For a real taste of Lebanon, go back to the land

A Beirut-based organisation is trying to promote Lebanese traditions. Its initiatives open up a whole new view of this country, for locals and visitors alike, says Joy Lo Dico

My first foray into the Lebanese countryside, when I visited last autumn, came in the form of an invitation to the loftily named World Birds Migration Festival held near Anjar.

Anjar, on the road to Damascus, is best known for the exquisite ruins of a fallen city from the eighth-century Umayyad dynasty. Buildings lie half-buried in the earth; one is free to wander among the colonnades and step gingerly over 1,300-year-old mosaics with no restrictions. It is second only to the legendary Baalbek.

But this is a mere diversion. My actual destination was a field halfway between Anjar, a town that was settled by Armenians in their diaspora at the beginning of the 20th century, and Hima Kfar Zabad, a Sunni Muslim village 10 miles away. The inhabitants of the two settlements had scant contact for 80 years, despite living so close. Finally, they were persuaded to join together in celebrating the birds taking flight south.

The birds proved tricky to get RSVPs out of, and only a few could be sighted, but this didn't deter the festival goers. A hundred or so enthusiastic people from both of the communities turned up with all the accoutrements required for cooking their local dishes.

I arrived on a Sunday morning, joining a party of Beirutis organised by a local group called Souk-el-Tayeb, run by Kamal Mouzawak. Festivities had evidently started the night before. The campfire ashes were still burning, and locals were emerging groggily from their tents to begin a second day of feasting.

For many, the first glimpse of Lebanon is Beirut, a city of Starbucks, late-night bars and hyper-preened women. It hums with a mix of Eurotrash style and Middle Eastern traffic chaos: loud, brash and ostentatiously wealthy. As with many capital cities, it offers a façade behind which lies quite a different country.

The smaller communities in the mountains and valleys and further along the coasts are a far cry, culturally as well as geographically, from Beirut. But this division, says Kamal, is a particularly serious problem. In this country recovering from two decades of civil war, with little investment in tourism or preservation of the environment, the history and undocumented traditions of the Lebanese countryside are at risk of being lost.

Part entrepreneur, part historian and terribly well connected, Kamal is leading a rather simple revolution within Lebanon. It began, as did my trip, at the Souk-el-Tayeb farmers' market in Beirut. Founded by Kamal a couple of years ago, it now takes place every Saturday in the Saifi Village car park, right at the heart of the city. From across the country, small-scale producers turn up in cars and vans laden with olive oils, fruits, jams, pickles and other produce of humble origin to sell to better-heeled Beirutis. It looks like a village fete for the whole city and it's quite personal – you can just drop by and someone will happily point you at one of the organisers.

There's a growing movement towards organic food in Lebanon, but the real mission of the Souk-el-Tayeb is to reconnect the land to the city. This journey goes two ways, however. The Souk-el-Tayeb also organises and takes part in festivals across the countryside, and arranges transport from Beirut to take city dwellers and tourists out to meet small producers on their own land. There is certainly no guide book that would put these places on the map, but the Souk-El-Tayeb initiative does. It lists them on its website.

Which is how I ended up in the field near Anjar, where I discovered a mutual trade in friendliness, as well as money and food. At one makeshift stall, a woman called Diaa, from Hima Kfar Zabad, was making sag, a typical Lebanese flatbread covered with herbs which is cooked on a spherical metal dome over a wood fire. She was ecstatic that she had an international audience for her bread-making skills, swelling with pride at every compliment. Other stalls sold soups, stews, cakes and herbs from nearby fields.

By mid-afternoon the festival had reached its climax – a bake-off between two women from the rival settlements. Both, it turned out, made a particular savoury wheat porridge, which they both thought was their own. A large crowd of people gathered round for a tasting before the winner was announced. Actually, it was declared a draw, perhaps in the interests of communal harmony.

Kamal's motivation is his worry that these local traditions are not finding a voice in the modern Lebanese identity. There is the tendency, at least among the moneyed classes, to look to the West rather than back east for their sense of self. Behind them, a chaotic and poor countryside doesn't appear to have much to offer at first glance. And with little tourism or industry outside the city, those born in the countryside see their only way out as heading for supposedly better lives in the metropolis. As a result, old trades, cuisines and artisanal talents are in serious decline.

To make this point, Kamal drove me through a landscape of towering pines and olive trees to Assia, a village in the foothills of the Mount Lebanon range, near the coastal town of Batroun. Assia is famed for the handmade terracotta pots found in many Lebanese homes and restaurants, yet there are now only three families still making them in the village.

At Assia we met Fadia, one of the last women making Assian pots, who took us to a small shed behind her house, squatted down on a cushion, and began moulding one of the vessels. She had done it so many times that her hands had become her eyes. In a matter of minutes, her fingers had smoothed the clay into a brownish-red bowl for firing in the kiln at the end of her garden.

This style of earthenware, made without a turntable and with sparse designs, stretches back millennia and the technique is passed on mostly by the women in the families. They still sell in Beirut, to restaurants and, through the farmer's market, to locals who are keen to purchase a bit of their country's history. But Kamal wishes to develop the tradition. Visitors can already arrange through Souk-el-Tayeb to visit Assia, but he also plans to open a workshop in which the skills will be passed on to a wider circle of people.

It's part of a bigger idea to open five Beit Labnoun, or "communal homes of tradition", across Lebanon over the next year or two. In practice, they will provide foreign and Lebanese visitors with a place to stay and learn about the area's artisanal skills and local cuisine. But the principle behind these communal homes is grander. According to Kamal, it's about keeping alive, in deed as well as in memory, many of the traditions that tie the Lebanon to its land.

Our next stop was the twin-town of Mina-Tripoli, a tough sell for a casual visitor to Lebanon. El-Mina is an ancient port just below Tripoli, 53 miles north of Beirut. Despite the chic boutique hotel in town and a fancy tourist website, there's no escaping its rough edges.

Ten miles up the road is a Palestinian refugee camp where violence had flared a couple of months before my visit. There are signs everywhere of the place's slow decline – a tatty souk, an alley full of cheap restaurants. Yet, beyond its social problems, this northern Lebanese town offers glimpses of its history; a Mamluk fortress and a 14th-century market, a caravanserai, which although it's in serious disrepair would inspire the architecturally minded.

Kamal's interest here is the local speciality of sweet pastries made with honey and soft cheese, which is certainly worth trying, and preserving. A house in the town is being transformed into a pastry-making workshop, again with rooms for guests.

The call of cosmopolitan Beirut is strong, but there is something just as compelling about the traditional landscape of rural Lebanon.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Joy Lo Dico flew to Beirut with BMI (0870 6070 555; flybmi.com), which offers return flights from £404.

Further information

For more details about events and trips organised by Souk-el-Tayeb, go to soukeltayeb.com.

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