Friday, August 31, 2007

Egypt farm food

"I wish I could say that since moving to the farm I've lost a ton of weight and become sleek and svelte, but that would be fibbing. I haven't but I know that my diet is a lot healthier than it was in the city. The temptation to just call for a pizza was always really a tough one. Now most of my meals are prepared from the things that we are growing on the farm. This depends on the season, but being able to freeze or dry vegetables makes them last. Like most of our neighbours, we are growing the summer crop of bamia, or okra."

My friend Leila (who writes great comments on this blog and who blogs as Bedouina) sent me this link about "An American lady living in Egypt for the last quarter century keeps a blog about her small farm in Giza near the Saqqara pyramids." Here the American lady writes about peasant food.

Having it both ways

"For several seasons now, fruit and vegetable farmers have had to scramble to find enough workers to harvest their crops. One factor in the labor shortage has been an increasingly militarized border, making it more difficult for would-be workers to cross over. Another has been the building boom, which has lured undocumented workers into higher-paying construction jobs.

Thus farmers in production centers like California and Arizona were already tense about the labor situation when Bush rolled out his hodgepodge of measures designed to force farmers (and other employers) to stop relying on undocumented workers. (For the record, as I've written before, I think it's schizophrenic and childish to make a big show of hunting down and deporting the people who feed you.)

Farmers across the country quickly cried foul. In New York's Hudson Valley, where workers come from Mexico and Central America, apple growers fear a bumper crop could largely wither on the branches. "We have 3 billion apples to pick this fall and every single one of them has to be picked by hand," one grower told The New York Times. "It's a very labor-intensive industry, and there is no local labor supply that we can draw from, as much as we try. No one locally really wants to pick apples for six weeks in the fall."

What happens when farmers can no longer work their land profitably? They generally sell it to developers, and land under cultivation succumbs to low-density sprawl. Again, that's already happening in California. In the state's lush Central Valley, home to probably the nation's most valuable territory for growing fruits and vegetables, developers bulldozed 100,000 acres of prime farmland in the 1990s alone, according to American Farmland Trust. If present trends continue, AFT warns, another million acres of farmland could vanish within a generation." (thanks Rania)

It's going to be olive picking season in Lebanon soon. We are very very proud of our olive oil (which is not that great, although some of it is excellent). It is very expensive (2 to 3 times the international price), but we happily pay the price. Olive farmers complain non-stop about their losses from olive farming, and that their largest cost is the harvesting labor. Until a few years ago, this was partly resolved by hiring Syrian farm workers. They know about olives, and were willing to work for short periods of time. But since the assassination of Hariri, Syrian workers are reluctant to come and work in Lebanon, as they have clearly been told (with guns and shrouds) that they are not welcome. The Lebanese categorically refuse to work as farmhands.

Climeat change

“In late November, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report stating that the livestock business generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.

Al Gore calls global warming an existential risk to humanity, yet it hasn’t prompted him to change his diet or even mention vegetarianism,” he complained. “And I guess the environmentalists recognize that it’s a lot easier to ask people to put in a fluorescent light bulb than to learn to cook with tofu.” (Thanks Rania)

I hate tofu

Localized reaction

"Localism is a movement made of pieties. The cult of seasonality was a taste that evolved into a politics; localism is essentially a politics attempting to create a taste. It is built on the conviction that the industrial economics of food growing and delivery are bad for us and bad for the planet, but it also has an implicit moralistic attitude that prefers small country patches over big urban deserts. It is possible to have localism without nostalgia, though, and Gabrielle urged me to look into the tilapia-farming program at Brooklyn College.

There are powerful arguments against localism: apart from the inevitable statistical tussles about exactly how much fuel is used for how much food, the one word that never occurs in the evocation of the lost world of small cities and nearby farms is “famine.” Our peasant ancestors, who lived locally and ate seasonally from the fruit of their own vines and the meat of their own lambs, were hungry all the time. The localist vision of the tiny polis and its surrounding gardens has historically led to bitter conflict, not Arcadian harmony.

It is even perilously easy to construct a Veblenian explanation for the vogue for localism. Where a century ago all upwardly mobile people knew enough, and had enough resources, to get their hands on the most unseasonable foods from the most distant places, in order to distinguish themselves from the peasant past and the laboring masses, their descendants now distinguish themselves by hustling after a peasant diet.

This may be so; but the fact that one can explain everything in social life as a series of status exchanges does not mean that social life is only a series of status exchanges. It was cool to be a liberal in 1963, but that did not make liberal attitudes to race foolish. All human values get expressed as social rituals; we place bets on which of the rituals are worth serving."

Excellent (very long, but very colorful) New Yorker article on local eating in New York. (Thanks Leila)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dom people

Further to my post on the Roma people (Nawar), Valery pointed me to a website and a journal devoted to the Roma people, or the Domari or Dom people as they are known in the Middle East. I provide here links for 3 articles which are interesting about the Dom people in Lebanon.

they provide a good general background on the Dom of the Middle East and Lebanon. (thanks Valery)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mutant beer

"But the potential was clear. Soon, by exposing large numbers of seeds and young plants, scientists produced many more mutations and found a few hidden beneficial ones. Peanuts got tougher hulls. Barley, oats and wheat got better yields. Black currants grew.

The process worked because the radiation had randomly mixed up the genetic material of the plants. The scientists could control the intensity of the radiation and thus the extent of the disturbance, but not the outcome. To know the repercussions, they had to plant the radiated material, let it grow and examine the results. Often, the gene scrambling killed the seeds and plants, or left them with odd mutations. But in a few instances, the process made beneficial traits.

The payoff was even bigger in Europe, where scientists fired gamma rays at barley to produce Golden Promise, a mutant variety with high yields and improved malting. After its debut in 1967, brewers in Ireland and Britain made it into premium beer and whiskey. It still finds wide use.

“The secret,” reads a recent advertisement for a single malt Scotch whiskey costing $49.99 a bottle, is “the continued use of finest Golden Promise barley and the insistence on oak sherry casks from Spain.”"

Mild criticism

An open letter in al akhbar from Ziad Abdel Samad, executive director of the Arab network of development ngos to PM Saniora in which he asks: how can you take decisions and implement agreements with long ranging impact when your government as no global vision or planning? This will ensure that you will make fatal mistakes when the public sector is sold off and the free trade agreements are signed.

كيف تتخذون قرارات تاريخية في ظل تجاهل العديد من المسائل الأساسية، وفي ظل الظروف التي تعيشها البلاد، ووفقاً لهذا الشكل المرتجل، ومن دون أن تكون لديكم ولدى وزرائكم الرؤية الشاملة التي تضمن عدم الوقوع في الأخطاء القاتلة غير القابلة للتصحيح بعد أن يتم بيع القطاع العام والتوقيع على الاتفاقيات الدولية؟

I know Ziad and believe me, he is a mild critic of the Saniora government. This is mild criticism.


أفراد من النوَر في لبنان (أرشيف)

The first article I have ever encountered in a Lebanese newspaper on the Roma people of Lebanon, locally called "Nawar", which is used as a derogatory term in Lebanon to mean "what is poor, unclean and not distingu
é". In Lebanon we seem to have selective blindness to the Roma people. Many of them live in the villages of the west Bekaa bordering the Damascus road. There are also groups of women and children who read palms in Beirut and on the South highway. This article says that they do not possess legal Lebanese papers and that they are occasionally arrested and pushed around by the police.

I'd really like to know more about them. I don't think there has been any systematic research on the Roma of Lebanon. If you know something please point me in the right direction.

Monday, August 27, 2007

urban farming

Agriculture in Middle Eastern cities: Commonalities and contrasts, by Joe Nasr and Paul Kaldjian

Cactus fruits

"Souk al-Tayeb, the organic food market held every Saturday in Saifi Village in Beirut, promoted this Saturday the Indian fig (or sobbeir in Arabic,) grown in different Lebanese areas. The Indian fig is a species of cactus and a long-domesticated crop plant. The event is one in a series to promote Lebanese products and recipes."

A Land and People event

Tastes odd

" Nahr el Bared is a horror story for all concerned. The refugee camp has been totally destroyed, and its 30,000 or so Palestinian inhabitants have been displaced yet again, with little chance of resuming a normal life anytime soon. Nearly 140 Lebanese Army soldiers have been killed and many others wounded, as have a similar number of militants. Rebuilding or moving the camp elsewhere will rekindle Palestinian-Lebanese political sensitivities. Only suffering, death, political discord and disjuncture emanate from Nahr al-Bared. You hear the explosions as you drive by.

The mortars pounding Nahr al-Bared contrasted sharply Sunday with the large stone-carved mortar in Ehden's central square in which Susanne Doueihi was pounding raw meat, spices, onions and cracked wheat into kibbeh nayyeh, or raw kibbeh. She was one of a dozen contestants who entered 15 different kinds of kibbeh into the tasting contest. She was also the only person who made her kibbeh nayyeh on the spot in the traditional hand-pounded way. Other contestants produced 15 different kinds of baked or fried kibbeh, in two other judged categories - flat kibbeh in a pan, and rounded balls of kibbeh."

Rami Khoury mixes tragedy with raw meat. I'm not sure i like the taste.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lost landscapes

"This is a personal take on a depressingly familiar theme. The wadis are choked with wild cyclamen, thyme and asphodels. As he wanders, Shehadeh passes olive groves and fruit trees, encounters gazelles and goats as well as bare rock and its evidence of dramatic geological change over millennia. But, as one West Bank hilltop after another is claimed by the Israelis (Palestinians built their villages along the contours of the hills), and yet more settlements are established, the familiar view changes beyond recognition." (thanks Rania)

Time to reconsider food policies

Excellent brief on the global rise in food prices from the Council on Foreign Relations. (thanks D.)

Food prices worldwide continue to climb upward (FT) at a pace not seen in decades. Few countries seem immune to the impact—with prices up 6 percent in Britain, around 7 percent in the United States and China, and 10 percent in India. A recent study from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that its expenditures on imported foodstuffs for the least developed and most food-challenged nations will rise 9 percent from the previous year. Josette Sheeran, head of the UN’s World Food Program, told the Financial Times last month that rising food costs mean the agency will be able to reach “far less people.” The agency, which spent $600 million (PDF) for food in 2006, says its purchasing costs have risen 50 percent in the last five years. “We face the tightest agriculture markets in decades and, in some cases, on record,” Sheeran said, noting that the growing concern over the impact of biofuel demand on food prices.

Several factors contribute (Mercury News) to higher farm commodities prices—including rising transportation costs, global warming, and the demand from nations such as India and China, whose people are ratcheting up their meat consumption. Yet the FAO’s analysis asserts that much of the current price hikes “can be leveled against rising prices of imported coarse grains and vegetable oils,” commodities which feature heavily in biofuel production. A recent Foreign Affairs article argues that biofuels have “tied oil and food prices together in ways that could profoundly upset the relationships between food producers, consumers, and nations in the years ahead, with potentially devastating implications for both global poverty and food security.” The Economist notes that biofuels have caused the price of corn to reach levels comparable to those of crude oil, when comparing the two commodities based on price per unit of potential energy.

In a rebuttal in Foreign Affairs, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who hails from corn-rich South Dakota, criticizes the continued “food-versus-fuel debate,” contending that biofuels can help the world meet its energy needs “without jeopardizing food security.” Daschle, a long-time ethanol advocate, argues that higher prices will be “a short-lived challenge” since the increased demand for corn will encourage farmers to grow more of it. However, one financial analyst notes that such a solution to higher prices “might prove to be temporary” since an increasing portion of corn crops will likely be used for biofuel instead of food. U.S. ethanol producers assert that rising oil prices are twice as responsible (PDF) for high corn prices as rising ethanol prices.

Antonio José Ferreira Simões, energy director for Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contends that biofuels offer an opportunity for developing nations to compete (IHT) in agricultural markets with developed nations, many of which “strongly subsidize” their farming. “Millions of jobs would be generated, thus increasing income, exports and food purchasing power of the poorest,” Simões wrote in the International Herald Tribune. On the impact of biofuels (, European food industry writer Anthony Fletcher says that “agriculture has always adapted to the changing needs of humans, and there is no reason why this shouldn’t be true now.”


Update on Lebanon's oil spill.

Really helpful

US aid to Lebanon since its independence analyzed:

قبل حرب تموز، بلغت المساعدات الاقتصاديّة الأميركيّة أعلى مستوياتها في النصف الأول من الثمانينيات (حوالى 52 مليون دولار عام 1983). وبين عامي 1986 و2000 تراوحت قيمتها بين 8 و15 مليون دولار.
ارتفعت هذه المساعدات إلى معدل 35 مليون دولار سنوياً بين عام 2000 و2006.
عقب حرب تموز، خصصت الإدارة الأميركية مساعدات طارئة للبنان بقيمة 180 مليون دولار، وقامت لاحقاً بطلب حوالى 300 مليون كمساعدات إضافية للعام 2007. (معظم هذه المعونات مكوّنة من هبات).
2ـــــ الأهداف والشروط المرافقة لهذا الدعم:
الهدف المعلن لهذه المعونات هو إعادة إعمار لبنان عقب حرب تموز. لكن تصريف هذه المساعدات مشروط بنجاح حكومة السنيورة في إقرار «إصلاحات» اقتصادية معينة. وبالفعل، وقبل أن يقرّ الكونغرس هذه المساعدات، أعلن السنيورة نيّة حكومته تقليص بعض الضمانات والمساعدات التي تمنحها الدولة لبعض القطاعات الاقتصادية.
هذا بالإضافة الى احتمال خصخصة الكهرباء وخدمات الهاتف والاتصالات ورفع ضريبة القيمة المضافة من 10% إلى 12%، وإجراءات أخرى تهدف بحسب قوله إلى تقليص الدين العام البالغ قدره 40 بليون دولار والذي تبلغ كلفة خدمة فائدته حوالى 3 بليون سنوياً. وقد لقيت هذه السياسات معارضة داخلية أجبرت السنيورة على مراجعة توقيت تنفيذ هذه القرارات وكيفيته.
استنتاج: إنّ هذه المعونات الاقتصادية الأميركية للبنان كانت ولا تزال جزءاً لا يتجزّأ من السياسة الأميركية النيوليبرالية المتّبعة حول العالم والتي تهدف الى إضعاف دور الدولة (التي تدّعي دعمها) وبناء الاقتصاد الحر غير المنضبط

This article by Hisham Safieddine covers US military aid to Lebanon (which I will not translate here) and development aid, which I will summarize:

"US development aid to Lebanon peaked at $53 millions in 1983, but then fell back to between 8 and 15 million a year till 2000. It increased to $35 millions annualy between 2000 and 2006. After the July war, the US administration budgeted $180 millions as aid to Lebanon, and then requested $300 millions for 2007. Most of it as gifts.
The declared goal of this aid is the reconstruction of Lebanon after the war. But it is conditional on the Sanioura government carrying out economic reforms. Effectively, when Congress agreed on this aid package, Sanioura declared his aim to reduce the support offered by the state to certain economic sectors. This comes in addition to the possibility of privatizing electricity and communications and telephones and raising the VAT from 10% to 12% and other reforms he claims will reduce the $40 billions deficit. Strong local opposition forced Sanioura to delay his plans momentarily.

Conclusion: this development aid was and still is part of the US neo-liberal economic policy to weaken the states it claims to support and to impose unregulated free economy."

For some reason Al-Akhbar stuck the two tables below together. The article refers only to the one on top (US aid to Lebanon), but the second one is interesting too: how Congress sees sectarian distribution in Lebanon.

Squeezing Iraq

""I hope that the water issue does not fall prey to politics. Our river levels have plummeted and Iraq needs guarantees that projects Turkey is building won't hit us further," Rasheed said after talks with Syrian officials.

Euphrates volumes through Iraq have fallen to 30 billion cubic meters a year, half the flow of a few decades ago before Syria and Turkey increased dam building, Rasheed said.

"The picture on the Tigris is slightly better, although Iran is blocking its tributaries and we need to talk about this with Tehran. We have cooperation from Syria," said Rasheed, a Kurd who was a leading member of the opposition to Saddam Hussein.

Rasheed said talks with Turkey have picked up after the U.S.-led invasion that removed Saddam from power in 2003. But Iraq still lacked information on the scope of Turkish plans upstream and the expansion of cultivated land."

Friday, August 24, 2007


تأتي محافظة البقاع في المرتبة الأولى من حيث إنتاجها للخضرة بنسبة 59.7 في المئة، وذلك بحسب الدراسة الصادرة عن وزارة الزراعة تحت عنوان «الزراعة في أرقام»، تليها لبنان الشمالي بـ27.1، والنبطية 9.0 في المئة، ثم محافظة لبنان الجنوبي بـ3.2 في المئة، لتنخفض الى 1.0 في المئة في محافظة جبل لبنان

If you've ever wondered why the Lebanese governments never cared about farming, here's one of the answer: 60% of the production of vegetables (one of Lebanon's main products) takes place in the Bekaa followed by 27% in the North (mostly in Akkar), 12% in the South, and ...1% in Mount Lebanon. The Bekaa, Akkar and the South are also the poorest regions of Lebanon, in this order. From a recent study by the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture.

Flatten the earth to save US farmers

"If the whole notion of a world trade in food becomes suspect, setting off some eat-local trade war, this endangers a quiet, good new thing: American farmers earning a living by finding new customers overseas." (Thanks D.)

In praise of free trade to save American farmers. But interesting take. I especially like the bit about whey costing 70p a pound. In Lebanon the dairy industry disposes of it on the fields.

Souk El Nabatiyyeh-1860

My friend Mustapha Mond sent me this piece. You can read more of MM's writings chez Ms Levantine. His latest piece on the Metn election is highly recommended.

Souk El Nabatiyyeh
I read with great interest your post on Souk El Tayeb "Public Space, Political Space". It is not surprising that organic farmers markets tend to be elitist, after all the most important organic farmer in the United Kingdom is prince Charles.
Furthermore, Verdun and Saifi do not exactly have a tradition of farmers market, and you will not have individuals from all walks of life mingling to purchase goods. Still, I was glad to read that Souk el Nabatiyyeh is being revived.
Nabatiyyeh has a long tradition as an important market town and I suspect that if its farmers market will eventually become highly successful.
Chaker el Khoury lived in Nabatiyyeh as a refugee in 1860, and this is how he describes the Souk in his book "Majmaa al Masarrat", my translation:
"Souk el Nabatiyyeh is one of the mightiest market places in our parts. People meet there every Monday. They come from all directions some of them from twelve hours away.
Most of the trading is in grains and livestock, and around five to six thousand individuals attend every week, both buyers and sellers. The amazing thing is that over fifty thousand trades take place between buyers and sellers and all is done orally by using a couple of words: I buy/I sell. And problems are extremely rare.
Stranger still, all sorts of people can be found at the Souk: Christians of all sects, Metwalis, Druze, Jews and Muslims. To this day, no one has heard of a problem occurring between any of them.
The whole Souk takes place every Monday from morning until late afternoon. By night fall, you will not see any of the many people who came to the Souk.
The Souk has taken place for hundred of years and it is still going strong despite the fact that other towns tried to organize their own Souks, but with less success. For example, there is a Souk in Hasbayya known as Souk el Khan, but it is not as important as the one in Nabatiyyeh".
Majmaa al Masarrat, page 40, Lahed Khater Publishing.
So there you have it, Nabatiyyeh as a cosmopolitan market place in the XIXth century, where individuals of all sects traded peacefully. Let us hope that the city can regain its old glory, and that it will act again as a magnet for people.
Come to think of it, it would be nice if Souks can thrive again in different Lebanese cities, without any snob appeal, just public spaces where people can interact and mingle without fear.
Let a thousand Souks bloom.
Mustapha Mond.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Food nationalism or food racism?

A good post in a good blog

"I've been pondering the notion of food racism lately....

Given Brillat Savarin's quote "tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are" it only bares to reason that food in many senses becomes symbolic of difference, similarities and cross cultural miscommunication

Michael Pollen wrote that colonisation of one country over another starts with diet.

I still think back to the stifled work lunches and dinners between foreigners and Cambodians, where foreigners would pick at the Khmer food on the plate in a way that was symptomatic of more than just a reluctance to "break bread" with their dining companions.

So I was thinking of all the racist slurs for the "other" based on food such as:

Curry muncher
Dog eater
Bounty Bar
frog eater"

This is zionism

"He added that Israeli army is still conducting the procedures of razing the Palestinians' lands to continue the construction of the illegal Wall and Settlements. Dr Al Agha also referred to the attacks implemented by the Israeli settlers who deliberately bulldozed trees in a forest located near Al Walaja west of Bethlehem city in the southern part of the West Bank on Wednesday morning. The forest is an area of 2200 trees belonging to the Crimson catholic convent and winery."

Farming hate

A blog of sorts that raises issues similar of food and sustainability to the one in Land and People, but with lousy politics. Look at the picture on the cover of this man's book: Famine in the West. It shows someone (poorly) disguised as an arab trying to take a plate of food from of a blond (presumably european) baby.

Flat breads and other bakes

"Americans have recently embraced focaccia, Italy's famous flatbread, but Helou knows a world beyond — the puffy fried flatbread of Yemen, eaten with cilantro chutney, tomato and chopped eggs; the spicy lamb-topped flatbread of Turkey; the flaky Moroccan griddle bread seasoned with cumin and onions; an Egyptian bread stretched as long as the baker's arm; and, of course, the breakfast bread of her native country, a thin disk basted with olive oil and aromatic za'atar, a Middle Eastern thyme-based seasoning. Her delightful book, Mediterranean Street Food (HarperCollins, 2002), details several of her flatbread findings; all the recipes with this story are adapted from it. Savory Baking from the Mediterranean, which came out just last week, contains even more"

I need this book. I could not find it in Beirut. If anyone reading this is coming soon to Beirut, could you please obtain a copy for me? Thanks.

Praise the lard

Food and religion go back a long way. In preislamic times known to Muslims as al Jahiliyya (the times of ignorance), arabs used to make statues of their gods from ripened dates (tamr) and eat them when they got hungry. This is the best use of deity I know.

Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani used the image in his eulogy of Nasser:

"Fana7nu shou3ouban minal Jahiliyya
Noubayi3ou arbabana fis sabah
Wa na2koulahoum 7eena ta2ti 'l 3ashiyya"

This is from memory and the last time I read it was when Nasser died, so I may have changed a couple of words. But the general meaning is there. It translates roughly as

"We are the people of the Jahiliyya
We are loyal to our gods in the morning
And we eat them when the evening comes"

Then Judaism, Christianity and Islam started regulating people's lives and made them jump through food hoops: No shellfish, no pork, no meat on certain weekdays, fasting in all possible permutations.

And sure enough, in the new age of foodies and return to the roots, religion is carving itself its own little niche: faith-based agricultural movements. NYT reports:

"Many of the ideas in the faith-based agriculture movement were expressed 30 years ago by advocates of eco-kashrut, a Jewish environmental consciousness movement. Jewish groups like Kosher Conscience in New York and blogs like the Jew & the Carrot, which is sponsored by Hazon, are still in the forefront. Two years ago the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which has long been involved in agriculture issues, gave the Alliance for Jewish Renewal a two-year, $200,000 grant to start the Sacred Foods Project, which developed ethical guides to food buying.

For some religious people, change starts from the ground up, beginning with the way they treat the land. Dr. Adnan Aldayel, a Saudi Arabian financial consultant living in New Rockford, N.D., runs what he believes is the nation’s only organic halal producer, Dakota Halal. “We try to raise our animals the proper way, the right way,” he said. “We are the custodians of the ground.”

Environmentally sensitive farming has been taken up by at least 50 orders of nuns in the United States and Canada. Their number has increased about fivefold in the past decade, said Sarah McFarland Taylor, who recently published a book about this movement, “Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology” (Harvard University Press, 2007)." (thanks D.)

Is the Slow Food movement a new religious movement? Faith in Good?

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

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Colonizers or partners?

""We are back where we started," Wilfred Collins Wonani, who leads the Chamber of Commerce here, said, sighing at the loss of one of the city's biggest employers. "Sending raw materials out, bringing cheap manufactured goods in. This isn't progress. It is colonialism."

Chinese officials and their African allies like to call their growing relationship a win-win proposition, a rising tide that lifts all boats in China's ever-widening sea of influen"There is no doubt China has been good for Zambia," said Felix Mutati, Zambia's minister of finance. "Why should we have a bad attitude toward the Chinese when they are doing all the right things? They are bringing investment, world-class technology, jobs, value addition. What more can you ask for?"

But across Africa, and especially in the relatively robust economies of southern Africa, there are clear winners and losers. Textile mills and other factories here in Zambia have suffered and even closed as cheap Chinese goods flood the world market, eliminating jobs in a country where less than half the adult population has formal employment. And the Chinese investment in copper mining here has left a trail of heartbreak and recrimination after one of the worst industrial accidents in Zambian history: a blast at a Chinese-owned explosives factory in Chambishi in 2005 that killed 46 people, most of them in their 20s. This year, China pledged $20 billion to finance trade and infrastructure across the continent over the next three years. In Zambia alone, China plans to invest $800 million in the next few years." (thanks Yaz)


"BEIRUT, Lebanon, Aug. 19 (UPI) Hezbollah has put half of a beach in southern Lebanon under its protection to safeguard endangered nesting turtles, it was reported Sunday.

The turtles, among other dangers, are caught in the crossfire of competing Shiite political movements -- Hezbollah and and the rival Amal party, The Sunday Telegraph reported.

The mile-long strip of beach on which the turtles nest is split between two municipalities, one controlled by Hezbollah, the other Amal, which has refused to provide protection for the turtles, said Mona Khalil, a conservationist who champions the hatch of the baby turtles each summer.

"It's not that I'm a fan of Hezbollah, but they have been good to the turtles," Khalil said, noting only one in every 1,000 baby turtles will survive and return to reproduce 25 years later." (thanks Kirsten)

In Nabatiyyeh

Zaatar zawtar and Aita al Shaab's laurel oil soap compete in this new producers market in the southern town of Nabatiyyeh. Land and people was there (both ZZ and Aita's soap are products we support)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Shock and awe

"And how is the U.S. planning to invade and conquer additional agricultural markets?"

Read in full this very well researched article by my friend Rania Masri.

Add it to the bill

Update on the agricultural losses of the July 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. In the Bekaa alone: 5,000 farmers affected, $20 millions in material losses.

Free (trading) Lebanon

The latest on Lebanon's accession to WTO and USAID's role.

Land grab

تؤلف نسبة الاملاك الخاصة من الأراضي الصالحة للزراعة في لبنان 84.6% من مجموع الأراضي. وذلك بحسب الدراسة التي أجرتها وزارة الزراعة تحت عنوان «الزراعة في أرقام»، وتناولت فيها توزع الملكيات الزراعية وفقاً لوضعها القضائي. تليها الأراضي ذات الملكية الأميرية بـ 12.1%، ثم 1.3% للأراضي الخاضعة للأوقاف، لتنخفض الى 1.0% للملكية العامة، و1.0% للأراضي المصنفة ضمن

Arable land in Lebanon, from a recent study by the ministry of agriculture: 84.6% under private ownership, 12.1% as Amiri lands (another form of private ownership), 1.3% wakf (religious lands), 1% mashaa (municipal or state land).

This is the potential for ownership for those who lack resources for farming, the landless share croppers: 1%. The situation is worsened by the fact that 50% of the arable land is owned by 0.1% of the people, by the absence of land use planning and by the lack of security for farmers renting land.

Private property is sacred in Lebanon, and land reform is a big taboo. Big landowners are ready to fight it out (as they now do) to protect their assets, the sacred heirloom that has been in their family for generations. One should really look into how did land come into private ownership at the end of the ottoman empire. Most of the land was then owned by the ottoman state and farmed out to feudal landlords of various sizes and appellations: Emirs, Beiks, Sheikhs, and other pompous titles. There is even a Marquis: the Marquis de Freige (a papal title, I am told) and who is a big landowner, and a member of parliament in the Hariri block. Surprised?

Neo-liberating Syria

IMF: Syrian economy recovers from slow growth due to export to other Arab countries. New reforms include the introduction of value added tax and the removal of subsidies on fuel. Creation of private banks to be facilitated. Trade barriers in the process of being removed, including non tariff barriers.


It's the mouneh (food that is stored for consuming during the year) season. My cousin planted a field of sesame this year as a summer crop. Sesame is a good crop because it is planted at the end of spring on the fallow lands that have not been planted with wheat during the same year and no fertilizers are ever used and it sells well on the local market. Yields are variable because sesame is difficult to seed by hand (which is how we seed it in the south of Lebanon). He will harvest it in a couple of weeks and I have decided that this year I'll make my own tahini. I'm disgusted by the industrial tahini, because i have seen how it is made and because there is a widespread belief (and some evidence) that titanium oxide is used to give a white color to the final product. I guess I'll just toast the sesame lightly and paste it in the blender. Is there another recipe?

Here's my list of mouneh, all grown and made in my tiny little village in south Lebanon. This year, I want at least 60% of my food to come from this mouneh:

Chickpeas: 20 kilos
Broadbeans: 20 kilos
Lentils: 10 k
Split lentils: 10k
Freek (smoked wheat) 10 k
Burghul: coarse: 10k, fine: 10k
Sesame: 5 kilos
Onions: 10 k
Olive oil: 40 liters
Olives: 10 kilos
Kishk (burghul-goats yogurt mix, dried and pulverized): 5 kilos
Goat labneh in olive oil: 10 kilos
Local wheat flour (for bread making): 50 kilos
Zaatar: 3 kilos
Fig preserves: 3 kilos
Dried figs: 10 kilos
Carob molasse: 3 kilos
Pomegranate molasse: 3 kilos
Honey: 5 kilos
Qawarma: meat confit 5 kilos


"The Philippines archipelago of more than 7,200 islands is among the world's most mineral-rich countries, with gold, silver, bauxite, nickel and coal mines. But it remains one of Asia's poorest nations, with a fragile democracy, slow growth, weak institutions, and a widening wealth gap. Its mineral reserves are estimated to be worth £420bn, yet only 1.4% of the estimated 22m acres (9m ha) of mining land is covered by permits. To exploit the resources the government formed a mining act in 1995. It claimed the industry would bring an extra million jobs over the next six years, although only 125,000 people are now employed in mining. The development has come at a price for the country's 84 million people. The worst mining disaster was on Marinduque island, involving a leak of 4m tonnes of toxic waste at Marcopper's mine. The estimated damages of £40m have yet to be fully recouped." (thanks Rania)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Growing resistance

We plant every last square meter of Lebanese land to spite the Israelis, says this farmer in Kafarkila.

Errata olive oil

An anonymous poster wrote this in the comment section of my previous post: "don't cook with olive oil"

"This is an article from the Guardian. A correction gas been posted:

Are we using too much olive oil?

Zoe Williams
Wednesday July 25, 2007
The Guardian

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Wednesday August 8 2007

The article below mistakenly stated that almost any cooking of olive oil beyond the gentlest of sweating would transform it into trans fats. Most trans fats in food are the result of an industrial hydrogenation process. Frying in oils such as sunflower or olive oil has an insignificant effect in producing trans fats

or read it for yourself here:,,2134134,00.html

Olive Oil is fine to cook with!" (thanks anonymous)

I'm happy to hear that. i did a bit of research on the side and i did not find other references to the transformation into trans-fat. but the fact remains that olive oil has a lower smoking point than most oil and that many oils denature at smoking point. Transfats may not, luckily be the by product, but a lot of the aroma is lost and i find that olive oil changes into heavy tasting fat. but then again this is a matter of taste. Today I had a foodie friend taste the manoucheh as I make it: make the patterns on the dough to avoid the bread splitting, cook the dough as you would a manoucheh but without adding the zaatar oil mix, then when almost cooked, remove, add the mix and place back for 30 seconds-1 minute. He thought this was the best he had ever had. And you can use olive oil without losing its aroma. Problem is that it's a bit labor intensive and not many ovens would agree to do it. This was in the oven of my village, so there was no problem.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Falafel, not war!

"Ali Fahs agrees. Known as Mr. Pickles, he sits at the market behind a table heavy with jars of preserved vegetables, jams and balls of labneh - strained yogurt packed in olive oil. He is from Jebchit, a town in the south of Lebanon, where the bombing last summer destroyed his land, house and factory. "I am Shiite, that one is Druze, that one is Christian," he said, pointing to his colleagues. "But there is no difference at all; we are all one family here.""

IHT article by my friend Anna Sussman.

The Chinese syndrome

"China has more than 20 percent of the world's population and only 7 percent of its arable land. China announced Monday that rising food prices pushed the inflation rate in July to 5.6 percent, a 10-year high. Adding to the pressure on farmland is rampant environmental degradation that has poisoned waterways and soil." (thanks Rania)

The Kikuyu dilemma

This is a long post, sent to me by my friend Annie (many thanks Annie). It is excerpted from a longer article which can be found on

See excerpts after my comments.

The article is extremely interesting because it raises many crucial issues:

1. The contradiction that can exist between local food systems (consuming locally) and sustainable farming (organic) and other socially responsible approaches such as Fair Trade. I have blogged about this earlier (use the search function). The gist is that we are nowhere near solving the issue of "local but self-serving and conventional" to "imported but organic and fair trade". Clearly one of the problems with import is the carbon footprint: food miles. And one of the benefits of import is that it can contribute to poverty alleviation (if it is Fairly Traded, which is not automatic with organic). Which do we chose? What is more important: carbon footprint or support to producers in developing countries? As the article says: it is not the organic produce of the Kikuyu that is responsible for the carbon emission of the world, it is the lifestyle of people in the North and in some countries of the Middle East. The Kikuyu and other inhabitants of poor countries have accumulated so much carbon credit (by not contributing to global warming) that they could argue for exporting their produce in supersonic jets, one carrot at a time.

2. It also raises the issue of producing export food that local people do not eat, either because they cannot afford it or because they do not desire it. This is akin to using cheap labor in poor countries to produce commodities required only by the West and which are then exported. Forget about the organic bit for a moment: exporting rarely benefits the poor, because of the economy of scale needed to keep prices competitive. The management methods required to satisfy an overseas client in a highly competitive environment are also beyond the reach of the poor. It is much worse for food, because it cannot be stored for long periods of time and has to be flown out immediately and therefore requires high level logistics. Moreover, the idea of producing what you cannot afford to consume is instinctively repulsive to many (myself included). Additionally, and because land and labor are limited, production of export-oriented crops will replace local production of food. Food has then to be imported. The free trade governments love that (Lebanon's government is a great champion of this approach), but this is the surest way to undermine food sovereignty and food security of people and country. Whether what is being produced for export is organic or not is beyond the point.

3. The article also seems to imply that this issue of carbon footprint of organic produce from Kenya is not a trade barrier created to favor UK farmers, but a genuine environmental concern. I beg to differ. The fact that this campaign has been initiated by the Soil Association, the organic labeling body of the UK does not automatically mean that this is a "clean and ethical" fight. The soil association and Prince Charles himself have been facing problems in providing produce to the local UK supermarkets because of quality and price issues. How convenient that this footprint barrier should crop up at that same time to prevent entry of organic certified produce from Kenya, and therefore place supermarkets in front of a fait accomplit: they will have to take UK organics if they want to satisfy consumer demand.

Herein lies the great dilemma: we want to simultaneously save the environment, protect local farmers and support farmers from developing nations. All are very worthy causes, but they seem to be mutually exclusive, at least in some aspects. If we cannot have them all, which do we chose?

Article begins

The Kikuyu in Kenya have been making remarkable progress of late. They have been nurturing organic vegetables and flowers for sale to Europe. According to the Observer Newspaper in the United Kingdom, '…[O]rganic produce is the fastest growth area of Africa's horticultural industry, together with cut flowers and other high-value products like dried herbs and essential oils'. This applies as much to the Kikuyu in Kenya as to other groups in Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia.

Is this a call for a celebration? Well perhaps not just yet: this week the Soil Association in the UK, the body that certifies produce as being 'organic' and suitable for sale under that label in the UK, and to whose specifications the Kikuyu tailored their organic produce, are considering banning Kenyan and other such African produce.

The justification this time is not the usual excuse that inevitably crops up in terms of the EU's unfair trade practices vis-à-vis the farming industries outside the UK. No, this time the justification is a whole lot more politically correct: it is to do with 'air miles' and 'carbon foot-prints'. The discussion over climate change, motivated by the powerful film that is the result of the efforts of former US Vice-President Al Gore, (An Inconvenient Truth), has hit home the reality of the threat that climate change poses. It has at the very least instigated a discussion on the importance of combating climate change. The argument central to the film is that society needs to make fundamental changes to adequately address the extent to which it is contributing to climate change.

The other reality is that when looked at in the context of the net contributions made to climate change, the measure is grossly skewed. According to World Bank estimates, an average Briton emits 9.4 tonnes of carbon in comparison to a Kenyan who emits 0.3 tonnes. This means that the average Briton emits more than 30 times that of a Kenyan: and it is not because the average Briton is queuing up to buy Kenyan or other African produce.

It is clear that climate change is an issue that society needs to tackle on a war footing. In fact it is quite clear that were the 'war against climate change' fought with as of the intensity that some States are employing in the so-called 'war' against terror, the results would already be noticeably different. Yet into this debate there is a fundamental question to be asked about the role of human communities. If we are to tackle climate change globally, we cannot do it on narrow nationalistic lines. It is not enough for the Briton to feel that he has made his contribution by not buying Kenyan produce under the mistaken belief that it is more heavily loaded on carbon emissions. Rather, issues like climate change by their very nature need to be tackled on a transnational basis. Thus it is crucial to look at the big contributors to climate change: uncomfortable facts about the use of vehicles and petrol consumption lie at the top of that list, with organic carrots from Kenya considerably lower down, if existent at all, on that scale.

Meanwhile many of the Kikuyu farmers are close to despair: for the last five years these farmers have worked hard to gain certification that would enable them to export under the 'organic' label in the UK. The process involved verification of standards prior to certification. Once this was achieved the profits of the community soared and resulted in the creation of much needed infrastructure: schools and health care facilities, but also pride in being part of a global community. Now after having played by the rules, they are being told that there is a new rule, and according to this rule they will not be allowed to play at all: or if allowed, they will have to start with a very big handicap.

Another potential dream example of 'globalization' could come crashing down around us. With the same winners and losers as in every other 'global' game of this nature: do we truly hope to build a global community through such measures? One that is willing to tackle climate change?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Angry Manoucheh 2

To those who asked questions in the comments section of the manoucheh post:

1. Indeed, manoucheh is the arabic word for patterned, and what has been posted is correct. for those interested, Barbara Masaad has written a comprehensive book on Manoucheh with tons of illustrations.

2. There are at least 4 types of zaatar consumed in Lebanon and they belong to 2 different genera: Oreganum and Thymus. From memory, I think the most common ones are O. syriacum and T. edulis. In arabic the zaatar with rounded furry leaves is also called zube3 in north Lebanon and zaatar akhdar (green). It is sold by itinerant bedouin women who go around the streets (especially in poorer neighborhoods) shouting "yalla az zaatar". There is also zaatar barri with small rounded leathery leaves and zaatar dakkah which is pickled and looks like small pine needles. There is also zaatar akhdar (!) which has longish (2 cm) tender green leaves, is sold in shops alongside mint and coriander and rocca and is eaten in salads with rocca and onions in most restaurants that offer mezze. It is not used for making the zaatar mix.

3. Bedouina you can make the manousheh on the oven top, that's how it was made traditionally: on the saj. It was also called bak'a in jabal amel. women used to make it after making the markouk bread; they made a thicker loaf, cooked it and then put the zaatar on it when it was ready and gave it to the children who would be waiting for this treat. The reason they use a concave inverted wok (saj) is that it allows for better distribution of heat and a more even cooking.

4. Sophia: Olive oil tasting a a complex matter, but it is unusual to describe it as spicy or sweet. it is usually called: fruity, earthy and such adjectives. But I think i know what you mean. Lets assume we start with oil of good quality, which is not often the case in Lebanon (many reasons for that). Young oil (recently pressed) is also called "khadeer" in Koura. It has not matured yet and "burns" (btish3at) the throat when you eat it. It has the taste of the green fruit. Once it matures (after a few weeks) this "burn" disappear in the same way that the bitterness of the new green olives disappears: the aromatics are transformed. So it becomes as your father said: sweet. If olive oil is badly conserved (a whole different topic) it acidifies, and its taste becomes rancid, which can also be described as "spicy" or pungent. So you are right too. Except that you and your father are talking about two different things.

Angry manoucheh

My friend Angry Arab blogged this:

""Imagine wild thyme from Lebanon combined with sesame seeds..." From Lebanon? It shows you how little Jennifer Bain knows about Za`tar. The best Za`tar is Palestinian or Jordanian. Personally, I also like the peculiar Aleppo Za`tar."

which initiated a string of patriotic and vitriolic comments about the origin and comparative superiority of zaatar. Here's what i have to say:

There are 3 different zaatar mixes in the region: 1. Palestinian (was brought to Jordan by Palestinians and then became known as Jordanian), which contains various aromatic herbs: thyme and (i suspect also oregano) and sumac and sesame but that is also lightly seasoned with spices including probably turmeric which explains the yellow color.

2. Lebanese which only contains thyme and sumac and sesame

3. Aleppo, which is even spicier than Jordanian and contains less thyme and more spices, including and cumin. But is it ground too finely for one to be able to distinguish the ingredients.

The three mixes have their own peculiarity and are worth tasting. Most of them are made with zaatar from Lebanon, as Lebanon exports dried zaatar (often illegally) harvested from the wild to both jordan and syria (check the export data from the customs). Most of the zaatar in Lebanon comes from South Lebanon where a combination of soil type and climate contributes to enhancing its desirable characters.

Commercial zaatar of the 3 kinds is cheap and contains bran and citric acid and ground twigs of zaatar rather than leaves. Aleppo zaatar may also contain MSG to enhance the taste.

My personal favorites is either plain dried thyme or good Aleppo for eating fresh with olive oil and bread, and southern zaatar (which i make personally from my own zaatar, sumac and sesame (most sesame on the market is imported from china) for manoucheh. Note that for a good manoucheh you should bake the bread then get it out of the oven and then put the oil-zaatar mix and then place it back in the oven for a few seconds before the oil starts smoking. This is the only way you can use olive oil with zaatar and this is also how you avoid eating burnt plant residues and trans-fats with the heated oil. Of course you can also have it with soy oil (practically all soy in the world is GMO) like all commercial ovens do, or with sunflower oil, which is also imported through corporations and produced controversially, but not GMO. But it doesn't taste the same.

To capture the specificity of Lebanese zaatar mix from Jabal Amel, it is being registered as a geographic indication of origin (as with wine and cheeses in europe) under the name "Zaatar Litani"). Work is also going on to spread the cultivation of zaatar in order to preserve biodiversity in the wild. Small holder farmers in south Lebanon who are cultivating it as a complementary crop to tobacco. The income from zaatar is one of the highest of all crops as the price of the kilo of dried zaatar is around 10,000 LBP ($6.6).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ouch! What was that? US food aid!

I'm blogging this article in full because the issues are very similar to what has gone on in Lebanon (and may still be going on, but I'm out of the picture now) with respect to wheat monetization. Having myself managed projects that benefited from US wheat monetization, sold locally by a US NGO, i can say that there are lots of analogies with what was going on here. It is also interesting that the same NGOs seem to be associated with US food aid all over the place. ACDI/VOCA, World Vision, Save the Children are all implicated (along with many others) in improving agricultural production in Lebanon, while local markets are being destroyed by ultra-free trade. To be fair, ultra-free trade did not have to be imposed on our successive governments: they wholeheartedly and willingly support it. I have blogged about this many many times below. Search the blog for more info

Charity finds that U.S. food aid for Africa hurts instead of helps
By Celia W. Dugger The New York Times
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

CARE, one of the world's biggest charities, is walking away from about $45 million a year in federal funding, saying American food aid is not only plagued with inefficiencies, but may hurt some of the very poor people it aims to help.

Its decision, which has deeply divided the world of food aid, is focused on the practice of selling tons of American farm products in African countries that in some cases compete with the crops of struggling local farmers.

"If someone wants to help you, they shouldn't do it by destroying the very thing that they're trying to promote," said George Odo, a CARE official who grew disillusioned with the practice while supervising the sale of American wheat and vegetable oil in Nairobi.

Under the system, the U.S. government buys the goods from American agribusiness, ships them overseas on mostly American-flagged carriers and then donates the goods to the aid groups. The groups sell the products in poor countries and use the money to fund their anti-poverty programs there.

As Congress considers a new farm bill, neither the Bush administration nor representatives are looking to undo the practice, known as "monetization." In fact, some of the nonprofit groups say it has worked well and are pressing for sharp increases in the tonnage of American food shipped for sale and distribution to support development programs.

The Christian charity World Vision and 14 other groups say that CARE is mistaken, that the system works because it keeps hard currency in poor countries, can help prevent food price spikes in them and does not hurt their farmers.

But criticism of the practice is growing. Former President Jimmy Carter, whose Atlanta-based Carter Center uses private money to help African farmers be more productive, says a flawed food aid system has survived partly because the charities that get money from it defend it.

Agribusiness and shipping interest groups have tremendous political clout, but charitable groups are influential, too, Carter said, because "they speak from the standpoint of angels."

"The farm bloc is powerful, but when you add these benevolent organizations, the totality of that has blocked change in the system," said Carter, who is also a Georgia farmer.

Some charities that champion monetization bristle at such suggestions. And their allies in Congress say that maritime and agribusiness interests are essential allies for programs to aid the hungry.

"Sure it's self-interest if staying in business to help the hungry is self-interested," said Avram Guroff, a senior vice president at ACDI/VOCA, which ranked sixth in monetization sales last year. "We're not lining our pockets."

But Peter Matlon, an agricultural economist based in Nairobi and a managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, said converting American commodities into cash for development was a case of "the tail wagging the dog," with domestic farm policies in the United States shaping hunger-fighting methods abroad.

"The NGOs have been ignoring this evidence for years that there's a negative impact on the prices farmers receive," said Matlon, who is involved in a $150 million effort financed by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations to increase the productivity of African farmers.

The Government Accountability Office, the non-partisan, investigative arm of Congress, also concluded this year that the system was "inherently inefficient."

CARE and Catholic Relief - who rank first and second in money raised through monetization - say they recover only 70 to 80 percent of what the United States paid for the commodities and shipping.

But while Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children, which ranked fifth last year in such sales, agree with CARE that the system is inefficient, they also say they will not stop converting American food into money unless Congress replaces the lost revenues with cash. They help a lot of poor people with the money, they say.

The experiences of Walter Otieno, a grizzled Kenyan farmer in mud-stained pants, illustrate the paradoxes of paying for rural development through sales of American farm goods.

Over the years, he had watched four of his 12 children die of measles, which is more often fatal for the malnourished. He has had difficulty growing enough to feed his family. "My children were skinny and their skin was dull," he said.

Then last year he began growing a small patch of sunflowers on a hill sloping down to Lake Victoria with help from a program that CARE finances through the sale of American farm goods here.

A CARE extension worker, Rosemary Ogala, has taught him and dozens of farmers in his group where to buy sunflower seed, when to plant it, how to space the rows and when to harvest.

CARE has also connected them to a ready market: the Kenyan company Bidco Oil Refineries, whose managers say they could more than quintuple the amount of sunflower seed they buy from Kenyan farmers to process into vegetable oil.

The profit Otieno earned from the crop rescued his family from dire poverty. Now, with his new earnings, he plays with his sons and daughters, plump on eggs and milk, at the family's general store, a tiny shack stocked with goods financed by the sunflower sales. "Our lives have changed," he said.

The question is whether small-scale sunflower farmers like Otieno would have done better if nonprofit groups had not sold tons of American crude soybean oil, a competing product, to the same Kenyan company that purchased Otieno's meager crop. CARE and some other experts say the answer is a clear yes.

In 2003, Bidco bought almost 9,000 metric tons of crude soybean oil sold to the United States by Bunge, the agribusiness giant. Altogether that year, Bunge sold the United States 15,180 metric tons of oil for resale by the nonprofits in Kenya.

American law requires aid groups to establish that such sales will not discourage production by local farmers, but some critics say it is a conflict of interest to ask nonprofit groups to select experts to make this determination.

In this case, the nonprofit organizations hired a consultant who advised them in 2003 that they could safely sell up to 38,000 metric tons of vegetable oil in Kenya, which mostly depends on imports. That amount, about 10 percent of the country's consumption, was "negligible," he said.

But Odo of CARE disagreed, saying in a memo that "the truth is that the subsidized importation from the U.S. reduces the growth in the local market."

Ultimately, CARE's decision to phase out such sales evolved from a senior manager's change of heart. Daniel Maxwell, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University, was a food security adviser for CARE in Nairobi who saw sales of American food as an imperfect, but useful way to raise money.

He knew firsthand, however, how risky it was to manage projects financed in fluctuating commodities markets. When prices sank, CARE had too little money and was sometimes forced to lay off workers.

Maxwell also strongly suspected that buyers offered too little for the farm goods, knowing they were dealing with aid workers who were novices in commodities trading.

As he and Christopher Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, researched a book, "Food Aid After Fifty Years," his doubts deepened.

"Not only was it a pain the neck," he said, "but there were potentially serious knock on effects that would be damaging to farmers and trade."

In 2004, Maxwell and Barrett made the case against the practice at CARE headquarters in Atlanta. They recalled that the senior vice president, Patrick Carey, who has since died, cautioned them that leaving the system would be like "an act of partial suicide" for the nonprofits.

Nonetheless, by 2009 CARE will end almost all of its participation in such projects across the developing world. It will try to raise money to replace the lost revenues from philanthropies and other donors, and by making its own aid programs profitable.

One of those programs could be seen in action one recent afternoon in the Kenyan village of Poche. CARE has helped local women bypass local middlemen to sell pineapples at better prices in big supermarkets in Nairobi, 10 hours away by road.

One woman, Doreen Amimo, a 52-year-old grandmother, has seen her weekly earnings rise to $18 from $11. She can now afford to feed and clothe an orphaned niece and nephew.

"And I never lack sugar in the house," she said, "and we can have tea and milk every morning!"

These farmers are selling their fruit to a small company, Vegcare, that CARE and a Kenyan company started with an investment of $170,000 in 2005. Vegcare advises farmers on how to grow pineapples that meet supermarket standards, buys them and trucks them to a wholesaler in Nairobi that supplies Nakumatt, a Kenyan supermarket chain.

CARE's idea is that a profitable business is more likely than a charitable venture to survive when foreign aid runs out. CARE managers here say they hope its renunciation of most of the money from commodity sales will free it to candidly address the flaws in the American strategy to combat world hunger.

"What's happened to humanitarian organizations over the years is that a lot of us have become contractors on behalf of the government," said Odo of CARE. "That's sad but true. It compromised our ability to speak up when things went wrong."" (Thanks Yasmine)