Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Public space, political space

Farmers markets as a public political space: the case of Souk el Tayeb, Lebanon

I gave a short talk today at a workshop on Public Space in Lebanon organized by Studio Beirut and partners. Here’s an excerpt from the workshop program:

Beirut, a city with a rich history of dialogue, had mythical public spaces such as Martyr’s square (a transportation hub and a major trading and meeting place) in the old central district and a fast growing pedestrian culture in newly developed districts like Hamra in the early seventies.

The 1975 war annihilated most of these spaces and turned most public squares and sidewalk into sniper corridors and brutally violent spaces. The war aftermath continued to shut off and prevent the creation and the use of public spaces. These spaces were deemed uncontrollable because they could serve as platforms for reconciliation and national dialogue that could have possibly led to the rejection of foreign control.”

I was asked to talk about Souk el Tayeb as a public space and as a meeting place. Here’s an approximate transcript of my talk:

Farmers Markets and Local Food Systems

The past decade has seen an exponential increase in the number of farmers markets (or producers markets), especially in the West. In the US alone, their number has increased from 1,755 in 1994 to 3,700 in 2004, serving more than 3 million consumers. They have been hailed and praised as essential components of local food systems. They provide an alternative to supermarkets and large food corporations which are the pillars of the globalized food system that dominates our lives. Farmers markets sit at the convergence of a number of disciplines: civic engagement, public health, environment, sustainable agriculture, transportation, historic preservation, and local economy. They benefit communities by providing economic opportunities and sustainable livelihoods, promoting healthy eating and public health, creating active public space, shaping growth, revitalizing downtowns and neighborhoods and by bringing together diverse people.

Souk el Tayeb (SET) is Lebanon’s first and only farmers’ market. Started in 2004 it has grown in size from 20 to over 50 producers who represent an estimated 300 small farmers. It serves a weekly pool of nearly 1000 customers.

Besides having all the characteristics of farmers markets listed above, SET is not a public space like any other. It is also a political place, where people and participants have the opportunity to practice political action.

Souk politics

Customers and producers of SET are engaged (consciously or not) in political action, the central tenets of which are:

Social equity and poverty alleviation.
Non-sectarianism and secularism.
Environmental preservation.

1. Social equity and poverty alleviation

Lebanon’s political and economical system is built around the neglect of the productive sectors and the support of rent economy. Over the years, successive governments have upheld values that align closely and often surpass the most fundamentalist neo-classical economic policies. The current Lebanese government is currently rushing to sign as many bilateral free trade agreements as it can, and is working hard to join the WTO, regardless of the impact on the poor, especially the small farmers. (Un)surprisingly, the Lebanese opposition has nothing to say about that, and its ministers have greatly facilitated the privatization programs introduced by the World Bank. Lebanon currently imports 80% of the food it consumes, mostly from the US and France. The traders and bankers who form the political class of Lebanon are very happy with this state of affairs which contributes to further lining their pockets. Rural life has eroded throughout the past 25 years, and most villages have become “dormitory-towns” where people live because it is cheaper, not because they till the land. Their main source of income is remittances from emigrant members of the family.

Against this background, SET offers an alternative for those farmers and small producers who do not with to join the global system. It is currently one of the few existing outlets for small producers from Lebanon who are willing to invest themselves in small scale farming. This is a clear political choice, and it goes against the policies of both Lebanese government and opposition. It links in with the international movement opposing globalization and free trade agreements. Every SET producer, every customer, consciously or not, is taking a political stance and is expressing it publicly in the center of Beirut.

2. Non-sectarianism and secularism

Much has been written about the sectarian nature of Lebanon, and the false democracy on which the country’s constitution and electoral system is based. Both government and opposition play the sectarian game in order to reach their unique political goal: gaining more power for their own sect.

Tolerance to each others has gone through various ups and downs in Lebanon at least since the 18th century. After the assassination of Hariri in 2004 and the July 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, sectarianism has increased to levels that have not been reached since the Lebanon wars in 1991.

People from all sects meet in Souk el Tayeb. They are producers, customers and visitors. They declare a truce and come and sell their products and interact with each others. There, you will find the women of Aita al Shaab in the South, the Druze men from the Chouf and the Christian from Kesrwan and the Sunnis from Akkar, not trying to hide who they are, but taking pride in it. Somehow, the combination works, unlike what an observer of Lebanese daily life would expect. The farmers commiserate about each others difficulties, provide mutual support, and compete for quality of production and for customers.

The presence of such diversity is also important for other reasons. Customers also gain from being exposed to “the other” and by getting introduced to the local culture of other parts of Lebanon. At a time where “’the other” is perceived as a horned and hoofed creature, this is a small step towards mutual acknowledgement and integration. While the limitations of what I am advancing are fully acknowledged (and I also acknowledge that this is a romantic and idealized view of Lebanon), there is an absolute need for a place where people meet in mutual respect, regardless of their background. SET provides this place.

3. Environmental preservation

There are many ways in which SET contributes to the preservation of environment and natural resources. I will only select a couple of examples here. SET houses a significant organic section, and has been a fervent supporter of organic farming since its creation. Nearly all the organic producers of Lebanon use SET as an outlet and it has become one of their must important sources of income. Moreover, SET is committed to environmental issues such as recycling (the theme of its most recent newsletter) and to alternative energies, and to biodiversity. The difference between SET and environmental NGOs is that SET has fully integrated environmental preservation in its business practices, rather than making it a charity case.

Moreover, and on a more global scale, the fact that SET is a component of the local food supply chain implies that the ecological footprint (the total amount of CO2 emitted in getting a produce from seed to table. Transportation is usually the costliest part in carbon emission currency) is much lower than any imported and industrially processed produce.

Both these issues –natural resource preservation and global environmental conservation- are essential items in the political program of any modern state. Through SET, it is possible to make them an integral part of everyday life.

Challenges and limitations

I fully realize that the picture I have presented is romanticized and idealized. In reality, SET, its organizers, its producers and its consumers do not necessarily share the same level of political consciousness and may not even wish to engage in political action.

Here are the main challenges and limitations to the idealized political framework I have presented above:

1. On social equity and poverty alleviation:

While SET is a definite contributor to the improvement of the livelihoods of many farmers, the scale at which it operates remains dismally small. There are 200,000 farmers in Lebanon and at least 3/4 of these are poor small holders. Even if SET was replicated ten times, it will still be very far from providing a global solution to poverty and equity issues in Lebanon. This has been a recurrent criticism of farmers markets and of the other components of local food systems: community supported agriculture and direct sales. This also raises the whole question of whether local food systems are an alternative to globalized, mass consumption, or just a conscience whitewash. Criticisms have been voiced about farmers’ markets and similar “equitable” markets. They have been described them as parallel consumption channels which increase expenditures of the better-off on boutique food, without causing a commensurate decrease in the consumption of industrial food product originating from global markets.

Moreover prices of products sold in SET and in farmers markets in general appear to be over inflated and not representative of the labor and material investment. While this may be justifiable on the basis of supply and demand economics, it immediately excludes a large segment of society who cannot afford to purchase and consume these products. It may be argued that many of the Lebanese poor have roots in rural areas and that they have access to these products in their lieu of origin. This argument only reinforces the notion that SET is a shopping place for the urban rich.

Lastly, while access to SET is not officially denied to anyone on the basis of their looks or their identity, it has to be acknowledged that the customer base is from the local Beiruti bourgeoisie, and that the location of the souk, in Saifi village in the privatized Beirut Central District may deter the poorer classes. However, this is more of a self imposed restriction that is slowly eroding as families of producers who originate from all around Lebanon come to visit and discover that it can be a place for all, albeit not affordable to many.

2. On creating a non-sectarian, secular environment:

The Lebanese commonly practice “takiyya” or dissimulation. While it is true that people meet in SET and interact regardless of sect or class, a legitimate question is: how much of this is taken home? How much of the behavior that is observed and experienced in this public space becomes integrated into daily social behavior? How much of it truly permeates into the minds of people and durably changes their conduct? The image of the Lebanese discovering their Lebaneseness and their common identity around a plate of tabbouleh, and agreeing on blaming the “foreigner” for all their ills is of course an overused cliché. But like all clichés, it is deeply rooted in reality.

There is also, of course, the inherent danger of learning to accept individuals of different sects, while retaining a profound prejudice against their communities. Thus, “Abu Riad” may be perceived as a “good person” because he is affable and makes great labneh sandwiches, but this will not affect the individual’s perception of his sect or community (the uncle Tom syndrome).

No convincing answer can be provided to these questions, and it would be foolish to expect one street market to change the behavior of all Lebanese (the scale issue again). However, any rapprochement between the sects of Lebanon is today welcome, and there is no doubt that SET provides that.

3. On environmental preservation:

This is where SET impact can be best evaluated and where it is most effective. At local level, the adoption and fostering of organic farming and of “clean” production practices contributes to environmental preservation. At global level, the short supply chain reduces atmospheric CO2 emissions due to transport. And while there are areas that can still be improved, such as the use of non-recycled material for packaging, these are minor issues that can be easily resolved. SET gets a clean health bill as an environmental showcase. This is partly due to the fact that environment is a safe issue: it is seen as transcending the social, economic and sectarian political agendas, and therefore gets unequivocal support from those implicated.


Souk el Tayeb and other emerging markets (like the recent producers’ souk in Nabatiyyeh and the other souks currently being planned) may act as a special form of public space: a political space. However, it appears that so far, the actors in this political space are not fully conscious of the role they are playing and of their potential as agents of change. Moreover, this politicization of space has been largely limited to action that is not supported with a clear ideological base shared by all the actors. In SET as in the rest of the post-modern world, we are “doers” not “thinkers”. But as Amilcar Cabral, foremost leader of the African Liberation Movement put it: ‘every practice produces a theory, and that if it is true that a revolution can fail even though it be based on perfectly conceived theories, nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory’ (Cabral 1969:73–90, at 75).

Rami Zurayk, August 21, 2007

2 comments: said...

Spaces like Souk el Tayyeb, commendable as they are, are not enough to function as meeting places for the Lebanese people.
There are also venues likecertain Hamra Bistros and cafes, in addition to the necessity of reviving the Cenacle Libanais, a prewar cultural and literary salon, in the downtown. said...

I am not sure whether I have ever seen you address the issue of Lebanon's water resources and how best to utilize them.

It has often struck me that with Lebanon being the only ME country with a water surplus (besides Turkey), there is little or no strategic vision or planning to preserve and fully utilize the country's water resources. Most of our water is sadly allowed to go to the sea, although this is Lebanon's most imprtant natural resource to date (barring an oil fin d on the continental shelf).

Ought not Lebanon to create a comprehensive strategic plan to quantify, presrve and utilize its water resources in the best possible manner?