A Lebanese Recipe For Intra-Islamic Reconciliation

A project in Tripoli, Lebanon's second biggest city gives women from the rival Alawite and Sunni communities a chance to work together.

Cooking in Tripoli
Cooking in Tripoli
Carla Haddad Mardini*

TRIPOLI — Breathing shallowly, our eyes scan the facades of buildings riddled with bullets and gutted by shells and mortar. Broken window panes and electric cords as far as the eye can see reinforce the sensation of chaos and desolation. This is Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.

The Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods, in the outskirts of Tripoli, are fraught with tensions between two communities: One is Alawite, a Shia minority to which the Syrian president Bachar al-Assad belongs; the other Sunni, which supports the opposition in neighboring Syria. These tensions often boiled over into armed violence during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and, more recently, during the height of the Syrian conflict. The dividing line between the two communities, in fact, is a street called Syria.

The goal of the visit is to meet a group of Alawite and Sunni women who have managed to do the impossible: calm the antagonism and historic animosity between the two communities; ease minds and build bridges; plant the seeds, perhaps, of reconciliation. All this by using a powerful medium — cooking.

We enter a building that seems to have been miraculously spared from the violence. A young Lebanese woman welcomes us. She works for a local NGO supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross and directs a simple project, the goal of which is to provide materials and a neutral and protected space so that women from the two communities to meet, cook and exchange.

The ingredients of success? A modest investment and a unifying concept that overcomes division and mobilizes talent.

Arriving in the kitchen area, the smell of Lebanese dishes prepared with the utmost care makes our mouths water. Six women make chicken sandwiches with spices. The hygiene is impeccable. They put their hearts into the task. Their kitchen had been so successful that the project participants were able to enlarge the business by accepting only large orders. The day of our visit, they are busy completing an order of several hundred sandwiches for an orphanage in a neighboring village.

Financial Independence

The women explain to us that they were trained in cooking, and that they acquired skills that have henceforth given them financial independence. They are proud to be able to meet the needs of their families. Wafa Hazouri, 51, fell into a depression when battles were raging in her neighborhood. Her husband, a taxi driver, was almost unable to work. Their only source of income was on the verge of drying up.

"Working in this kitchen doesn't just allow me to pay the bills," she says. "It also brings me out of isolation and depression. My kids are really happy for me."

Cooking for an NGO in Beirut — Photo: Dan Snyder/ZUMA

The building is located on the front line between the two communities and has two entrances, one on each side allowing women to enter safely. We are told that since the project has existed, when fighting flares, this building is always spared. The fighters respect this as a neutral space, one that is set apart from the historical tensions.

Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh were systematically forgotten in the development effort — even after the civil war. As such, the communities living there have failed to escape the vicious cycle of poverty, violence and a lack of opportunities.

The kitchen project is important in that regard not just as a link between rival communities, but as a model, perhaps, for constructing a sustainable economy in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The ingredients of success? A modest investment and a unifying concept that overcomes division and mobilizes talent.

"Doing this work allowed me to recover my dignity," one of the women tells us. A beautiful message of resilience for future generations.

*The author heads the resources mobilization division with the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva, Switzerland.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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