Dateline: Beirut

Before the war, a thousand years and just three weeks ago, you could always find Ali Fahs at the Saturday morning farmer’s market in downtown Beirut. A wiry, gap-toothed farmer with a limp and a leathery smile, Ali makes the most delicious pickled eggplant in all of Lebanon. How do I know it’s the best? Well, I tasted it, but if I hadn’t he would have told me so himself. Ali is a master of mouneh, the Lebanese art of preserving food for the winter, but he’s also a genius at the art of commerce.

“This market, it needs a big mind,” Ali told me once not long ago, taking me aside with a conspiratorial air. “And you can make a big money.”


He paused, weighing whether to divulge his trade secrets. “You find the thing that nobody has it, and you charge a big price,” he said, holding up a forefinger. “For example, sea plants; nobody here has them.” Crinkling into a triumphant smile, he leaned over, tapped his bony chest and revealed, “But I have them.”

He’s a consummate salesman, Ali, capitalism incarnate. He reminds me of Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, when he shouts something like, “Do you or do you not want to be a goddamned capitalist?”

Ali definitely wants to be a goddamned capitalist. Until three weeks ago, his dream was to sell enough mouneh so that he could move to California and open up a gas station. “Last night, I had a dream,” he sighed to me one Saturday morning, his eyes aglow. “I was in California. I had a gas station; it was all mine. It was so beautiful.”

Why California? “Because it is the basket of America,” he replied, with earnest longing. “Just like Lebanon is the basket of the Middle East.”

That was Lebanon: the basket of the Levant, a land of bread and honey, where Song of Solomon’s fig tree putteth forth her green figs. In that long-ago Lebanon, there were farmer’s markets and world- famous wineries. There were luxuries like pistachio madeleines and wild cherries, and the olive oil this fall was going to be the best crop in seven years. You could even find that indicator species of First World privilege, organic food.

In that long-lost Lebanon, Ali was the king of Souk El Tayeb. In Arabic, where there’s no contradiction between delicious and nutritious, tayeb means both good as in yummy, and good as in good for you. So Souk El Tayeb is the Tasty Market, more or less. Founded by Kamal Mouzawak, the doyen of Lebanon’s Slow Food movement, the souk had zaatar, wild thyme mixed with sesame and spices; burghul, cracked wheat; fresh labneh and laban, yogurt thick and thin; and a million other good things. And you could buy any kind of mouneh–fruit, cheese and vegetables, dried, pickled, honeyed or suspended like jewels in glowing green olive oil.

Kamal and his souk were part of a culinary revolution. The goal was to reclaim Lebanon by peaceful means–especially the south, parts of which were occupied by Israel from 1978 to 2000. In the south, where most of the population is Shiite like Ali, Hezbollah is the biggest employer in town. So the healthier the south was financially, went the thinking, the less dependent people would be on Hezbollah. It was working, too: Grizzled old farmers were learning advanced agricultural techniques from young graduate students. French buyers were sniffing around, talking up big-euro deals for importing organic Lebanese food. Shiites from the south of Lebanon were beginning to realize they could make a living at things like beekeeping and mouneh and olive oil production.

That Lebanon died three weeks ago. Today, missiles dropped by Israeli warplanes have cut off the south from the rest of the country. Cherry and lemon and pomegranate orchards are shriveling and dying for lack of water. Farmers are slaughtering their chickens and cattle and lambs because they can’t feed them. And people are dying, too–not just from bombs, but also because those bombs have shattered the bridges and highways that brought them water, food and fuel. With apologies to von Clausewitz, this war is the violent extinction of commerce by any means.

Thanks to the bombings, Ali is trapped in Jibsheet, a small village in the south. Reuters describes it as a “Hezbollah stronghold,” and it probably is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not full of women, children and 47-year-old farmers who once dreamed of pumping gas in the Golden State.

When I called Ali to see if he was OK, he’d been trapped in his house for fifteen days. During that time, he’d been writing a manifesto, an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice. Did I want to hear it?

“Olmert, Bush and Condi Rice, there is no difference,” he read. “In the name of democracy, you are killing the children, and innocent people. And destroying all means of life and humanity. Instead of stopping the war, you put oil on the fire. You send funds and deliver bombs to kill more and more innocent people. Under your forged democracy, you know, and we know, the main reasons for this war is the New Middle East Plan.”

He stopped, interrupting himself. “All this war, just for that!” he exclaimed, outraged. “They want to make the Middle East new, to be in Israel and America’s hands.”

You hear this a lot in Lebanon these days. When Condoleezza Rice described the death of Lebanese civilians as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” I don’t think she really thought through how that would sound in Lebanon. Or maybe she just didn’t care.

“–And to Olmert,” he resumed, “you don’t have except one way to find an exit from this hell.” I could hear paper rustling as he spoke.

“Will you print that in your newspaper?” he asked me. “Of course, you will correct my English. I didn’t complete it yet, but I would like to write more. I would like to make something–I am fifteen days at home, I cannot even work.”

I asked him if he had enough food and water, if he and his family were going to be all right.

“I am professional in food,” he reminded me with dignity. “I have labneh, I have laban, I have everything. You can keep it a long time.”

Of course! I had forgotten Ali’s metier. What’s a little siege to a maker of mouneh? And so until this war ends, Ali and his family will be living off his mouneh, food meant to last through winter or war, eating away the stock he hoped would take them to California.

“In the mountains, we have food enough for two months,” he said with pride. “We have zaatar, we have burghul; we can live for two months.”

God willing, I told him, it won’t be that long. But I have my doubts.