In the 40 years Haidar Shaalan has worked in the bakery business, he has seen a range of technical improvements to the industry, rendering the day-to-day work slightly easier.
However today, the general manager at Al-Wafa bakery sees two major issues leading to the possible decline of the industry in Lebanon: the rising global price of fuel and the high price of wheat.
It is for these reasons – and the high price of plastic wrap – that the Union of Bakeries has decided to hold an open-ended strike starting Thursday.
After months of failed promises by Economy and Trade Minister Nicolas Nahas to hold negotiations with union head, Kazem Ibrahim, the time for action is here, Shaalan says. “We don’t want to strike,” he insists, “we want to accomplish our goals.”
The price of a standard pack of bread is currently capped at LL1,500, so unless the government agrees to increase the subsidy on wheat – which is imported from the United States and Australia – before Thursday, the strike is on, and will include all bakeries across the country.
Traditionally eaten with most meals, Arabic bread has remained a firm favorite across all sectors of Lebanese society, but is perhaps most popular among low-income families.
“Bread is the product of the poor,” Shaalan says. “So many families in Lebanon are living under the poverty line but they can buy bread to supplement their diet.” Ahead of Thursday’s strike, families who usually buy one bag of bread are now buying four.
Although white bread doesn’t have the best nutritional reputation, Nadine Mikati, a dietician at the American University of Beirut, says that in moderation, bread is perfectly healthy. While brown or wholemeal bread has the same calorie value as white bread, the former provides more fiber than the latter.
It would be impossible to expect any Lebanese to give up bread entirely, she says. “In my work I haven’t seen anyone who doesn’t eat bread at least once a day, so I would never recommend a diet without bread in it. In moderation, it’s fine.”
One quarter of a piece of bread equates to one portion of starch, but potatoes, rice, pasta and cereal all also fall under this category. Depending on weight, Mikati recommends from 6-11 portions of starch per day.
Some 25,000 bags (each bag used to contain 10 “rghifs,” or pieces, of bread, and before that 14, but with the price cap, it’s now only eight) are sold and distributed by Al-Wafa each day in Beirut; a further 15-20,000 are exported, to the Middle East and to Europe.
Lebanese bakeries have a reputation across the region for their high quality produce, Shaalan says, and their early introduction of modern techniques. Produce sold to Europe ends up on the dinner tables of Arab expats who miss the pitta bread of home, he adds.
Asked at what point of the day the bakery, one of three branches in the capital, is at its busiest, Shaalan laughs: “We are open 24 hours a day, every day.”
The only bakery in the southern suburbs to remain open throughout the 2006 summer war with Israel, Al-Wafa carries out its first daily distribution of bread – to restaurants, supermarkets and mini-markets – at 5 a.m., which concludes by 7 a.m. Round two of distribution starts at 10 a.m., and then again at 1 p.m. By 4 p.m. the bakery and its 100 staff are already preparing for the next day’s rounds.
Mohammad Daoud, 34, has been baking at Al-Wafa for 12 years, but has worked in the industry for 16. What began as summertime employment during university holidays soon became his full-time job. Daoud now works six days a week, from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m, at the manoushe oven at the front of the bakery. Joking with his colleagues, Daoud admits that, “Somehow I am satisfied in this job, even though it’s not what I set out to do.” But, he adds, he would never recommend his son gets into the business, as it just doesn’t pay well enough. “I support the strike – things have to change,” Daoud adds.
“I’m optimistic about the situation improving. Bread is so vital to the Lebanese people, and such an important staple, so the authorities will have to take our demands seriously.” Heading underground, the heat increases dramatically as we reach the bread-making core of the bakery. Flour and water are mixed together in large vats for 15 minutes, before resting for a further quarter hour.
Then passed through a machine by hand, small balls of dough are dropped onto a conveyor belt. Eventually flattened out, they rotate on the belt for 14 minutes, and are flattened further, before passing into the oven for just six seconds where they inflate. After cooling slightly on lofty wire racks above our heads, the rghifs are bagged by hand, before being set aside for distribution.
As soon as we have reached the end of the process, the power clunks out, halting the machinery and plunging the warehouse into darkness. By the time the generator has kicked in, around 30 seconds later, the rghifs which were in the oven for their six-second bake are completely burnt and black. “Electricity is obviously another major problem,” Shaalan sighs.
While central Beirut has the luxury of just three hours of power cuts per day, in the southern suburbs the bakery must rely on their generator for around 12 hours per day. In a 24-hour business, this adds considerably to their overheads. By midsummer Shaalan expects to have power for only nine hours per day.
Comprising the issues faced by families across Lebanon – power cuts, high fuel costs and the rising cost of commodities – Thursday’s bakers’ strike, if it goes ahead, seems to encapsulate the problems of a nation. – With additional reporting by Atallah al-Salim
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