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Myra Abdallah

Talking to Noha Baz

Caption: Noha Baz and Guy Martin during the “Ziryab” prize ceremony in November 2014. (Image via guy-martin.fr)

Dr. Noha Baz is a pediatrician and the founder and general manager of Les Petits Soleils Association. She is also the founder and a jury member of the “Ziryab” prize for gastronomic books. A doctor for more than 20 years, she never stops trying to make the world a better place. Even after 20 years, she still believes she can change the world by helping as many people as she can, especially children. The “Ziryab” Prize ceremony will held on 1 November 2015. NOW spoke with Noha Baz to ask her about her story, her projects and the associations she has founded.

 

 

NOW: Tell us more about yourself.  

 

Noha Baz: I started my medical studies during the Lebanese war. My parents were living between Paris, Geneva and Beirut. I chose this field of studies because I wanted to help others. However, ever since I was at school, I was attracted to physics and chemistry, which are everywhere in the kitchen and I always wanted to search for the ‘how’ and the ‘why.’ After finishing my medical studies, I went to France to do my PhD in taste and gastronomy at Rhine University. My thesis was about the transmission of taste to children, and this was a way to link my profession and my passion for culinary art. I also believe that when you teach a kid how to eat, it serves them their whole life to avoid obesity and health problems. After I defended my thesis, the jury decided to grant me a prize in order to print my thesis. This is how Un Petit Soleil Dans Votre Cuisine [A Small Sun in Your Kitchen] was born; it was the title of the book I published. I also wanted this book to serve the Petits Soleils Association, which I created several years ago. I also got married in France after I graduated. I lived with my husband for many years in France before coming back to Lebanon.

 

I try to help whenever I can and whomever I can. I believe that a person can’t live in this world alone. I had several initiatives like the Petits Soleils Association. Also, I once tried to open a safe house for homeless children who beg on the street, but their parents asked me to pay them a monthly salary to compensate for the money their children weren’t bringing back home anymore.

 

 

NOW: Tell us more about Les Petits Soleils.

 

Baz: I became a doctor because I wanted to help people, and not only wealthy people who have the financial means to have access to the medical system in Lebanon. During the final years of my medical studies, I was an intern at one of the biggest hospitals in Beirut. One night, in 1983, I was in the emergency room when a man entered with an eight-year-old boy. The boy was suffering from meningitis and his father was a farmer. I knew that they had already tried to go different hospitals and none of them would treat the boy because his father did not have enough money. Unfortunately, and regardless of all the efforts I made, the hospital I was working at would not to treat him, either. They told him the hospital was full, but it wasn’t. The hospital didn’t want to cover the high cost of the treatment. The father took his son and left. I was later informed that the boy died on his way back home. That day, I decided to never let this happen again — not on my watch.

 

I went to France for many years. When I came back, I was asked to volunteer at a dispensary to treat children whose parents do not have the financial means to treat them. Some of the children I treated were very sick, and their parents could not even buy them the prescribed medicines. I started to help the parents by providing medicines and paying for them until the day a taxi driver came in with his 11-year-old daughter, who was suffering from pneumonia and needed urgent hospitalization. Her father only had $20 and couldn’t pay the hospital fees. I took the situation in charge. I paid around $3,000 for the hospital to accept the girl, who was directly sent to an intensive care room where she stayed for more than six weeks. The hospital bill was $26,500 and I had to pay it, which I did. But I knew that I could not go on like this and I needed a source of funding. I called few of my friends, including Salim Edde, and we gathered to create “Les Petits Soleils.” The association is only funded by personal donations and income from fundraising events. The association has helped more than 25,000 children to date and more than 180 families are being supported on a monthly basis.

 

 

NOW: Do you try to motivate your patients’ parents in order to help other children in need?

 

Baz: Yes, all the time. I try to be the link between parents who have the financial means to help others and those who need financial aid. Also, some of them are motivated to help by seeing other parents in the waiting room of my clinic. For example, a mother once saw a mother in my clinic who couldn’t afford milk for her children. She went directly to the pharmacy downstairs and bought two boxes of milk and donated them. I believe that all people are good deep inside, and they only need a small push to help. I believe in solidarity between different people living in the same society and this does not only apply to the medical field. I sometimes try to find donors for children’s school tuitions too.

 

 

NOW: How did you become attracted to the culinary arts?

 

Baz: Physics and chemistry — especially chemistry — are everywhere in the kitchen. For example, when you cook, it is a science to know which type of food should be cooked at what temperature. In addition, the most important thing for a person’s life is their eating habits. In medicine, I always searched for what can help a human being and how a person can themselves to live better. In addition, I lived in a family environment where all the food used to be cooked at home and I learned to become picky in the products I chose and their combination. Being a pediatrician, a lot of parents ask me to prescribe vitamins for their kids. Before doing so, I ask them what type of food they are giving to their children because all the vitamins a body needs exist in food.

 

 

NOW: What does cooking mean to you?

 

Baz: As I said previously, I went to France to specialize in gastronomy. I have a passion for food. I read cook books like other people read novels. I have a passion for culinary books. Cooking is a culture and a tradition. Cooking tells the history of human beings. When I eat a certain meal, I always want to know the story behind it and how was it cooked. The history of gastronomy is tightly related to the history of humanity — how human beings started to use fire to cook, for example, and how they discovered spices and traveled the world to be able to get them.

 

For me, food tells the history of a country. When people travel, they visit museums. When I travel, I go to food markets to know more about the country from an anthropological point of view. I was always interested to know the history behind food — knowing where it was made and how and why. I always ask the following questions: Why is the cuisine of a country different from the cuisine of another country? How did the food habits of people evolve? How do they celebrate Christmas in Poland, for example? The cuisine of a country is its cultural and historical witness. Gastronomy is the beautiful history, unlike politics and wars.

 

 

NOW: Tell us more about the “Ziryab” prize.

 

Baz: Farouk Mardam-Bey is a person I respect a lot. He used to write “The Ziryab chronicles” in the of the Arab World Institute journal in Beirut. I used to read this column all the time. My love for books and my love for food encouraged me to launch a prize dedicated to gastronomy books. I wanted to encourage people to write books that tell a story, not just pictures of food. When I decided to create this prize, I wanted at first to name it the “Loukoum” prize, but it didn’t sound very serious. So, I decided to name it the “Ziryab” prize.

 

This year, the prize will be given for the second year on 1 November at a ceremony at the Salon du livre francophone de Beyrouth at BIEL. There are permanent jury members and others invited to join every year who determine the winner. We gathered three times a year in Paris. Being raised in both Lebanon and France, I wanted this prize to be like a bridge between the East and the West in order for the West to know that the East is not the land of barbaric and violent people, but is also a place where people are interested in fine arts.

 

Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah

Caption: Noha Baz and Guy Martin during the “Ziryab” prize ceremony in November 2014. (Image via guy-martin.fr)

I paid around $3,000 for the hospital to accept the girl, who was directly sent to an intensive care room where she stayed for more than six weeks. The hospital bill was $26,500 and I had to pay it, which I did. But I knew that I could not go on like this and I needed a source of funding. I called few of my friends, including Salim Edde, and we gathered to create Les Petits Soleils.”