Lebanon’s Green Gold Oil: Pressing the Past into the Future

Sun, Jun 01, 2008 | by Laura Kooris

“Taste this,” a friend tells me.She put a dark green glass bottle on my kitchen counter.“Experiment with it while you’re cooking and tell me what you think about it.”

The bottle reminds me of an amphora found in some archaeological dig.The base is pear shaped, remindful of the ubiquitous body-type, the neck tall and slender rising to a cork-stopped mouth of a spout. All that is missing is the dust.It holds olive oil.

“This olive oil comes from the Ayrouni olive in Lebanon,” my friend says.“From old olive trees that still grow in the northern mountains. Trees so old, no one really knows their age.”

“And they still produce fruit?” I ask.

“Enough to make olive oil that tastes like ambrosia.”

We open the oil and pour it into small cups. It is the color of amber and rays of morning light. After warming the cups in our hands then swirling the oil inside it for aeration, we sniff its aroma. Almonds and apple come to my mind.The first sip coats my palette like honey.All the scents simultaneously fill my mouth with flavors that meld into buttery sweetness and a bit of bitterness, not as sharp as copper, but just as provocative.I swallow the liquor.It leaves a piquant finish in my throat, peppery and conclusive. I immediately think of the kinds of food this oil will complement.

“It’s like a flavored butter, only better because of the complexity of flavors, and of course because of the health benefits of olive oil. You can use it like butter on vegetables, over fish, or pasta. I’d like to try it as a dip, not just with breads, but cheese, tomatoes, fresh carrots, snap peas, and asparagus. Where did you find it?”

My friend tells me about Time Olive Oil, a distributor in Austin, Texas, who was selected to import this fair trade item. The proceeds of its purchase return directly to the olive oil growers and producers in Lebanon. This distributor works in conjunction with the Rene’ Moawad Foundation, an organization dedicated to economic growth and democratic governance in Lebanon.

“So play with the oil,” my friend says. “Tell me what you discover from the fruit of these ancient trees.”

I’m curious about this oil, a fat firm fruit that is a timeless part of mythology, religious ceremony, health regimens, and worldwide cuisines. History credits the Phoenicians with the discovery of olive trees and its oil.They spread the tree, its fruit and oil throughout the known world of their time. History also says those first olive trees grew wild in Lebanon. This olive oil that enchanted me came from trees thousands of years old, the original groves of this venerable juice. Why is this variety of oil so rare? Why isn’t Lebanon the capitol of olive oil production? Why has this oil been such a secret from the cooking world?

I’m quite aware of Lebanon’s suffering as a war-torn country and that its olive oil is not renowned.Who is responsible for this leap into economic progress? I decide that cooking with the oil will be an easy exploration for me.To find the answers to my questions will be the challenge.

Time Olive Oil, a distributor of specialty fair trade food products, is the brainchild of Monica and Farid Rebeiz.Their first fair trade product is this Ayrouni olive oil. It is produced through an NGO (non-governmental organization), the Rene’ Moawad Foundation, which is based in Lebanon. It is the first product Time Olive Oil is marketing in the United States because Rebeiz believes it is the best olive oil in the world. But the oil is more than that.

For Rebeiz, olive oil represents the tread of cultural history and the solution to human suffering. He considers Nayla Moawad, RMF’s founder, a visionary and national treasure of Lebanon.To hear Rebeiz tell it, Nayla Moawad is the soul of Lebanon, a champion of compassion, reason, and progress, who is committed to democratic change. He wanted to help.

Mr. Rebeiz learned more about the details and goals of RMF in Lebanon, and in particular about the growing olive oil industry. The assistance from her the Rene’ Moawad Foundation and the USAID (United State Aid for International Development) had given it a jumpstart. A worldwide distributor was needed. The US-Lebanon cooperation, the fair trade aspects of production, and his admiration of Nayla Moawad’s work led him to choosing this product. He and his wife, Monica, could create a non-profit foundation through the RMF. All the proceeds would go directly to the growers, not middlemen.With cooperative production and support, the growers could truly call the oil “Zeytouna”—our oil—.

His story amazes me.I ask him why he would just agree to take on this responsibility? He tells me one wants to follow where Nayla Moawad leads. Who is this charismatic woman, in the part of the world where women are not even second-class citizens, creating change and encouraging self-reliance? Nayla Moawad, a modern woman and leader in a culture where most women do not have such an opportunity, becomes the first place I will look for my answers.

Nayla Roch-El Koury was born and raised in Lebanon, the first country in the Middle East to become a democracy and adopt independent, democratic, and tolerant values.In her childhood, both boys and girls received education.After finishing her studies at St. Joseph’s University in Lebanon and her graduate degree at Cambridge, she returned to Lebanon to establish a successful career as a journalist, something not many Lebanese women can or choose to do. During this time period, Nayla met Rene’ Moawad, a member of the Lebanese Parliament.Their courtship, between a favored son from one clan to the strident daughter of another, raised eyebrows, but didn’t stop their union.A few years later, after the birth of their two children, Nayla became a devoted mother and collaborative wife of a statesman. Perhaps this commitment and marriage, with its merging of factions, was a harbinger of Nayla’s destiny. On the 22nd of November 1989, it would change forever.

That day, during the celebration of Lebanon Independence day, seventeen days after being elected President and after forty-two years of serving as a Member of Parliament, Rene’ Moawad was assassinated. One would expect a widow, mother, and a liberated woman in Lebanon, now caught in a tide of violent change in her country, to pack up her children and leave. Many other people who didn’t suffer such a loss did so.

Instead, Nayla Moawad picked up the gauntlet dropped in front of her. She and Rene’ had planned together how they could re-establish democratic systems and values in their homeland. She would find a way to continue their work after his death

One year later, Nayla began the Rene’ Moawad Foundation.She also kept a presence as a liberated woman to promote her cause of women and children’s rights.In 1991, she was elected to the Lebanese Parliament. In an interview with “Truth Out” in 2005, Ms. Moawad told the history of her significance in a man’s world there:
For the past 28 years, the Lebanese never saw a woman in parliament or in politics. Thus, my presence became very important. A political career for a woman was no longer just reserved for me. In addition, I was fortunate because in some ways it was easy for me, because my colleagues were friends of my husband who elected him president. Then, in 1991 women joined forces to support me, and I have received the greatest number of votes in Northern Lebanon. Two other political posts are now held by women…”

As a Member of Parliament, her work aided legislation that implements education for girls as well as boys and has created a new generation of literacy over the country.She instituted legislation to address the labor laws for household servants and children in rural areas, and to allow women the freedom to use social welfare benefits as they see fit for their families, rather than it going to their husbands. Nayla Moawad’s legislative efforts gave women the right to travel without authorization from their husbands, to open their own businesses and retain personal income, and have an individual passport.She chipped away at the cultural stereotype of woman as property to woman as person.Her work has given freedoms and a foundation for individual rights to Lebanese women, which they never expected to have.
“Much of the work I’ve done has been achieved through the Rene’ Moawad Foundation,” she tells us. “We have various programs that reach out to women to help improve their status, without saying it directly. In Lebanon, you cannot be and you do not want to be provocative when discussing women’s rights; therefore, I have used the foundation’s programs to bring this topic into the public arena.”
As significant as this work has been, Nayla knew an holistic approach was needed to change Lebanon’s world status from an undeveloped country into a developing one.

In seeking opportunities for the foundation’s work, she could travel through the countryside and still find the traditional ways of living that rooted her deeply to her culture. Shepherds tended a flock of sheep or goats as in Biblical days—with a tall wooden staff, goat bladder of water slung over their shoulders–living nomadically with the herds. There was no organized plan for how the herd was fed or where they grazed.If the hillsides were barren from overgrazing, they just moved on. If the herd was unhealthy and couldn’t produce much milk or hair or meat, the family just hoped for better luck and blessings the next year.Nayla saw women or girls dressed in colorful, but cumbersome cloaks, barefooted or sandaled with a yoke across their shoulders. They carried water home just as their great ancestors did.In the orchards, families walked through overgrown groves, picked fruit, shook trees, and collected the fruit. Panniers loaded down with the harvest, burros slowly brought it to mills or market. At the markets, a certain percentage of the harvest was lost to fermentation, pests, or rot.At the mills, the ancient grinding stones and the time-intensive labor could not press the fruits fast enough to create an excess of marketable juices or oils.

These traditions were a part of her country’s heritage, but as picturesque and evocative as they might be, Nayla Moawad saw the limitations and the unfortunate consequences of them. With the right kind of land management, the overgrazed land could produce enough grass to feed the herds. Other kinds of animals, such as cattle, could be raised that were as productive as the goats and sheep for the rural economy. Some of these animals could carry large quantities of water, or be used to operate pumps and fill cisterns near homes and villages. With good agri-engineering methods, fruit groves could be cleared of weeds and pests, and trees could be more productive. If trucks were used for transporting the fruit, it would arrive at the markets or mills in a timely manner. The harvest would not ferment or rot if more hygienic and modern techniques were used for processing and storage.

She saw the lack of sanitation in homes and villages. Modern medicine was only found in Beirut. Children did not receive the inoculations that could keep them alive. The threat of illness and disease or injury among children drained parents’ ability to work and pay for their care. Pregnant women did not have medical care.

Nayla attacked these problems and concerns through the non-governmental organization she started, the Rene’ Moawad Foundation (RMF). With her contacts and access in Parliament she publicized the help it needed. Meeting with government agencies around the world, Ms. Moawad successfully raised the international interest to help; money and assistance arrived to begin the reconstruction and repair in Lebanon.

The progress the foundation has made in the last eighteen years is apparent and remarkable. Through the RMF efforts, rehabilitation is changing the face of the country.The villages now have access to a clinic in Zgharta that gives medical and dental care. A traveling clinic makes rounds to insure basic health care is available. Children receive the basic inoculations of childhood so they are healthy kids and health education contributes to every family’s well being.

There are schools for both women and children to reduce the high level of illiteracy. The schools not only teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also job skills; there are cottage industries now. Women are using these new skills to make folk art, raise herbs for the spice market, and support their children’s endeavors.Through this access to education, children learn skills that will give them choices as they reach adulthood for broader job opportunities in both rural and urban areas. Building on this educational foundation, the RMF gives workshops for children and others that promote awareness about such topics as women’s and children’s rights, liberalism, civil society and NGOs; citizenship and the electoral process; leadership and conflict resolution. As a result, villages can work cooperatively, respect cultural and religious differences, and collaborate on agri-production and environmental concerns.

The educational effort goes beyond the schoolrooms.The Rene’ Moawad Foundation, in association with other countries such as France, Germany, and the United States, brings in agricultural and environmental engineers to teach skills, such as land rotation and hygienic storage, to the villagers. In the beautiful hills and rocky terrain of Lebanon, a visitor can find shepherds tending their flocks in the manner of centuries old traditions alongside modern stations where additional feeding, tending, and harvesting occur. Some shepherds are now raising cattle; Lebanese cowboys may not be too far behind.

The RMF and USAID grants are revitalizing the environmental and agriculture traditions for the fruit and olive growers.By creating fair trade co-ops, middlemen become unnecessary. The smaller and mid-size farmers can retain more income. Technical help from agri-engineers help the co-ops build hygienic and sufficient refrigeration for their harvests. The burros with panniers now trot from the fields to trucks that can carry numerous baskets of goods to immediate storage or processing. Programs teach the farmers and landowners how to cultivate forests, fruit trees, and green spaces and build efficient irrigation systems that restore overgrazed and deteriorated land.

This assistance effort now extends to the olive oil industry. The olive trees in some areas of Lebanon can produce fruit year round.Every grower and village has its own cultivar of olive such as ayrouni, souri, or one of the other varieties grown in this region. They have their own methods of picking the fruit and pressing the oil.

The fruit and oil of the olive tree are life sustaining to many generations of Lebanese culture.The tradition of the olive oil is so intrinsic to the way many Lebanese use it in their lives—cooking, eating, hygienically—that they do not necessarily see a need to change.
The olive growers were not open to accepting ways that would make it a self-sustaining industry. This was true until Nayla Moawad decided there could be yet another benefit to the Lebanese people from the beloved tree.

Just as she traveled across the country talking to the villagers she knew by name and introducing them to programming for education, health, and human rights, Nayla Moawad returned to the countryside to speak again.This time she met with the olive growers to discuss how the mixing of tradition with technology would be another gift from the olive tree because the new ways would let the trees produce more for them. Finally enough growers were convinced to give it a try.Extension programs for the olive growers began in 2002 when the first co-operative was created.

The legendary trees in the olive groves are austere. The oldest trunks are so large two people cannot put their arms around them.Goats will climb the thick twisted trunks as if they are crags. Some trees have man-sized hollows where animals loll to nap in the shade. From spring through summer the draws between and among the trees are filled with wild flowers—red poppies, daisies, bellflowers.Some growers have apple, pear, or apricot trees growing between their rows of olives. At any time until the winter, bees will be humming through the panoply of blooms.

Many traditional methods of hand picking or shaking the trees and processing the fruits have been adapted to preserve the quality of the fruit. Instead of beating and damaging the limbs and leaves, or pruning them back for the fruit, the pickers can use a mechanical comb to gently shake the limbs.Olives drop from trees like the burst of prizes from piñatas. Nets or canvas blankets catch the fruit and keep it from landing on the ground. One can appreciate the tradition of a harvest as families and neighbors climb trees and ladders to gently pick the fruit, as it has been done for centuries, as well as be amazed at the ingenuity of technology mixed with that venerable process.

In the northern sector of Lebanon in the Batroun region, another cooperative of olive producers is in production. Their prize: the rare olive oil called “Zeytouna”: Our Olive Oil. These producers pick fruit from several areas, but also from the rare Ayrouni olive groves, where the ancient trees still fruit. A certain number of these trees grow high in the mountainous terrain. These groves resist insect pests, survive cold and snowy winters, and produce hardy olives. Because of this hardiness, the olive growers can leave the olives on the trees until the fruit have rich, black and shiny skins. This delay in harvesting allows the Batroun co-op to express and create the finest, sweet apple-almond and buttery flavored olive oil. With help from RMF and USAID agri-engineers the olive growers mix their traditional collection methods with modern grove tending, hygienic collection, pressing, and storing techniques. These assimilated practices are producing larger quantities of olives from these older “groves of the gods” and a surplus of their golden nectar. They call this golden liquor, Ayrouni oil. It is the olive oil I am tasting; it is ready to be distributed to the world.

I don’t believe Nayla Moawad would ever take sole credit for what is happening in her country.She seems to be a woman who knows a job needs to be done and starts the process that makes it happen. She would undoubtedly credit the people of Lebanon for all the change.

Karen Blixen, the writer also known as Isak Dineson, once wrote about her own experiences with productivity and change:
“When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself.”I believe it is a remark Nayla Moawad could take as her own as she sees what her people have begun through unity and change and how the goals of the Rene’ Moawad Foundation are slowly being achieved. She is a woman who chose to dig into her homeland, down to its roots, to weather the ruggedness of politics, entrenched traditions, and threats against her life, so something she believed in might grow and prosper.

I hold up the cup of oil as if to scry what I have in my hands.I see the efforts of unified people who bring to the table a juice claimed to be eternal; it represents prudence, fertility, victory, and peace.And this particular kind of oil, the Ayrouni, comes from a tree immune to the olive fly, the biggest pest to all other olive trees.It is meant to thrive and persevere, to present its veracity to the world.

Women in Lebanon
, Manuela Paraipan, United Press International. Thursday 14 April 2005.