It’s a muggy late September Saturday afternoon in Beirut and Dory Chamoun, a popular local politician, is smiling and holding an apple out to me. Chamoun is explaining why the apples from his orchard in the Bekaa Valley are so tasty: it’s the rain and the soil. The scene would not be so strange were it not for the burly bodyguard in combat fatigues keeping very close watch behind him. The wizened son of former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, Dory Chamoun, who leads the National Liberal Party in Lebanon, is a popular figure in Beirut but his family has been touched by political tragedy: not only was his brother assassinated, but so too was his youngest son. This is Beirut.
Chamoun is here to support Souk el Tayeb, Beirut’s first organic food market, which has been running every Saturday for the last decade, through all the city’s recent upheavals. Souk el Tayeb – whose name translates as “Market of Good” – is a non-profit cooperative, led by Kamal Mouzawak, which spans Lebanon’s regions, religions and sects. “The souk is a community collaboration that came out of political turmoil and dictatorship,” Mouzawak tells me. Mouzawak and I are at the market’s temporary home on derelict land overlooking the Mediterranean. Behind us is the dramatic skyline of the city – rolls of hills dotted with apartment blocks in the haze. Beyond the city, heavy grey-blue clouds fade to reveal Mount Lebanon in the blue distance.
Twenty-five years ago the land where the market today stands was a killing zone for snipers. During Lebanon’s Civil War between 1975 and 1991, this part of the city was once the dividing Green Line
The charming Mouzawak is a social innovator who adores food and its potential to unite communities. He’s also the owner of Beirut’s most delightful restaurant, Tawlet, in the Mar Mikael area.
As you walk around the stalls overladen with late summer’s offerings – from mint and olives to pastries and jams – it is hard not to resist the invitations from the 50 or so farmers here today from all over Lebanon to taste everything in sight. Souk el Tayeb feels like a big, extended family. Everyone here knows each other. Since it began in 2001, the market has become a food movement, and turned its founder into a local celebrity. As well as bringing together Lebanon’s once divided communities, Souk el Tayeb supports small-scale farmers and producers as well as encouraging healthy, environmentally friendly produce.
Twenty-five years ago the land where the market today stands was a killing zone for snipers. During Lebanon’s Civil War between 1975 and 1991, this part of the city was once the dividing Green Line – named after the shelled-out buildings abandoned to nature – between Christian east and Muslim west Beirut. Here, militias from Christian Phalangists to Shiite Hezbollah fought for control of the city, each group backed by countries both near and far vying for influence in the region. From 1975 to 1991, Beirut was the crucible for the Middle East’s conflicts in a conflict that killed up to 200,000 civilians. The future is, once again, uncertain as the region is plagued by instability – a two-hour drive east of Beirut along the highway that cuts through the Bekaa Valley is the Syrian capital Damascus, where the Assad regime is tied up in an extremely savage endgame that has already cost the lives of 70,000 people. Many Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon.
The development of the area that was once the Green Line has become a national priority. Overseen by the private shareholding development company Solidere, the Beirut Central District – the area from Martyr’s Square down to St George’s Marina, and part of the Corniche area – has seen a flurry of smart apartments and hotels projects in recent years. The Four Seasons arrived at the end of 2009, while no less than two Pritzker-Prize winning architects, Norman Foster and Jean Novel, are designing buildings a stone’s throw from each other.
For now foreign students have returned to the leafy and sprawling American University of Beirut (AUB). At the time of my visit Beirut’s private hospitals in the well-heeled districts of Clemenceau and Verdun, renowned as much for heart surgery as liposuction, were back in business. Today the future is uncertain as the conflict in Syria threatens to spill over into Lebanon.
Slap-bang on Martyr’s Square is the city’s finest hotel, Le Gray, the best place to watch Beirut at work and play. You see tanks doing turns like dodgems around the Square,” says Gordon Campbell Gray, the affable, zesty Scottish owner of Le Gray, “but you don’t get nervous. I’m more scared of a traffic warden.” I bumped into Campell Gray at Tawlet a few days before and now we are sitting in Gordon’s Café watching Beirut pass by. Campbell Gray is off to the Frieze Art Fair in a few weeks to add to his collection of paintings, hundreds of which hang in the hotel.
Next to the hotel is the heavily guarded tented mausoleum to former President Rafik Harriri, who was assassinated in 2005, many suspect by the Syrian government. Syria is a country that has long vied for interest in Lebanon, over its arch-enemy Israel, and tens of thousands of Syrian troops were stationed here until the popular Lebanese Cedar Revolution, sparked by Harriri’s assassination, drove them out.
Eastwards beyond Beirut, in the direction of Syria, is the stunning Bekaa Valley and the ancient city of Baalbek. The drive down from Mount Lebanon into the Bekaa and onto Baalbek, past small farms and vineyards with grapes fat in the harvest sun, is a journey that mirrors the contradictions, microcosms and extaraordinary diversity of Lebanese society from Druze to Sunni. Each town you pass from Zahlé to Baalbeck represents a different community – Christian to Shiite, then further at east in the town of Anjar, Armenian Orthodox. Baalbek has Lebanon’s most spectacular ruins: those of Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, founded by Alexander the Great in 334BC. Today Baalbek’s a sleepy market town today run by Hezbollah and has a delightfully atmospheric hotel, the Palmyra, which once hosted Kaiser Wilhelm II and Jean Cocteau.
Back at Tawlet with Mouzawak and Campbell Gray, the day before I depart, we are sitting on wooden benches in the airy, bright, very contemporary restaurant. Chefs prepare behind us. Each day a different chef from a different region cooks delectable regional dishes using ingredients from the market. Tawlet is Lebanon on a plate. “You can tell the story of a country through its food,” says Mouzawak.
Later on, over Lebanese white coffee and Ahweh Bayda – a hot, orange blossom-infused water always offered after a meal – Campbell Gray reflects on Lebanon’s sense of resilience. “I love every single minute of being here,” he says. “Beirut is not a new destination. It is a rebirth of an old one. The most important part of Lebanon is its people,” he enthuses. “They are amazing and they bounce back. I love them. I love their spirit.”