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Soup for Syria: Comfort Food for a Cause

We have all seen the heartbreaking images. The body of a Syrian child is washed ashore on a Turkish beach. Crowds of huddled refugees from Syria and other war zones attempting to reach freedom in Europe. To those of us living relatively comfortable lives in the West, it seems overwhelming to ponder. But studies have shown that humans are more empathetic when looking into the eyes of one person in need rather than crowds of them. An attempt to see Syrian refugees, to look them in the eye, is one reason behind Soup for Syria, a photo book and aid project by indie Interlink Publishing. The book celebrates two things that bring hope: humanitarian aid … and soup. And not just any soup, but recipes from some of the world’s top chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, Alice Waters, and Mark Bittman. Below the news, read FTW’s interview with Interlink Publisher Michel Moushabeck on the refugee crisis, how we can help, and his favorite soup.

First, the News

Fine China: Foreword Reviews Publisher Victoria Sutherland recently returned from her tenth annual trip to Beijing for the international book fair held there at the end of every summer. What keeps her excited about exhibiting at the China fairs is the incredible opportunity for US indie presses to sell rights in that explosive publishing scene. Read Victoria’s blog on tips for selling foreign rights.

Generation Why: Hannah Hohman, Foreword Reviews’ editorial assistant, challenges everybody to check their assumptions about the reading habits of millennials. Think you know what, where, and how millennials read? Think again.

Featured Reviews of the Week

A Woman Writing: A Memoir in Essays by Mary Lou Sanelli. “A columnist and author of several essay collections, Mary Lou Sanelli writes about everyday life, but does so in a way that feels like a friend sharing stories; it’s the details more than the circumstances themselves that stand out.” Reviewed by Jeff Fleischer.

The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy: Practical Tips for Staying Safe Online by Violet Blue. “‘The sad fact is that women have more reasons to be concerned about online privacy than men do,’ investigative tech reporter Violet Blue writes.” Reviewed by Amanda McCorquodale.

Dickey Chapelle under Fire: Photographs of the First Female War Correspondent Killed in Action by John Garofolo. “A fitting tribute to a fearless female war photographer who covered Cuba, Vietnam, Hungary, Algeria, and other hot spots.” Reviewed by Amanda McCorquodale.

Breaking Ground: How Jackie Robinson Changed Brooklyn by Alan Lelchuk. “This emotionally moving tribute gives insight into how Jackie Robinson affected the racial climate of Brooklyn and the nation.” Reviewed by Melissa Wuske.

Start Here Now: An Open-Hearted Guide to the Path and Practice of Meditation by Susan Piver. “Newbies to meditation couldn’t ask for a better guide to the practice than Susan Piver. Piver takes a no-nonsense, jargon-free, and totally down-to-earth approach to meditation.” Reviewed by Kristine Morris.

Michel Moushabeck

Where did the idea of Soup for Syria come from, and how does it fit in with the mission of Interlink Books?

Michel Moushabeck
Michel Moushabeck
Soup for Syria
The idea came about last fall during a dinner conversation I had in London with author Barbara Abdeni Massaad. Barbara is the bestselling author of one of our titles, Man’oushe: Inside the Lebanese Street Corner Bakery, which Interlink published last year. She lives in Lebanon. We were talking about the plight of the Syrian refugees when she mentioned that her house is situated in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon near one of the Syrian refugee camps. She went on to say that often on weekends she would fill up the trunk of her car with vegetables and soup ingredients and head to the camp with her friend to make soup for the refugees. I was very touched by her story.

She said that after several trips she thought about self-publishing a soup cookbook with recipes donated from friends and neighbors and use the proceeds for the cookbook sales to buy ingredients to enable her to continue her weekend visits to the camp. Hearing her talk about her idea, my brain immediately went into fast forward. I thought it was a brilliant idea from someone with a big heart, but that it will achieve very little considering the magnitude of the crisis. There are four million refugees and the international community has largely abandoned them. I was convinced that if we could get celebrity chefs to donate soup recipes then we have a good chance at selling a large number of copies throughout the world, in many languages, and turn this from a one-person initiative to an international movement to bring food relief and ease the suffering of Syrian refugees. We now have several co-edition partners (UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands) and I am hoping to get more international publishers on board to publish foreign language editions when I go to the Frankfurt Book Fair this coming October.

Aside from its alliterative value with Syria, why soup? Why not, say, salad or sandwiches? Is it because soup is a comfort food?

Anthony Bourdain wrote with his contribution “Soup is elemental, and it always makes sense, even when the world around us fails to.”

When I met with Barbara Abdeni Massaad, she told me that it all started when she and her friend decided on one cold winter day to give out free warm soup at a farmers’ market to Syrian refugees. She described to me how she felt: “I was in my apartment in Beirut and I was freezing cold. I had put the heater on, but was still so cold. That night I couldn’t sleep thinking about refugee families in the Bekaa sleeping in their tents. How were they able to beat the winter cold? How can they survive in this weather? I was really worried. We heard on TV the evening before that children died because of the icy conditions. I couldn’t go on with my life and ignore theirs.

“A friend of mine who works at the UN told me about a campsite nearby and gave me the contact of a person I could call. This is what I did. I went to visit the refugee camp, not really knowing what to expect or what one could do to help. But my visit brought me closer to the problem and inspired me to try and find a way to ease their pain. This is when I started taking photos of the refugees and talking to them about food. I am a cookbook writer and photographer so it was natural for me to do that. Week after week, the idea developed and I decided to do a humanitarian cookbook.”

What does it take, logistically, to put together a project like this with so many moving parts—different chefs contributing, establishing the charitable donations, etc.?

Once we decided to go ahead with the project everyone at Interlink was mobilized; we were all aware of its urgency and the need to pull it off quickly. We publish nearly sixty titles each year so we know the drill. The author, a founder of Slow Food Beirut, asked for contributions from other chefs and cookbook authors she knew—Alice Waters, Paula Wolfert, Claudia Roden, Greg Malouf, etc…–and amassed an army of volunteers to cook and test the recipes as they came in. Interlink’s cookbook editor, Leyla Moushabeck, contacted cookbook authors we’ve worked with in the past as well as top chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi, Ana Sortun, Sally Butcher, and many others. To our delight, almost everyone came through for us and responded quickly and enthusiastically to our call. All were eager to participate in the humanitarian project by contributing each a soup recipe.

After considering several organizations we settled on the refugee agency UNHCR to donate our profits for Soup for Syria to. They are doing great work and gave us their assurance in writing that 100 percent of our donation will go to fund food relief for Syrian refugees.

In the news, we see heartbreaking scenes of refugees from not only Syria, but conflict zones throughout the Middle East and Africa, trying desperately to get to safety in Europe. It seems overwhelming. What can we do as individuals?

One can’t help but feel helpless in the face of a tragedy of this magnitude. But it shouldn’t matter whether a crisis is the result of a natural disaster or a political disaster. Refugees cannot be abandoned to hopelessness. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, tweeted last week: “If you can’t imagine yourself in one of those boats, you have something missing. They are dying for a life worth living.” Each contribution, no matter how small, will go a long way towards helping the refugees and, most importantly, inspiring others to do the same.

We are encouraging people to visit the GET INVOLVED page of the website. This page lists a dozen or so ideas for what people can do to help. Spreading the word on Soup for Syria on social media and via publications such as Foreword Reviews has been an important part of our humanitarian campaign.

Most Syrians hope that one day they will be able to return to their country and rebuild their lives. For now, though, what we can do is listen to their pleas. Be part of this vital work of saving lives and help us deliver essential food items to the displaced refugees.

The photographs in the book are stunning. Do you plan any further collaboration with Barbara Abdeni Massaad or other photographers? Any plans for a similar concept for other causes?

Barbara Abdeni Massaad is an accomplished photographer as well as a cookbook writer. She has an amazing eye and her photographs—both of the food and of the people—add so much to her cookbooks. Her books are photographic—and gastronomic—journeys into another culture. Soup for Syria is the second book we’ve done with Barbara. The first one, Man’oushe: Inside the Lebanese Street Corner Bakery, is one of our top selling cookbooks. We have already commissioned Barbara to do another cookbook for us, but I can’t reveal anything about it to you now. So stay tuned!

Do you have a favorite soup?

All the soups in Soup for Syria are amazing. This is what happens when you publish “a culinary powerhouse”—as one reporter called it—with fabulous soup recipes from eighty highly accomplished chefs from around the world.

The one I loved making over and over again is Paula Wolfert’s Lentil and Swiss Chard Soup. It was the perfect cure for last winter’s harsh New England weather when we were working on the book. Yummy!