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.