W hen I introduce myself to Kamal Mouzawak for the first time in person, he asks me in an admonishing tone: “What are you doing in Egypt? The most fertile land on earth and nothing is being done with it!” He is wholly reprimanding me and I have to agree; Egypt’s farmed produce is in dire condition; an absolute contrast to the fruits and vegetables one finds in Lebanon, particularly in the Mouzawak’s market.
Mouzawak is the founder of Souk El-Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmers market.
“Markets are an authentic expression of how people are,” he says. Tall and with a cheerful disposition, he welcomes me warmly into his restaurant Tawleh for a chat with his partner Christine Codsi. Both speak articulately and with great passion about the market and Mouzawak’s new restaurant which promotes both the philosophy of the market and traditional Lebanese dining.
In Arabic “tayeb” means that which is good, a word which the Lebanese use to describe food and people. Hailing from a family of farmers, Mouzawak’s reasons for establishing the market were simply to provide quality produce to those who were beginning to demand it, and encourage Lebanese farmers to keep on farming.
Mouzawak hosted a macrobiotic TV show and has taught local school kids about organic food. His initial dream of establishing a farmer’s market has had extensive social ramifications.
Primarily, his efforts have led to many farmers not only being able to sustain their livelihood but also to increase their output and reconsider traditional farming techniques. Organic farming has grown as a movement among farmers that Mouzawak refers to as “producers.”
Souk El-Tayeb is a nonprofit project, but makes enough to sustain itself, they explain.
In six years, Souk El-Tayeb has forced people to reconsider their philosophy on food and has educated them about the benefits of locally grown seasonal and organic produce. “There’s no legislation yet considering organic farming in Lebanon, so our rules and regulations are our own, complying with international standards and regulations,” says Mouzawak.
Traditional Lebanese “mouneh” or preserved goods, cooked food, a kid’s books corner, handmade jewelry, flowers, and soaps are also to be found at the market which is held twice a week in Beirut.
Codsi, a former management consultant, was a regular devotee of Souk El-Tayeb. She was introduced to Mouzawak through friends and began to contribute and assist him with the business side of the market in her spare time. She left her job two years ago to partner with Mouzawak so that he could focus on the creative elements of the project.
“I love that what you do, you’re doing for your country and belongs to your origin, your land, celebrating that which is common among all people,” says Codsi.
“People over the years have contributed to Souk El-Tayeb pro bono, because we all have this vision of the land we love. This is the way we want it, simple with people gathered around a good meal. Food brings people together; they would fight if they were found discussing another subject. They can fight over food as well, but that’s a different kind of fight,” she continues with a chuckle.
“Let’s not be pretentious and call it success; for me it was a growth, a state of sustaining. People were tired of not getting quality [produce]; people want consistency, they won’t accept just anything,” says Mouzawak.
“The market is so crucial to producers; they rely on it as their sole source of income. They started small and grew with the market. Most of these people, especially the women, would not be working had it not been for the souk. You feel that these women have changed over the years because of the market, they make good income out of it. And now Tawleh, it’s an additional source of income for women who come cook and sell more produce. We’re all growing together. Socially, economically, it allows for people to stay in their villages, to keep their land, cultivate their land.”
On Saturdays in downtown Beirut, the market is buzzing early in the morning. Two women prepare saaj, a delectable warm sandwich made from soft dough with various sweet and savory fillings. Families with children and young adults come to buy gorgeously green produce, catch up and share a treat or two and start their weekend accordingly.
The produce is a sight for sore eyes: Under awnings on makeshift booths, it is a postcard picture of deeply pigmented purple radishes, tomatoes and canary yellow pomelo fruit dotting the miniature mountains of leafy greens and lettuce heads.
Events are organized to celebrate seasonal produce from the various regions of Lebanon.
During the “Food and Feast” farmers bring their different products as a method of not only celebrating what they cultivate but educating the public about the market’s activities and philosophy.
Newsletters with in-depth articles about food and organic farming are distributed monthly to inform the public about the wide scope of the market.
Beirut resident Salma El-Wakil cites Souk El-Tayeb as the catalyst for the strong organic food movement that has swept through the country.
Now, multiple restaurants strive to serve only organic food, with as many locally sourced products as possible. El-Wakil, along with her two young children, makes it a habit to shop at the market every Saturday morning.
It was initially a struggle for Mouzawak to establish the farmer’s market for multiple reasons: “Finding land in the city center, convincing people to come, going against the lack of money, and not earning a single penny from Souk El-Tayeb, while feeding the personal drive and the drive of the team to keep going.
"Sometimes you’re disappointed or so tired but at least I wake up in the morning and think, ‘Wow, it’s not about what I achieved, but I’m happy about what I’m doing.’ Everything you do is an act of adoration, it’s for God, and this is the best expression of yourself.”
Founder Kamal Mouzawak with partner Christine Codsi sit in Tawleh.
A woman prepares traditional saaj at Souk El-Tayeb.