A Fruitful Trade

In Lebanon, pomegranates bind a nation — and are big business

by Don Duncan

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On a recent autumn Sunday, a heavy rainfall does not dampen the cheerful mood at the busy farmers’ market in Beirut. Throngs of patrons weave among the plastic-canopied stalls of fruits, vegetables and artisanal goods. Vendors welcome customers with wide smiles and casual conversation.

One woman vigorously barters with a vendor for several jars of preserves and a head of organic lettuce. Meanwhile, farmers, unoccupied with clients, sip coffee and make guesses about when the shower will pass and the sun, return.

Beirut’s farmer’s market, called Souk al Tayyeb (Arabic for “Tasty Market”), began eight years ago. North American in style, it brings together small-scale organic farmers and producers from Lebanon’s diverse religious communities and geographic regions to sell their goods in the heart of the nation’s bustling capital.

Druze farmer and vendor Hussein Abu Mansour owns a total of 17 acres. On his property in the Bekaa Valley, about 60 miles northeast of Beirut, he cultivates almonds, apples, cherries, figs, olives, oranges and walnuts. On his land in south Lebanon, which has a better water supply, he maintains an orchard of about 500 pomegranate trees. Today, in this unseasonably cold weather, it is his pomegranates that attract customers to his stall.

“It is medicine,” says Mr. Mansour, as he squeezes a pile of pomegranates, one by one, into juice. “It cleanses the blood, regulates the stomach and boosts the immune system.” He then blends fresh lemon juice with the pomegranate — a crowd-pleasing cocktail.

The fruit’s nutritional value is well known: Pomegranates are high in antioxidants, fiber and vitamins B5 and C. Scientific studies show the fruit helps reduce high cholesterol and blood pressure, combat viral infections and even prevent dental plaque buildup. Ongoing clinical tests in the United States have also linked pomegranates in one’s diet to the prevention of coronary artery disease, diabetes, lymphoma and prostate cancer.

Large manufacturers of pomegranate juice and other products in Western countries have advertised these health benefits for years, which has no doubt contributed to the boom in the fruit’s popularity.

In Lebanon and the Middle East, where people have used pomegranates as a source of juices, syrups and condiments for millennia, the fruit’s popularity has less to do with health-food trends and marketing strategies than it does with traditional cuisine and local, small-scale manufacturing.

“It’s known from olden times that pomegranates, berries and vines should be grown close to the house. They are a good omen,” says Mr. Mansour. He stands under a plastic canopy weighed down by pools of rainwater. At regular intervals, boys working in the market use sticks to push the canopies’ water-laden pockets from underneath and force the water onto the ground.

Caroline Khoury, a customer at the vendor’s stall, has just ordered some pomegranate juice.

“It gives me a boost in this weather,” she says. “Plus, it’s just delicious.”

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