Make Food Not War – Beirut’s Culinary Revolution

For first time visitors Beirut can seem a jazz-hands city, intent on blinding you with fast cars, glamorous dining and fancy boutiques. The construction cranes were busy grinding up above, slapping another high rise to the city skyline, as I walked through the rejuvenated Downtown district. The arcaded pavements radiating out from Place d’Etoile were full of shoppers toting designer bags. It was the kind of scene I’d come to expect in a city that markets itself as a glitzy night life and restaurant destination. Scrape below the glossy veneer though and you find Lebanon’s capital has layers that are easily missed.

Visitors can be forgiven for seeing Beirut as a thoroughly modern Middle East city. After all, the Downtown district was completely obliterated by 15 years of civil war and had to be rebuilt from scratch. There are tiers of history though under the pristine facade. Below the restored Greek Orthodox Saint George Cathedral the crypt hides Beirut’s most surprising museum where archaeologists uncovered a necropolis and the foundations of the original 5th century church. Between the cathedral and the slender minarets of the new Al-Amine Mosque, the remnants of Roman Beirut’s Cardo Maximus lay strewn out in rubble piles of hefty marble blocks across an unkempt plot of land. Down the road the uninspiring modern entrance to the Al-Omari Mosque contrasts with its beautiful prayer hall boasting the distinct Gothic architecture of its Crusader church origins. Beirut is a city where you have to dig a little deeper to find what’s happening underneath.

Lebanese food is the perfect example of this. Levantine cuisine is one of Beirut’s great draw cards for visitors but the dishes offered in most of the capital’s restaurants are only the tip of the iceberg. “There are two entirely different cuisines in Lebanon,” Kamal Mouzawak explained to me. “In restaurants there is mezze and grilled meat and then there’s our private cuisine. The food we cook at home has traditionally been secret. The only way you could access it was by getting an invite to someone’s house.”

Kamal is the founder of Souk el Tayeb; a food enterprise turning Beirut’s dining on its head. They run a weekly farmer’s market every Saturday right in the heart of Downtown bringing Lebanon’s small-scale food producers to the city to sell their produce direct. And on weekdays they run Tawlet restaurant, offering diners that family soul food in a restaurant setting, fuelled by a roster of Lebanon’s best home cooks that serve up their regional specialities in the Tawlet kitchen.

I had come to Tawlet for lunch. Their cheeky motto ‘Make Food Not War’ is a reminder that this is a city still best known for being the epicentre of a long and bloody civil war. “What we set out to do,” Kamal told me. “Is to try to connect the Lebanese through food and celebrate our diversity rather than use it as a reason for conflict.” Today with neighbouring Syria mired in war, they’re now going one step further; starting up a food project with some of Beirut’s ever-expanding population of Syrian refugees.

Syrian women are now serving up their home cooking every weekend at the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market and this lunchtime they were in the Tawlet kitchen creating their spicy Syrian cuisine for diners. It’s a way of not just helping to generate income for the refugee community but also aimed at preserving Syria’s distinct food heritage. Ibtissam Nesto was one of the cooks in the kitchen. “I’m so proud to be representing Syria by its food and keeping the culture alive this way.” She told me as she set down a tray of kibbeh (fried meatballs) smothered in a pomegranate and chilli paste sauce. “Cooking is our way of showing affection. If I’m not cooking from my heart, you won’t like my food.”

Cooking from the heart was definitely what was going on. Everything that Ibtissam and her fellow cooks produced for lunch sung with the flavours of Syria. As I headed back onto the street a beautifully coiffed woman wobbled past me on skyscraper heels leading a tiny dog bedecked in a diamante-encrusted jacket. Beirut’s slightly over-the-top glamour tag is well-deserved. The city has become adept at hiding behind its shiny facade but with local initiatives like Souk el Tayeb and Tawlet, savvy traveller can easily peel back the layers to find the soul underneath.

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This story first appeared in the April issue of Colours Magazine.

An Ancient Path of Kindness

After night has fallen, the sacred fish ponds of Şanlıurfa are smooth black mirrors reflecting the backlit Ottoman arches of Rızvaniye Mosque. The effect is only distorted by the occasional ripple trembling across the surface as one of the fat silky carp who inhabit the pond patrol the depths below. During the day, these pampered pets of the city gorge themselves on offerings from visiting pilgrims. Their wide, ugly mouths rise to the edge of the pool, in a wrestling match of belly-flopping bodies, as an all-you-can-eat buffet of fish pellets rain down onto the water. To believers, the carp here aren’t any old fish. These are the lumps of coal from the funerary pyre King Nimrod built in an attempt to kill the Prophet Abraham. Miraculously transformed by God into fish, as the fire was turned into water, they spend their lives as divine beasts revered by all.

Turkey’s southeast Anatolia region is a place alive with sacred myth and legend and the ancient city of Şanlıurfa is the birthplace of monotheism’s most important story. Traditionally regarded as the biblical town of Ur (a title also contended by the Tell al-Muqayyar ruins in Iraq), this is where many Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that the Prophet Abraham was born and where he struck the first blow for monotheism’s future by challenging the pagan beliefs of King Nimrod and his subjects.

Earlier that day Ömer Tanık had explained how the city’s reverence among pilgrims had, over the years, fostered an ingrained philosophy of hospitality among the locals here. “We didn’t look at the people who came here as paying guests,” he said. “Before there were hotels in Şanlıurfa, people would approach visitors at the fish ponds to come stay in their houses for the night.” Today the spirit of this hospitality lives on in the surrounding hinterland.

We drove out of the city, passing the sprawl of concrete-cube apartment buildings on the suburban outskirts, into a rolling, raw countryside of rock-pitted plateau. Turning off the main highway, the road was blocked by fat-tailed Anatolian sheep idly waddling across the tarmac.  The tiny Kurdish village of Yuvacalı would look like any other rural hamlet in eastern Turkey except for the pimple-like protrusion of the hill it is built around, poking dramatically out of the land. “It’s a settlement mound,” Ömer’s wife, Alison told me. “A man-made hill, produced by layer upon layer of civilisation settling here causing the hill to rise up as they built directly on top of each other.”

In 2009 Ömer and Alison pioneered a tourism endeavour here which offers travellers an experience of rural Anatolian life in village homestay accommodation. The initial experiment began in Ömer’s birthplace, Yuvacalı, but has now spread to other villages in the area. In 2011 the Tanıks joined up with the Abraham Path Initiative to create a trekking route through southeast Anatolia connected by these homestays. Encompassing the ancient villages of this region, walking this trail is a journey into a corner of Turkey long ignored by tourism. It is also a glimpse into a culture of natural hospitality which is rarely seen in modern-day life.

Yuvacalı smells of freshly ploughed earth and livestock. Its squat one-storey buildings are a mix of recent concrete box additions and much older mud-brick dwellings with walls that slouch and sag into the land. Pero Salva’s front yard was a hive of activity as we pulled up. Chickens perched on the crooked wooden fence and berated our noisy arrival. Sheep bleated somewhere nearby. I was ushered inside to the reception room where the walls were painted the same cheery lilac colour that many Kurds have adopted as a uniform shade for their headscarves. Pero’s husband Halil poured strong tea into tiny tulip-shaped glasses as we sat on the floor.

Typical of many of the Kurdish settlements in this area, Yuvacalı’s villagers survive mostly on subsistence farming. When Alison and Ömer first moved here from Istanbul, they did a door-to-door poll of villagers to find out what the major problems were and how they could help. “Among adults here there is 50% illiteracy,” Alison told me, “and only half are fluent in Turkish. Their native Kurdish dialects are the language spoken at home.” This of course has a knock-on effect with the younger generation, who then don’t learn Turkish until they enter the school system and are, by then, struggling to catch up with their peers.

They discovered that in every single village household the income was under US$1 per day, per person. Tourism could help to combat this poverty chain. “The two homestays in the village provide employment for eight families,” Alison said. In a place as rural, and conservative, as Yuvacalı though, bringing tourism into the mix can be a difficult balance to get right. “We don’t want to destroy the fabric of the village,” she said. Kurdish culture is conservative but not particularly because of Islam. Their values stem from living in close proximity to each other. “It comes from lots and lots of people occupying a very small space, trying to get on and being respectful of that fact.” She explained.  Guests at the homestays are expected to be modestly dressed. Women visitors must wear an ankle-length skirt, men must wear long trousers, and alcohol is not allowed.

Kurds make up the largest minority in Turkey, numbering about 14 million, and live mainly in the southeast of the country. It was only after the regional upheavals of the early 20th century that Yuvacalı became a solely Kurdish village though. Before then local oral tradition tells of a vibrant community of Kurds, Armenians, and Jews all living here together. The settlement mound points back to an even earlier history. Today Yuvacalı may seem like a remote, inconsequential outpost, but in the empire-building days of early civilisation it was positioned directly on an important crossroads.

This entire region of southeast Anatolia was the crux of territorial conflicts and commerce, between Hittites, Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians and Seleucid Greeks, Romans and Sassanians, and, later on, Byzantines, Arab conquerors, Crusaders, and Ottomans.  Yuvacalı’s settlement mound is thought to be at least 10,000 years old. Although the mound has never been excavated, surface finds of cuneiform tablets, pieces of flint and mosaic have indicated to visiting archaeologists that the mound here dates back to at least the 8th millennium BC. It is entirely plausible it could be a lot older.

Ömer drove me out to the village of Soǧmatar which sits in a dip between two hills. The houses were half built from stone taken from ancient shrines and sprouted satellite dishes out of flat metal roofs held down by pieces of brick. We scrambled up the flank of one of the hills just as the sun burst down upon the landscape silhouetting a shepherd on horseback upon the opposite hill, surrounded by his flock. The rock surface of the peak was covered in elaborate Assyrian script.

We hiked over to the opposite peak where a half collapsed circular temple dedicated to Venus was a reminder of the religion of celestial worship common in the area before the Prophet Abraham. Today Soǧmatar is made up mostly of Arab nomads who settled here in the 1980s but it was once an important cult sacrifice centre where every moment of life was directed by the movements of the sky. Although an official tourist signpost, at the entrance to the village, briefly explains Soǧmatar’s significance this ancient site, like most in this region, is half-forgotten and completely bypassed by normal tourism. A donkey tethered to a tree kept up a constant mournful braying. A dank, musty cave on the edge of the settlement still hosted the clear outlines of life-sized idols in eroded niches, which had been abandoned as monotheism crept over the land.

This hike formed a small section of the new Turkish Abraham Path which, when walked fully, is a 170km, 10-day trek through this region. The Abraham Path itself is a bold venture to blaze an interconnecting series of walking trails throughout the Middle East which trace the journey of the Prophet Abraham from Turkey, south to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. But this trek is not supposed to simply be a religious pilgrimage. It’s also a journey into our beginnings. In human history, this part of modern-day Turkey is not only the birthplace of monotheism but also the ground where we took our first shaky toddler steps to civilisation. Locked between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, this stretch of land makes up the northwest region of ancient Mesopotamia. It was across this countryside that mankind first discarded the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for settlement.

The conversion of belief systems from a sky-worshipping culture to the belief in one god was a slow process that is said to have begun with Abraham on his journey from Ur.  Instead of attempting to exactly mirror a journey that both believers and non-believers could spend forever debating the reality of; today’s Abraham Path instead attempts to forge a trail highlighting the different stages of our common humanity. “It’s not a political path. It’s not a religious path. It’s a cultural path, fundamentally a human path.” William Ury, one of the founders of the Abraham Path, told me. Passing through ancient, half-forgotten temple sites and worship centres such as Soǧmatar offers walkers a chance to connect not only with modern-day village life, but also with the greater history of our own joint humanity.

Back in Yuvacalı, Pero rolled a long plastic tablecloth across the floor and all the family pitched in to begin bringing dishes out of the kitchen. Creamy lentil soup, bright salads of ruby tomatoes and crispy lettuce, smoky sliced aubergines charred to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, trays of thick, comforting home-cut chips, and tiny bowls of tarty cacık (Turkish yoghurt and cucumber salad), and ısot spread (the Urfa region’s famous hot pepper), which glowered a danger-inducing shade of dark red, all appeared in front of me.

Hospitality has always been the thread that binds the cultures of the Middle East together. To be a guest in this part of the world is to be honoured with the best your host can provide, from the copious cycle of cups of tea which punctuates the beginning and end of any visit, to the feast of local produce laid out as a meal when visitors arrive; it is part of a traditional system still very much alive today.

It’s a belief that has its roots in a nomadic past when hospitality was an essential component of survival. It was with this very hospitality that the journey of Abraham which is told in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was able to be accomplished. In the West Abraham is remembered chiefly for the Old Testament story of his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of his loyalty to his god (in Islam, the child in the story is Ishmael) and this earlier story of generosity has faded from general knowledge.

Pero and Hilal don’t need any reminding. For them hospitality is a natural part of their culture; as much a part of life as the seasonal agriculture chores which define so much of rural life in this part of the world. By incorporating village stays into the Abraham Path visitors have the opportunity to experience a culture where welcome truly does mean welcome and hasn’t been reduced in meaning by over-tourism. To be a visitor here, if not as rare as it once was, is still an exciting occasion. “This is an ancient path of kindness,” William Ury said. Walking along this trail “is a way of reconnecting the human family footstep by footstep and remembering our collective past.”

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This story was first published in the Sep/Oct issue of Lifestyle+Travel. You can see the original here.

On the purpose of tourism: from the front line of the industry

One of my favourite places for leading tours was always Damascus. With the slumping architecture bearing down upon us amid the labyrinth alleyways, I would begin my group’s introduction to the Old City by taking the winding path that leads to the Shi’a pilgrimage site of Saida Ruqqiyeh Mosque. Invariably, as we threaded our way through the medieval streets, we’d become caught up in the great tide of Iranian pilgrims who were all heading that way as well.

For many in my group it was an uncomfortable situation where we would end up separated from each other; thrown to the mercy of the crowd as it surged forwards, and backwards, and to either side in relentless waves of people. When we finally washed up at the end of the street outside the mosque my group would be sweating, slightly frazzled and usually all looking a bit dazed after this very Damascene version of crowd surfing.

What they didn’t know was that I could have avoided the crowds quite easily by taking another route but had deliberately guided them into the chaos. I didn’t want my clients just to see pretty monuments and nice museums. I didn’t want to keep them swaddled from reality in cotton wool but rather I wanted them to be able to get in there and smell the sweat of the crowds; to become part of a place, if only for an instant.

Cheaper, faster, now…

Like most people who’ve worked on the front line of tourism as a tour leader or guide, I have developed a healthy disrespect for the industry’s marketing jargon. For years there has been a very obvious disconnect between the tourism industry’s love affair with hyperbole and how it actually operates on the ground. The fluffy throwaway phrases in the glossy brochures offering clients ‘once in a lifetime adventures’, ‘off the beaten track experiences’ and the ubiquitous ‘responsible travel’ become hard to swallow when every year you see the trips get cheaper, more ‘extras’ squeezed out, and the itineraries grow ever more homogenized in the quest for competitive pricing.

The industry has been feeding the same line of ‘cheaper, faster, now’, for so long that we seem to have bred a style of tick-list tourism where clients demand more but pay less and see everything but experience nothing. On returning home a tourist may be able to reel off an impressively long list of sights they saw but did they stick around long enough to be able to describe to you the uncomfortable sensation of the layer of gritty sand that sandpapered their sun-parched skin in the desert. They can walk through an ancient, bustling souq but are so busy documenting their visit so that they can remember it later – their camera permanently glued to their face – that they fail to see the stall-vendor in the corner beckoning to them to come drink syrupy tea. Is this the style of tourism we want to be involved in? And more importantly, is this what clients want? I seriously don’t believe so.

As those involved at the top of the tourism tree become more and more focussed on pricing and marketing it’s now more important than ever for those down at the roots of the industry to realise the role we can each play in promoting a different ideal; an approach that, for me, is the true purpose of tourism. Seeking connections between people, places and cultures so that the tourist is no longer just a spectator peeping through the window into an exotic ‘other’ land but part of that world, if only for a minute, themselves.

By their very nature of packing in as much as possible in the least amount of time, it is difficult to do little more than scratch the surface of a destination on a tour. But a good guide or leader can make all the difference in helping to lift the lid off a place and allow tourists to travel not just further but deeper.

We need to foster a sense of inclusion where it’s not ‘us’ against ‘them’. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve overheard guides tell their clients to not talk to anyone in markets and at sights and on the street. If you dive into the market and are comfortable chatting to the vendors, your clients will feel that they can do this too. If you just walk through simply giving a spiel on the history along the way and ignoring everyone, that’s the way your passengers will act as well. For our groups we are the benchmark for how to behave and by using this responsibility wisely we can inspire our clients to go out and make local connections themselves.

Hello Iran…

There was this one time trapped amid the flow of pilgrims in Damascus, when a car insanely tried to navigate down the road and caused the crowd to suddenly tip madly to the side. An elderly Iranian woman, shielding her face from view by clutching the corner of her black shroud in her teeth, lost her footing and grabbed the wrist of one of my female clients in an attempt to regain her balance. This then caused my client to stumble and she in turn reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the tiny Iranian lady in front of her until it looked like it could turn into a domino effect of tourists and pilgrims tumbling endlessly down the street.

I heaved them all onto the narrow ledge of a shop front where I’d managed to shelter the rest of my group until the car to blame for all this chaos finished manoeuvring through the street. We all looked at each other and burst out laughing. There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’. No strange line drawn by different clothing or eye colour, religion or politics. We were simply some people who’d all nearly ended up face-down on the ground.

When the car finally managed to grumble past the Iranian ladies patted my client’s hand to say thank you. Then some young men pushed towards us through the crowd. The ladies waved excitedly back and beckoned them over and suddenly we were all waving madly into their video camera and shouting ‘Hello Iran!’ with the Iranian ladies beside us grinning broadly. We were no longer observers. Just fellow actors in this crazy carnival called the world.

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The above article was first published as part of the ‘Tourism: What’s The Point?’ debate on the Conscious Tourism Blog.

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