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.”
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.”