture the entrenched discrimination against refugees in the country, it could act as a modest but significant resistance against the status quo, keeping alive the possibility for progress and a life made just a little more delicious.

Capacity Building Programmes – The Construction of Liminal Food Spaces

Souk el Tayeb’s Capacity Building Programmes were started with the aim of strengthening the quality of products in the weekly farmers’ market. However, its original goal to provide educational opportunities for farmers and producers grew into something much larger. Partnering with local NGOs and organisations, Souk el Tayeb developed hands on training and business skills for diverse groups throughout Lebanon, providing an avenue for job creation and increased economic stability for families. Initially, they worked with a group of twenty Palestinian refugee women from the Ain al-Hilweh and Nahr al-Bared camps. The programme organisers started by asking these women what they usually ate at home. Their answers included: pasta, burgers, or maybe a Lebanese dish, but rarely did anyone mention Palestinian dishes. Jihane reported, ‘So, we said, okay, we’ll come back tomorrow, but meanwhile you have homework to do. Go and ask your grandmoms, your ancestors, what are your typical dishes, the typical dishes of Palestine? The second day, we drew the Palestinian map, not with its regions but instead with the typical dish per region. So instead of Haifa, we put maftool. Instead of Gaza we put the musakahn, the typical dishes.’[5]

After mapping these quintessential Palestinian dishes, the women learned how to professionalise their cooking, from the technical aspects of cooking to sales skills and self-confidence workshops. The outcome of this particular programme was a catering line called ‘100% Falastine’, enabling each woman to run a business from home complete with marketing, logos, a menu, and pricing. This programme has been particularly important for refugees, who are barred from obtaining work permits and largely unable to work legally in Lebanese formal economy. For many of the women, this was their first and only employment opportunity as it permitted them to work around these oppressive labour laws as well as challenged cultural understandings of women in the workplace.

This programme has gone through a number of iterations since ‘100% Falastine’, with increasingly different aims. While each of these programmes have been designed to bring new working opportunities (often the first) and economic empowerment to people (particularly women) throughout Lebanon, ‘100% Falastine’ was designed to cultivate a pride in, and a celebration of, Palestinian cultural and culinary traditions. The other Capacity Building Programmes are deeply tied to heritage and history, but with an explicit focus on groups of women who have experienced particular religious or political tensions with one another. The aim of these programmes is to provide a therapeutic outlet and a space of positivity and reconciliation.

The spaces that Souk el Tayeb provides through their Capacity Building Programmes constitute what, borrowing from Victor Turner (1974), we can call a ‘liminal food space’. Turner argues that ritual processes construct liminality, meaning a space of being in-between. This liminality is enacted through three important phases integral in developing what Turner calls, ‘communitas’. The first phase is separation or segregation in which the subjects are removed, or remove themselves, from their usual social reality. This phase is about entering a ritual designed to elevate status or achieve a social goal. This step moves one into the liminal phase. This phase is a space of in-between where one moves away from the structure of daily life and enters a zone of conceptual chaos. It opens up opportunities for different symbols and behaviour, creates cognitive dissonance, renders taboos irrelevant and enables a flattening of categorical markers. In a liminal space, markers of individuality are less pronounced a great sense of camaraderie develops among the participants. This sense of camaraderie is what Turner calls ‘communitas’. Communitas is an unstructured community where hierarchies are diminished and in which people forge relationships based on solidarity and unity. Turner remarks that, ‘we are presented, in such rites, with a “moment in and out of time”, and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.’[6] Since both ‘communitas’ and social structure are temporary states, the last phase of the ritual process is the point of re-aggregation to the social structure. This phase can have many characteristics but if the ritual works within the aims of the group, individuals will emerge with a new status or different allowed behaviours. This is this phase in which social change occurs. Is the normative social order reaffirmed or has the structure changed in some way?

Through participation in the various culinary arenas of Souk el Tayeb, we can begin to see how food can act as an agent to usher in a space of liminality that transforms the relationships of the participants into one of ‘communitas’. Turning to two examples from Souk el Tayeb’s programming, I will analyse how this process of creating a liminal food space brings groups with histories of conflict together, reconstituting the social realities of the participants and reordering how they may experience the anxious remainders of these histories.

Atayeb Trablos – Reconciling the Remains

One of Souk el Tayeb’s programmes was called ‘Atayeb Trablos’, which translates roughly from Arabic into ‘the best of Tripoli’. This programme was run in collaboration with Ruwwad el Tanmia, a development organisation in Tripoli, and brought together twenty war widows who were involved in armed conflict between the Jabal Mohsen and Bab el Tabbaneh neighbourhoods. Since the Lebanese Civil War, there have been repeated instances of conflict between the Sunni Muslim area of Bab el Tabbaneh and the Alawite Muslim area of Jabal Mohsen, with intermittent outbreaks of violence almost every year since 2008. Fighting between these two neighbourhoods of Tripoli in the North of Lebanon has continued since the civil war ended in the 1990s but has intensified as a result of the ongoing Syrian Civil War. This particular conflict is especially tense as they are divided not only along sectarian lines in the context of an existing sectarian system, but are also divided by their stances towards the Syrian government. The Alawites are supportive of the Syrian Regime and the pro-government forces in the Syrian Civil War, while the Sunnis are hostile to the Syrian Regime, especially as a result of memories and experiences sustained during the Syrian Occupation of Lebanon until 2005. These neighbouring communities have a complex and entangled history of violence and marginalisation that remains unresolved. Anthropologist Rebecca Bryant’s (2014) work in understanding the ambiguity of ongoing conflict proves useful in thinking through the relationship between these two neighbourhoods. She says:

…it is precisely the […] ambiguity of belonging(s) that may open an important window onto the ways that persons give historical meaning to their everyday worlds. This meaning making becomes an especially fraught endeavor in ongoing conflicts where histories are anxious and incomplete and much is at stake in their resolution. In such a context, an ‘unfinished’ history is one that is liminal, caught in the unresolved (historical) conflict. Where conflicts have still to be resolved, one can neither ‘move on to the future’ nor ‘put the past behind.’ In this sense, history itself may be seen as having an untranscended temporality.[7]

Bryant draws our attention to the liminal character of histories that may prove stuck in time and in people’s everyday consciousness. So, how can this ‘untranscended temporality’ of conflict possibly be perforated and unsettled? How can there begin to be reconciliation between these two neighbourhoods even as the conflict itself remains unreconciled? Souk el Tayeb’s programme is unique in that it takes the liminality and intimacy of this history of conflict, being enacted in the everyday, and further suspends it in an alternative liminal, intimate space: that of the kitchen.

The programme provided three months of cookery training to ten Sunni women and ten Alawite women in Ruwwad’s community centre. Even the site of the community centre is significant for it is situated on the street that divides the two neighbourhoods with an entrance on each side of the building; suspended on the borderline.[8] Jihane spoke passionately about the effects of this programme. She told me: ‘How they were sitting in the first session, they were sitting on both sides of the table like a reality, the Sunnis from here and the Alawites from here and looking at each other like, “I want to kill you, your husband killed my husband.” You know? In this meaning.’[9] She goes on to describe how these resistances to working in the same space and cooking food together slowly dissipated over the course of the programme.

To conceive of how this liminal food space, the kitchen, could be so successful at dissipating the remainders of conflict, let us imagine twenty women cooking a meal together. Think of the intimacy of the space of the kitchen, the women crowded into a small space, each with a task that will contribute to the whole meal. One woman is boiling chickpeas, another sautéing okra for the bamyeh; a team is preparing the filling for kebbeh with another assembling the kebbeh balls for frying. In this moment, these women are interacting in a way that was unimaginable outside the confines of this street, straddling the borderline. Here, food acts as that cultural mediator, an agent compelling these women to work together, to interact, to know one another in a different way - an act that subverts the normalised social structure. ‘So what happened at the end of these three months?’ I ask Jihane. She replies, ‘So at the end of the session they are friends, they are working now together in a center in Tripoli, they are making plans together, they have a WhatsApp group together. It’s happier living.’[10] In this instance, the effects of this liminal food space have persisted outside the context of the programme, even in this small way reconfiguring the possibilities of interaction and reconciliation between these two communities.

Atayeb Zaman – Healing New Wounds, Discovering Old Scars

This potential for addressing the remains of conflict through food was also explored in programmes with Syrian refugee women and Lebanese women. Souk el Tayeb wanted to find a way to address the immediate needs of the Syrian crisis through what they do best: intentionally cultivating positivity. Jihane explained, ‘We repeated the same [programme] then with Syrian refugees when the Syrian crisis started… we said, okay, all the aspects are very negative about this crisis, so we said let’s think positive, let’s think positively, how we can help instead of nagging.’[11] The refugee crisis in Lebanon has had a myriad of effects on the everyday lives of people living in Lebanon, but especially prominent is the anti-Syrian discourse of xenophobia present in all levels of society. While there are many Lebanese working tirelessly as advocates for Syrians in Lebanon, others harbour more negative feelings. Some point to Syrian occupation for their rationale, while others lump their grievances under the common justification for xenophobia: ‘they are stealing our jobs.’ Still more invoke a type of déjà vu, repeating the same scapegoating rhetoric that has surrounded Palestinians in Lebanon for decades.

When Souk el Tayeb decided to create this programme, entitled Atayeb Zaman, designed to bring groups of Lebanese and Syrian women together in the kitchen, they were very intentional about the kind of space it was going to be. The menu for the completed programme states, ‘These women find in cooking an opportunity to celebrate their heritage, history and culinary knowledge as well as a therapeutic outlet to focus on the positive aspects of their lives.’[12] This emphasises a temporal shift from the ambiguity and anxiety of belonging towards a reconceptualisation of a shared culinary knowledge, and even a shared history. This programme placed Syrian and Lebanese dishes in the same framework, advocating an appreciation of one’s own history and livelihood as well as that of ‘the other.’

Jihane told me that the majority of these women did not know each other before their first day in the kitchen. She said:

For example for one of the groups where we had Lebanese and Syrians, the Lebanese they start saying that ‘Ana, I don’t want to work with the Syrians in the same kitchen,’ at the beginning. Then after the 5th session they became friends, and now, the project ended one year ago and they are still friends. They make plans together and go on outings together. This is really the main target of these sessions. Not just to teach them how to cook, sometimes they teach us how to cook, but the most relieving thing is when you hear them saying: ‘We don’t come to those sessions to cook but to forget our pain and to make friends.’[13]

 

This programme, through its intentional emphasis on positivity, food over politics, and shared heritage and traditions, has enabled these women to create ‘communitas:’ solidarity forged in the kitchen. Friendship may even become a radical act here, cracking open possibilities for resettlement and coexistence.

Conclusion

Food plays many roles in our everyday lives, and like anything else is enmeshed in power discrepancies, conflict, and anxiety. In Lebanon, food has served as both a mediator and instigator of conflict for centuries. However, in the case of Souk el Tayeb, we can begin to bring some understanding to that original question, ‘what is it about food?’ What is it about this medium that is charged with so much social potency and meaning? In the most intimate spaces of conflict, the materiality of food itself, in all its sensorial deliciousness, has the power to break down what divides us most vehemently. Through their method of defiant positivity, Jihane and the rest of the Souk el Tayeb team cultivate an atmosphere where food actively mediates between sides and where, at least for an hour a day, people can forget about their most pressing anxieties, about what divides them, and can enjoy that delicious, liminal food space. As Jihane says, ‘When you go to the souk you see all the groups, all the nationalities. But no one asks, where are you from, what’s your nationality? I only care about you and your food.’ All that matters is you and your food.

 

Bibliography

 

Bryant, R. (2014) ‘History’s Remainders: On Time and Objects after Conflict in Cyprus,’ American Ethnologist, 41 (4): 681–697.

Massumi, B. (2002) Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. Duke University Press.

Turner, V. (1974) Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

 

[1] Arabic for ‘the good market’ or also as in ‘goodhearted.’

[2] Transcribed from the author’s field interview with Jihane Chahla on 28th June 2017.

[3] A system of governance and social organization that uses religious sect as the means of categorisation.

[4] Massumi, B. (2002) Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. Duke University Press.

[5] Transcribed from the author’s field interview with Jihane Chahla on 28th June 2017.

[6] Turner, V. (1974) Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[7] Bryant, R. (2014) ‘History’s Remainders: On Time and Objects after Conflict in Cyprus,’ American Ethnologist, 41 (4): 681–697.

[9] Transcribed from the author’s field interview with Jihane Chahla on 28th June 2017.

[10] Transcribed from the author’s field interview with Jihane Chahla on 28th June 2017.

[11] Transcribed from the author’s field interview with Jihane Chahla on 28th June 2017.

[13] Transcribed from author’s field interview with Jihane Chahla on 28th June 2017.

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