In a blink of an eye, the world changed for thousands of people in Beirut.
Kamal Mouzawak’s neighbourhood, home and restaurants have been ravaged by last week’s giant explosions in the port that left 6,000 injured and at least 220 dead.
His partner of over 20 years, Rabih Kayrouz, a well-known fashion designer, was seriously injured after a ceiling collapsed on him at work.
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But even as Rabih lay in a hospital bed recovering from a brain haemorrhage and two clots, within a few days Kamal along with a team of 50 volunteers set to work – feeding the homeless, elderly, patients in overcrowded hospitals, and rescue workers responding to the devastation – from his damaged eatery Tawlet in the Mar Mikhael district, just a mile away from the blast site.
“We were providing 800 meals a day, today we made food for 1,000 people,” said Kamal, whose staff joined with team members from World Central Kitchen, the global nonprofit founded by chef José Andrés.
“There’s an estimated 300,000 people homeless in a city of around a million, almost a third of the population.
“Literally everyone here has been affected in some way – they’ve been injured, lost their home or job, or their loved one has. It’s going to take a long time for us to recover.”
Deepening economic crisis
The blasts – which prime minister Hassan Diab linked to a “dangerous warehouse” storing highly explosive ammonium nitrate for at least six years – couldn’t have come at a worst time for Lebanon’s capital.
In the past year, a breakdown in the country’s banking system and soaring inflation triggered mass protests. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it was predicted 45% of people in Lebanon would be below the poverty line in 2020.
Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, estimated the financial damage to the city at $3bn-$5bn, which will catapult an economy already deep in crisis towards a dangerous unknown.
Amid widespread public anger at the port disaster, over the weekend protestors took to the demolished streets of the shattered city and clashed with security forces firing tear gas. Diab announced the whole government has resigned on Monday.
“We have no state to help us,” said Kamal. “It’s down to the people, and organisations and charities. You won’t see the homeless people on the street. Here in Beirut people help other people. You take your friends and family in when they need you.
“After just a week the streets are now spotless. The youth formed initiatives and cleaned up. It wasn’t done by government officials.”
‘We will rebuild’
Over the past 15 years, entrepreneur turned humanitarian Kamal has built bed-and-breakfasts, five restaurants, and a farmers’ market, Souk el Tayeb, with one aim: to create places that unite and give voice to Lebanese people from different faiths and political backgrounds, especially women.
At Souk el Tayeb, which opened in 2004, you would find Muslim women alongside Christian women, working together to showcase the culinary traditions of Lebanon.
At Tawlet, each day one woman sets the menu with dishes from her respective region, for example, kibbeh basaliyehl from Kfardlekous in northern Lebanon, made with bulgur, caramelised onions, and pine nuts.
But the market, in downtown Beirut, is now heaps of rubble. Kamal is now on a mission to rebuild it, along with his Tawlet restaurant which he wants to turn into a community kitchen providing free food for the community.
His friend Cyril Haddad set up a GoFundMe page which has so far raised £97,405 out of its £500,000 goal.
The money will be spent on fixing and renovating the shop, kitchens, and offices and ingredients, products, salaries, and transportation.
“This will help secure jobs for hundreds of women, farmers and producers,” said Kamal. “And more than anything the market is a symbol.
“It’s not easy when the population is half Christian, half Muslim. And now more than ever which so much destruction it’s important for us to all unite.”
Rabih, founder of the label Maison Rabih Kayrouz, came home yesterday having had 22 stitches. In an Instagram post he told his 62.7k followers: “Words are not enough. We will not forget. We will judge. We will rebuild… And we will dance!”