Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Lentil soup for the soul: inside Lebanon's soup kitchens

The volunteer-run kitchens are helping to feed protesters in the country

A volunteer at the Regenerate Lebanon soup kitchen 
A volunteer at the Regenerate Lebanon soup kitchen 

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Beirut during the past two months, marching against the political elite that demonstrators say is a corrupt group that mismanaged the country’s finances to cause the worst economic downturn Lebanon has suffered in decades. It’s tiring work that requires sustenance, and this has come in the form of soup kitchens.

Regenerate Lebanon and Matbakh El Balad are two such kitchens. They are run by volunteers and together churn out hundreds of meals every day. Bethany Kehdy, author of cookbook The Jewelled Kitchen and founder of tour company Taste Lebanon, has been working with Regenerate Lebanon since it popped up during the first weeks of protests in the country in October.

“There was definitely a need for people to eat, especially in the beginning when it was ­super-busy,” Kehdy says. “People realised this was going to be a long game. People were going to be on the street, in squares, and they were going to need food.”

Zakaria, a volunteer at the Regenerate Lebanon soup kitchen, who, according to Bethany Kehdy, 'is a legend and works like 20 hours a day'
Zakaria, a volunteer at the Regenerate Lebanon soup kitchen, who, according to Bethany Kehdy, 'is a legend and works like 20 hours a day'

Matbakh El Balad, which has also been running since the beginning, started organically, with Raya Badran, a university teacher who is now a volunteer, drawing a parallel with how the protest movement began. Wael Lazkani, a chef in Beirut, started the soup kitchen with a friend, and soon it grew to a core group of 10 people, who keep it running. The kitchen is in the Azeri car park facing Mohammad Al Amin mosque. The kitchen serves between 600 and 900 dishes per day, depending on the crowd. “We’re where a lot of the tents are and people come to the kitchen to eat,” Badran says. “We send food to people who are in the square or who have tents in different parts of downtown.”

The food and setup at the Matbakh El Balad soup kitchen in Lebanon
The Matbakh El Balad soup kitchen setup

She says she was inspired to join when she realised the protests were not going to be short-lived. “The thing people need to understand is that in the first two to three weeks of the uprising, we were all doing all sorts of things, and we were on the ground at least 13 or 14 hours a day,” she says. “It was a very intense period of protests. But over the course of the days, the nature of the uprising changed and the nature of your engagement is going to change. I wanted to become more involved.”

At Regenerate Lebanon, a distributor compiles a list of campers every day, and delivers sandwiches at lunchtime and a warm meal with rice at dinner. Regenerate is also open to the public, so anyone who needs a meal can visit for lunch at 2pm and dinner at 7pm. Kehdy says they serve about 1,000 meals every day.

The food and setup at the Matbakh El Balad soup kitchen in Lebanon
Courtesy Matbakh El Balad

At both kitchens, volunteers chip in to make soup on-site and bring food from home, as well as contributing ingredients. “This is basic homestyle cooking,” Kehdy says. “We’re not cooking anything fancy; we’re using whatever ingredients we can get. Our focus is to be sustainable, use food recycling. If vegetables at the market are on the way out, that gets sent to be used and cooked and prepared.”

Regenerate Lebanon uses a pot system in which four women can use three or four pots to cook for 200 to 250 people at a time. They cook pasta, chicken with rice, fasolia with meat, falafel, harees (a traditional mountain food of cracked wheat with meat) and other communal dishes. Matbakh El Balad also makes soup on-site and relies on donations for other types of food.

Protesters are thankful for the warm meals, although Kehdy says some of the dishes can become repetitive. “There’s an ongoing joke now,” she says. “We’ve seen so much on the back of the revolution, everyone’s kind of had enough of lentils.”

The goal is to feed as many people as possible and to make sure the food lasts in one of the kitchen’s two storage facilities. Kehdy says they’re planning ahead for six or seven months more.

While the soup kitchens started as a way to fuel protesters, the mission has grown to feed people in general. As the economy flails, hunger grows more acute in the city. “There’s been some inflation,” Kehdy says. “We haven’t got to the worst of it, but there are definitely people who are already on the red line and are starting to feel it. The weather at the moment doesn’t help, nor the gas shortages. Then there’s unofficial capital controls – you can’t withdraw money, or can only take out a certain amount, and if your account is in dollars you’re getting it in lira.”

Badran agrees. “The economic crisis is very dire and is going to get worse with time,” she says. “We are seeing this on the ground. We are seeing the effects it has on people every single day.”

Food and cash donations are always welcome and Kehdy says the Lebanese diaspora in the UAE, the US and elsewhere has been collecting and sending funds to help. Now, in addition to food, they’re seeking warm and waterproof clothing and blankets for campers. Regenerate is also working to distribute items to other cities, such as Tripoli. “The poor areas, in particular, need a lot of help,” she says.

Both Kehdy and Badran cite community as an essential aspect of keeping the soup kitchens, and the protests, going. “There’s a lot of humour that goes in it, despite the severity,” Kehdy says. “No one wants violence. We come from 30 years post civil war and people still know and feel that. There’s an incredible amount of philanthropy going on. People understand this is a time when we all need to jump in and help and support each other on the ground.”

Young Ali walked up to the Regenrate Lebanon soup kitchen one day and said he wanted to learn to cook
Young Ali walked up to the Regenrate Lebanon soup kitchen one day and said he wanted to learn to cook

Badran says she thinks of Matbakh El Balad as the community force that cares for protesters. “The whole thing came about because the uprising needed nurturing in a way,” she says. “People needed sustenance. We wanted to provide food for them for free. Obviously, people kind of convene or congregate around food a lot. It’s part of Levantine culture.”

It’s evident that it’s a personal cause for both women. “We are protesters as well,” says Badran. This isn’t like charity work. We’re there to protest, and we think that cooking and food is also a political action. We support the revolution through food.”

Updated: December 22, 2019 07:59 PM

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