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Can protecting traditional foods really strike a blow for the cause of peace?

Culinary campaign is latest in postwar cultural resistance

Middle Eastern News

By Iman Azzi
Daily Star staff
Thursday, November 16, 2006

BEIRUT: Last month, 40 Lebanese farmers boarded a plane for Turin, Italy. They were scheduled to showcase their local produce to a crowd of some 6,000 culinary connoisseurs for the second annual, week-long Terra Madre festival celebrating food and drink. It was an audience rather larger than their usual outlet at the Beirut farmer's market, Souk al-Tayeb. But on their departure, the farmers left behind not only a slew of satisfied stomachs but also a campaign that is now set to take international mouths by storm.

Inspired by the resilience of the Lebanese people after Israel's 34-day bombardment of the country this past summer, "Make Food Not War: Plant Seeds for Peace" is the second installment in a trilogy of cultural resistance projects promoting peace and justice through cultural expression. (The third project, "Make Music Not War: Concerts Not Battles," being organized with the Arab Association of Music, comes to a venue near you in December).

Following the lead of "Make Films Not War: Shoot Movies Not Missiles - a campaign launched at this year's Venice Film Festival at a special news conference held in support of the Beirut International Film Festival - Iara Lee and George Gund (of the Lee and Gund Foundation) turned to food and the Lebanese farmers, who are still suffering from, among other side-effects of the war, a glut of cluster bombs littering their lands.

"At Terra Madre, we were completely different in color, religion and race. All gathered in respect of land and production," says Kamal Mouzawak, one of the founders of Souk al-Tayeb and a member of the Turin delegation.

Lebanon's 40-member contingent was invited by the host organization of Terra Madre, Slow Food.

The Slow Food Foundation, established in 1986, defends food and agricultural biodiversity worldwide, opposes the standardization of tastes and protects the cultural identities tied to gastronomic tradition - think of it as the Greenpeace of food and drink.

When Lee, who is partly based in Beirut, met with Mouzawak after the launch for "Make Films Not War," their collaboration for "Make Food Not War" was "an organic evolution," laughs Lee.

For both Lee and Mouzawak, the campaign represents more than the food it helps produce. It is part of a growing international trend focusing on sustainable agricultural development and the support and preservation of local producers.

"It's a political statement, not just a market. It's about supporting small producers doing high quality work," Mouzawak says from a sunlit living room overlooking Gemmayzeh. "Today we eat, we eat, we eat. But who is in touch with the production? We don't know where our food comes from," he says.

"He is like us," Lee says of Mouzawak, speaking from Tunisia, where she is attending this year's Carthage Film Festival. "We're trying to get people from everywhere to think about important issues through film, food, whatever it takes."

Movies and music often go hand in hand as key players in the battle of cultural resistance. (In the three months after the end of the war on August 14, singer Julia Boutros has already put a speech by Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to music and countless filmmakers have exhibited videos they shot during the war). But food?

"Sure, for many people food is food, it has no art. But it is the essential art. It is totally art," says Lee, explaining that every decision from the process of drying fruits to the choice of recipe to the presentation of a dish are forms of artistic expression. "People are still hungry for culture and art, even if we have bridges to reconstruct and an airport to rebuild," she adds, arguing that cultural resistance and reconstruction go hand in hand.

Although "Make Food Not War" plans to promote culinary coexistence on an international level, its first project, "Seeds for Peace," partnered with Souk al-Tayeb on a local level to help Lebanese farmers and small food producers.

"Seeds for Peace" has three main objectives: to increase the professionalism of small agricultural enterprises without sacrificing the traditional legacy of the local farmer; to promote and save the terrain of Lebanon; and to sponsor an eco-adaptation of the Oscars, Asdiqaa al-Ard (Friends of the Earth), which will award five farmers annually for their contribution to the grassroots food industry.

Not only are globalization and the expansion of large markets a threat to the individual producer, but certain foods have become victims. Slow Food awards the title presidia (from the Latin word for "protection") to endangered types of food, funding and supporting farmers to produce and sell the  foods that face extinction.

Lebanon has two such presidia. Mainly produced in North Lebanon, darfiyyeh (goat cheese aged in goat skin) was labeled Lebanon's first presidium in 2005. Kishek al-fouqara, a vegan cheese made by fermented burghul (cracked wheat), is produced in the Lebanese border village of Majdel Zoun and was granted presidium status on Julky 10, just two days before the war began.

"Seeds for Peace" will offer grants to farmers, helping to produce endangered or traditional agricultural techniques in hopes of preserving these cultural expressions for future generations of eaters.

For the farmers, the souk is practical in that it supports and encourages their lifestyle. For Lee and others, the souk is the beginning of a movement, a seed if you will, that will expand over time, creating roots that will connect cultures through food.

"The more people understand each other, the less they'll bomb each other," Lee believes. "People feel the need to bomb because of the lack of feeling connected."

"It is about cooperation," adds Mouzawak. "For me, cooperation means work and then having help. If people go and tell the farmers what to do it's not cooperation; its neocolonialism."

With projects like "Make Food Not War" and "Make Films Not War," and with culturally and environmentally aware activists like Lee and Mouzawak, dinner and a movie may never be the same again.


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