If you are an Asian or African woman in Lebanon, everyday is a battle. People assume that you are one of the 200,000 foreign maids who live, clean, cook and babysit in Lebanese homes. This assumption can be accompanied by disrespect and harassment, both racist and sexual.
But instead of shouting “Racism!” every time an unpleasant incident occurs, Simba Russeau, an African-American multi-media storyteller, decided to organize “Taste Culture” events that challenge stereotypes with something no one can resist: food. At the event, African and Asian women living in Lebanon cook, explain and sell their traditional dishes to Lebanese and foreign customers. As entrepreneurs, they also reap profits.
Thursday’s “Taste Culture” – the third of its kind – took place at the colorful Zico House. Before the food arrived, those at the event got a glimpse of a multimedia project – sponsored by a number of NGOs – which brought together children of migrant workers and refugees and taught them how to use the video camera to film their day. One documentary presented was filmed by a Sudanese boy named Faghwar, who followed his mother for a day. Faghwar’s mother is a refugee and full-time hairdresser, and in the film, she skillfully braids the hair of African women at her shop, while talking about her life in Lebanon.
Then, the long-awaited tasting session began and traditional dishes from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Egypt were sold at the garden. Zinash Miretea, a young Ethiopian woman who has been working in Lebanon for the past five years, presented two of her specialties: dorowat, or spicy chicken with eggs, and mnhatabesh, a mild meat dish also with eggs, both served with a tangy white bread called injara, which is an Ethiopian staple food. Miretea has cooked all her life and loves it. She says she was “very, very happy” about the event and hopes that based on these events, she can one day open a restaurant with other women that serves Asian and African food every week.
For the 70 or so people who showed up at the event, there was plenty of food to go around, ranging from the Egyptian kushari and Tunisian couscous bil hout, to Philippine pancit. “It’s awesome that this kind of event exists in Lebanon, and the food was delicious,” said Lily Lee, a Korean student studying at the American University of Beirut. “[The event] was a great way to learn about culture. It was very lively,” said Nisreen Kaj, who is African-Lebanese and works as a copywriter at a consulting firm.
After the feast, Ashraf, a Palestinian musician, played the oud and sang, followed by a powerful spoken word piece by Becky Katz on the issue of maids and racism. Last but not least came a cool hip-hop set in Arabic by FareeQ el Atrash.
Taste Culture events are an important step in creating cultural dialogue, said Russeau, but she expressed hope that there would be more “mixing and sharing” at future ones. The fact that the event was held on a Thursday prevented many Asian and African women who work as live-in domestic workers from coming. “I would like more migrant workers to attend because the idea is to, at some point, put everyone in the same room to share culture and food,” says Russeau.
The finale of the event will be an evening beach party at “Jammal’s” in Batroun, and $5 of each entrance ticket will go to Insan Association, which helps in educating and integrating children of migrant workers and refugees. As Russeau puts it, “Come and enjoy a taste of kulcha!”
Sharing culture through food