After the death of her husband, Libi Khan, then 20, left her home in Jassour, Bangladesh, her parents and her 3-month-old baby to work in Lebanon as a housekeeper.
Khan has worked for the same family for nine years, and of all her various daily tasks she feels most at home in the kitchen, she said.
“I learned koussa, loubieh bi zeit, rice and meat, fattoush,” said Khan, who knew nothing of Lebanese food when she arrived. “After some time, my madam asked me to cook food from my country. She loves Bangladeshi food and she said to me, ‘Why don’t you cook and sell?’”
That’s exactly what Khan is doing now through Souk al-Tayeb’s “Bounties of Domestic Workers” program, the organization’s latest empowerment project in partnership with the International Labor Organization to provide opportunities to women from the country’s underprivileged communities through food.
On Saturday, Khan and her stand mate, Eugenie Glokpon, a middle-aged domestic worker from Benin, sold tidy packaged lunches: vegetarian noodles, beef biryani with rice and vegetarian sambousek from Bangladesh and couscous a la Benin, jeweled with white raisins and topped with chicken and vegetable soup.
“Would you like to try some, ma’am?” Khan called out to passersby, several of whom wandered over curiously.
Khan and Glokpon are two of the program’s 15 women who come in pairs to Souk al-Tayeb and highlight a handful of homemade dishes each week. The women also cater for various events around town, including lunches at Tawlet restaurant and a cafeteria in Jnah.
They also happily scribbled down their private numbers for several customers interested in personal catering. Glokpon, for example, sells from home bottles of adoyo, a cloudy, yellow-tinted juice made from fermented corn that has a tangy, pungent taste akin to lemonade.
“Some people come to my home and buy three or four bottles,” Glokpon said.
“It’s good for malaria.”
Unlike Khan, Glokpon speaks somberly of working for a decade in Lebanon, where most domestic workers are bound by contracts with the companies that found them and brought them to work here.
“We work for two years in a house before we can leave. We must pay off our contract; it is very expensive,” she said. “We are part of the economy, we pay for the telephone, for water, for electricity, for housing for $200 a month, and we’re sending money home; for all this $400 is not enough.”
Aside from cooking in Lebanese homes, the women participating in this program have no professional background in food preparation, said Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Souk al-Tayeb.
“One of the conditions that we ask is that they like cooking and to be good cooks because we’re not here to teach them cooking, just to curate what they do,” he said, speaking Saturday under a tent providing shade from the heat, which by 11 a.m. had already thinned the market’s usual crowd.
Souk al-Tayeb and the ILO began training the women in May, and identified which meals would be best suited for Lebanese tastes. “Maybe one of the dishes would be very typical of the country, for example, I don’t know, putting watermelon in a soup, which would not be at all appropriate for Lebanese tastes. So we prepared to have dishes that would be, in quotes, ‘sellable’ in Lebanon,” Mouzawak explained.
The final result includes a menu of dishes like cashew curry from Sri Lanka, stewed cassava leaves from Madagascar and riz al la sauce d’arachide, a peanut stew over white rice, from Camaroon.
“Bounties of Domestic Workers” is only one arm of a slew of food-focused empowerment projects, beginning with the souk and Tawlet restaurant, which host Lebanese housewives from around the country to cook regional fare. In recent years, newer initiatives have included Palestinian refugees and women who fled the war in Syria.
“It’s always how to empower housewives who think they are nothing and they can do nothing; but they are something and they can do something,” Mouzawak said.
In Tripoli, one of the newest projects has brought together dozens of mothers from Tripoli’s warring Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods. “They’ve lost a husband, a son or a daughter. [The objective is] to get them in one kitchen to tell one story. And the cuisine of Tripoli is amazing, anyway.”
Discussing the food, Glokpon and Khan happily told stories of their own traditions. Couscous and tomato soup, for example, is no everyday food in Benin. “This is the food of occasion because the ingredients are very expensive in Benin,” Glokpon said proudly. “This is food for the rich.”
By Beckie Strum
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