On 4 August, 2020, Aline Kamakian, who owns the Armenian restaurant Mayrig in Beirut, was standing on the top of her building watching a fire burn in the city’s port.
We all saw what happened next, as an explosion ripped through the city. A stockpile of 2,750kg of ammonium nitrate had been left in the port for years, then a fire triggered an explosion, killing 200 people, wounding thousands more and damaging at least 70,000 homes and buildings.
Kamakian was thrown to the ground, unconscious. A fuel tank on the building’s roof came crashing down, and a soil filled planter was shattered from the shockwave.
Miraculously, Kamakian was spared, suffering just a burst eardrum, concussion and cuts and bruises. Her restaurant, however, was destroyed and one of her employees badly injured. Immediately Kamakian helped her down the stairs and to the hospital on the back of a motorcycle.
Barely stopping long enough to be bandaged up, Kamakian immediately joined the efforts to respond to the emergency situation. She joined with World Central Kitchen and local restaurateur and community worker Kamal Mouzawak to get involved the best way she knew how, cooking and feeding the hungry.
CEO of World Central Kitchen Nate Mook takes up the tale: “What was so amazing about the response in Beirut and how we were able to get up-and-running with operations was the incredible speed with which the locals sprang into action.”
“They didn’t hesitate to get up and jump right in. They were dealing with their own loses, the loss of loved ones, businesses… Our driver had a taxi company and every single one of his cars was just imploded and he didn’t stop for a second. He was always with us as our driver 24/7, doing whatever was necessary, driving the wrong way down a one-way street to get food to a hospital or to the firefighters at the port.
"We met students, we met Syrian refugees. One we met was living in Tripoli, and he jumped on a bus in the middle of the night to be with us in the morning to volunteer. It was just incredible to see the outpouring of support, especially from the young people. It didn’t matter what your background was, they were all coming together to help out.”
World Central Kitchen’s first point of contact was Kamal Mouzawak, one of Beirut’s foremost restaurateurs and the founder of the city's first farmers' market, Souk el-Tayeb, which preserves food traditions and the culture of sustainable agriculture in Lebanon.
Miraculously, Mouzawak’s restaurant, although close to the blast zone, was spared. Surrounded on three sides by an earth embankment and old train track that runs above it, the restaurant was protected from the force of the blast.
“This is the amazing thing about chefs,” says Mook. “There’s so much interconnectivity around the world, it’s like one giant community. People may be in different countries, speak different languages and cook different kinds of food, but when you go into a kitchen there is a connection. We are the same.”
Mouzawak has moved his farmer’s market right into the middle of the blast zone, in order to help regenerate the area. It reopened successfully on 1 October, as life and business returned timidly to the stricken area. However, a seemingly endless array of challenges are waiting to be confronted tomorrow, and every day over the coming months. The city and the country had been facing the challenges of an economic crisis, devalued currency and Covid-19, and these challenges are still there under the rubble.
“People are traumatised,” says Mouzawak. “Beirut is a city that is used to living with trauma, we have been through very turbulent times, but this is especially bad because it was so big and it came at a time when we were not at war. So we were unprepared.
“Part of the population has been rising up against the government because of corruption and mismanagement. This explosion is the direct result of mismanagement also. It could have been avoided, so it has only added to the people’s anger.
A Volatile Situation
“The restaurant industry has been terribly affected since October, 2017, with a terrible economic situation. The value of our local currency has plummeted, so people don’t have the same means as before. Then came Covid, like everywhere else in the world, and then this explosion. So the problems are compounded. Even before the explosion, the restaurants were empty, with only three or four people dining per night on average.”
With the emergency response together with WCK, eleven restaurants were put to work, which meant the hiring of staff and payment to local suppliers. This helped to nurture the food system and save livelihoods.
Le Chef, a restaurant located in the district of Gemmayze, beloved by Anthony Bourdain and damaged in the explosion, managed to reopen after it was saved by international donors including Russell Crowe. The Australian actor had revealed that he was behind a $5,000 donation to help save the restaurant and the owner, Charbel Bassil, expressed his gratitude saying: "I invite him to come to our country and to see our restaurant. I can't find the words to tell him thanks. All the staff and the family of Le Chef thank him."
After all Lebanon has been through - civil war, economic crisis, Covid and the explosion - the country is facing one of the most difficult times in its history. The situation is volatile and changing rapidly, and there is a sense that anything can happen. Yet the local people are showing the world how to respond to an emergency.
“There is an opportunity to support local producers, but you cannot become self-sufficient overnight, especially in Lebanon, where there just isn’t enough space for agriculture,” says Mouzawak. “The country is mountainous, it is difficult to do agriculture.”
As the west faces its own imminent economic crisis, and the restaurant industry around the world picks up the pieces of the Coronavirus pandemic, there is perhaps much to be learned about resilience from the people of Beirut. But Beirutis have an unenviable task to overcome.
“The main challenge is how is it [the farmer’s market] going to live?” says Mouzawak. “This is a new era, people are traumatised, they have deep scars, so there is a big question over how we will survive. You can’t predict anything good right now, there is no government, and the economy is worsening, but in spite of this we are going on, and the people of Beirut are going on.”
“It could be easy to write off a place like Beirut,” says Mook. With the economic situation, the protests, the problems with the government, with Covid, and then this explosion. And yet with all the challenges, I actually left totally inspired by the people. Everybody is very realistic about the situation and yet they are undeterred. For me that’s incredibly inspiring.”