Annia Ciezadlo

In Lebanon, building trust one kibbeh at a time

Cooking program brings Sunni and Alawite women from a divided neighborhood to the kitchen table

TRIPOLI, Lebanon – She’ll run through gunfire. She’s not afraid of snipers. But Noha Martaban, a divorced mother of three with a quick smile and a warm laugh, is terrified of cooking for a crowd.

“My kids like my food,” she said, looking down at her lap apologetically. “But I don’t have the confidence to make food for strangers.”

Martaban lives on the “wrong” side of Syria Street, the dividing line between two warring neighborhoods here in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, known for its orange blossoms, delicate flower-scented pastries, and decades of intermittent political violence.

Beginning with Lebanon’s 1975–1990 civil war, various militias have claimed the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh for Sunni Muslims, and Jabal Mohsen, across the street, for Alawite Muslims. Every so often the militias, and their local and foreign backers, dial up the violence – especially when larger conflicts flare up, like the civil war in Syria. (Among the foreign players, the Syrian regime backs the Jabal Mohsen militias, while Saudi Arabia backs the Bab al-Tabbaneh ones.)

On August 5, an 8-year-old girl was killed and 11 other people were injured after armed men attacked a military post, breaking a fragile truce that had held for four months.

Martaban is Sunni, but she lives in Jabal Mohsen, the so-called Alawite side. Most Sunnis left the neighborhood during the various rounds of fighting. She stayed. When street battles broke out, she would run from house to house, dodging the gunfire, and weave through back alleys to get home.

“I find strength at times like this,” she said, throwing up her hands with a shrug and a laugh. “But when I go to cook for people, I get shy.”

A few months ago, Martaban heard about a program to train women from both neighborhoods to be professional cooks. She signed up, as she put it, in order to “strengthen her personality.”

Outside the Jabal Mohsen entrance to Ruwwad Al Tanmeya, where the training program is held, buildings flutter with banners of those who have died in the recent fighting.
Annia Ciezadlo

Twice a week, one of about a half dozen trainers — including chefs, cooking experts, and even a drama therapist who specializes in trauma — drives an hour and a half up the Mediterranean coastline from Beirut to Tripoli. On a steamy day in late June it was Wael Lazkani, a chef and restaurant owner who trained at Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotel kitchens.

On Syria Street, giggling children ran up and down balconies charred black by fire, under blue-and-white awnings shredded by gunshots. The bullet-scarred buildings wore giant photocollaged banners of the fighters who died in recent battles. Inside a large, airy kitchen equipped with two six-burner ovens and gleaming metal counters, Lazkani trained a dozen or so women in the basics of commercial food preparation: knife skills, food safety, how to break down a chicken. 

“The knife should always be away from your body,” he said, gently, to a woman holding a potato in one hand and cutting it with the other. “You want the knife to cut the board, not your hand.”

But the women also get something less tangible. “They forget all their pain when they come into the kitchen,” said Jihane Chahla, a soft-spoken 33-year-old agricultural engineer and food safety specialist who runs the classes. “They think only about their recipes. Yes, they talk about their problems. But they have something else to focus on.”

The following week, the women made two dishes from Tripoli’s hearty, Syrian-influenced cuisine: samke harrah, spicy-hot fish simmered in tahini and red pepper sauce, and kibbet shentaKibbeh is made throughout the Middle East; it’s usually a mixture of meat and grain, formed into a shape that can vary by region, and stuffed with a hashwi, or filling. Shenta, meaning purse or satchel, is a characteristically Tripolitan kibbeh shape.

Using both hands, Martaban made a cylinder of meat and bulgur wheat. Holding it in one hand, she used her other index finger to hollow out the cylinder. She stuffed it with a mixture of ground meat sauteed with pine nuts, chopped walnuts, garlic, basil, cilantro, onions, and blood-dark pomegranate molasses. Then she pinched the open end closed, straight across, like a paper bag stapled shut.

“Ladies, we always want to use pine nuts because they’re baladi,” said Chahla, using a word that means native, indigenous, rural. “Cashews, they’re not baladi. They come from Asia.”

“We want to use baladi ingredients, but everything in this country is from outside,” said a woman named Zakia Choual. “Even us, we’re becoming the imported ones. Look at the number of refugees – from Syria, from Iraq, from Palestine. Us local people, we can’t find a job.”

It’s about helping them even after the program is over. Not just teaching them to fish, and then putting them in the desert where there are no fish.”

Kamal Mouzawak

founder of Souk El Tayeb

The women all nodded. So far, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has registered 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. That’s one for every four Lebanese – and that’s just the ones who are registered. In Tripoli, where over half the population lives on less than $4 a day, even low-paying jobs are hard to find.

“My boys are graduated from the university, and they can’t find jobs,” said Wafa Hazori, a 50-year-old mother of four with a voice like a chainsmoking foghorn. Holding a kibbeh in one hand, she reached across the table with the other, shook her fist, and shouted: “I’m going to hold a demonstration! Because my son can’t find a job, and meanwhile Syrians are taking all the jobs!”

Hazori joined the training program to make new friends. “I don’t care about making money,” she said, although she admits she could use it. “What’s good is that I will be able to meet other women, and maybe send across a message of love.” During the latest round of fighting, militia members smashed her brother’s head with a rifle butt. He was an Alawite living on the “wrong” side of the street.

The training gives women from both sides a chance to meet on neutral ground. Ruwwad Al Tanmeya, the nonprofit community organization that hosts the class, has two entrances: one in Jabal Mohsen, the other on Syria Street facing Bab al-Tabbaneh. Despite its guards and multiple gates, the fortress-like building had to shut its doors for a month and a half, from mid-February to April, during the fighting.

Martaban and Hazori take cigarette breaks together, chatting about food, children, husbands. But not everyone is ready, yet, to make friends with women from across Syria Street.

“There’s something inside my heart,” said Hana Awad, a 48-year-old mother of seven. “It’s hard for me to trust them.”

Awad lives on the border of Bab al-Tabbaneh. During the spring fighting, militiamen from Jabal Mohsen shot at her house and set it on fire.

Lazkani and Chahla don’t claim that cooking together, on its own, can resolve conflicts. In a previous training program, for Syrian refugees, two women once went after each other with knives. But the organizers hope that trust can slowly build through daily interactions and cooperating on mutual projects. “When they’re in the kitchen, there’s a sense of doing, a sense of achievement,” said Lazkani.

Their goal is to set up a catering service so the women can make a steady income after the training ends in late September. That would provide not just a temporary respite from the violence, but a way for the women, and their families, to escape the economic hopelessness that fuels the violence.

“It’s about helping them even after the program is over,” said Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Souk El Tayeb, a Beirut-based farmers market that spun off into a restaurant and other social enterprise projects, including the food training program. “Not just teaching them to fish, and then putting them in the desert where there are no fish.”

Years of conflict and poverty have left the people of Tripoli with war injuries and stress-related diseases like diabetes, not to mention ubiquitous, untreated depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The biggest need in the community is jobs,” says Sarah Al-Charif, Ruwwad Al Tanmeya’s Lebanon director. “Then medical care. Everybody has medical problems due to the conflict.”

Awad, for example, is recovering from a botched breast cancer surgery. She wants to make money so she can show her children an alternative to the militias that are still, after so many years, the most alluring employers in town.

“In Tripoli it’s difficult because boys get involved with guns and things,” she said. “Coming here is like opening a path for my kids. I know my health is not strong. But I’m a role model. Maybe if my daughters see that I can make something of myself, they’ll think they can too.” 

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