Our neighborhood resembled the United Nations. Families from Germany, Holland, England, the USA, Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon, and a few other European and American nations lived in homes lining a central paved circular road, and rubble and dirt roads extending off the center. Each home had a garden fenced in with a Palm Tree Branched or ribbed plastic fence. Only two homes had high concrete walls, the Khoury’s Home and another where an American family live. The Khoury’s estate had large grounds, housing 2 large pools, a tennis court, a trampoline, and a golf driving range.
I spent a lot of time at Auntie Louise’s house. She was Dutch, married to a Englishman (Uncle Ricky) she met in Kenya. They lived with his two boys, Jeremy and Jonathan, and their two children Richard and Carrot (nick-named after her red hair).
Theirs was the most inviting home in the neighborhood. In addition to the family, Auntie Louise took in every stray animal, they had 5 to 7 cats at any given time, a dog, and at one point, a donkey that took up residence in their large front yard. The neighborhood kids enjoyed being at her home so much, she converted one of her rooms to a nursery and began charging mother.
Auntie Louise’s house was fascinating for many reasons. It was buzzing with work and entertainment. Animals, art projects, a vegetable garden and an open invitation to get involved in one or all the activities. If I helped cook dinner I could stay for the meal, if I helped her finish her ironing quickly she played a game of monopoly with me and Jonathan. Working in the vegetable garden, gave us rights to spend an early evening in their pool. As we worked, Auntie Louise told stories of her travels to Switzerland, the US, and Africa. She worked as an Au Pair to working in a hotel in Kenya; she shared her adventures in the beautiful nature of Kenya, her encounters with wild animals in Kenya and the US forests and the personalities she met along the way. As long as I followed a few rules in her house, I was welcome anytime. “Take off your shoes at the door, eat with a fork and knife, DO NOT Shovel your food with the fork, eat with your mouth closed, mind your language and remember your please and thank you’s”.
Auntie Louise rallied the moms in the neighborhood to celebrate special holidays. Easter Egg Treasure hunts, Christmas visits, it seemed she had ideas to make everyday a festive one. For Christmas, she put up a beautiful tree, decorated their porch, put out bowls of nuts and candy and wore a Santa hat around the house. The mistletoe was the most peculiar part of Christmas. Uncle Ricky would tease me and say “you know if you go under it you’ll have to kiss Jonathan”. I was so shy that I would blush and make sure I never walked beneath the green leaf. Why they had that tradition, I never understood. She made birthday parties especially fun. She organized games and contests, and finished off with a Fondue Dinner. At age 8 or 10, we sat around a table, conversing like adults, waiting patiently for our meat and chicken to cook in the Fondue pot. The cakes were the highlight of the party, as we got to take part in decorating them. I celebrated my birthday with them regularly because Jonathan and I shared the birth date. So while technically it was his birthday.. we always had two cakes and they went out of their way to make me feel special.
The compound backed the sea. At times I heard the waves, smelled the salty water, fish and seaweed. On Thursdays, a skinny, older man named Abu-Issa came carrying a woven basket filled with fish and prawns. He wore a wrap-around long checkered skirt, a wife-beater shirt and green flip-flops. He would squat near a garden faucet, descaling the fish and pealing the prawns. When he finished, he scaled up the palm trees to pick fresh dates; using a thick rope he wrapped around the tree and himself, he placed a cloth as a seat to provide his backside with a cushion. He then held onto the tree bark, and lifted himself up with his arm strength, drawing his feet up to the next outward facing bark. He did this repeatedly until he reached the dates. He stayed up there leaning back into the cushion, picking the dates, or if the entire bunch was ripe, he would cut it off and drop it to the ground.
Our Saudi home was in a gated community on the outskirts of Dammam, close to Kateef. It must have been built in the early sixties. It housed two larger double story homes, and forty some mid-size homes. It was gated in by a palm tree branches (sa3f) fence. The gatekeeper, an older Saudi man lived in a single room near the main entrance. He was missing an arm and had one functioning eye. His abode had a ceiling fan, a rug on the ground and a black white TV with V-shaped antenna.
We started out in a 2 bedroom house, and over time expanded to a four bedroom, taking over the semi-attached villa next door. Entering the gate to our home, you would see to your left an area of palm trees, straight ahead a few steps that lead to a netted porch, and to your right a long walk lined by bushes and a few trees, leading to a raised swimming pool. We leaved here for 8 years before moving to a larger villa in Alkhobar, close to our school.
That little garden felt like a wonder world; rich with insects, spiderwebs, geckos, and stray neighborhood cats. In the summer heat, it smelled of dates fermenting on the raw soil. In the fall, the smell of the single citrus tree filled the walkway to the pool. The tree carried a very aromatic sweet thick skinned orange sized, lemon colored fruit الأترج. Another tree Indian Almond had large leaves, carried date sized green fruit that turned to a dark red color. The fruit was sour fibrous and stained the teeth and mouth red. Wild jasmine bushes grew around the garden. I learned early on to pick the long stemmed flowers, and suck the sweet tasting syrup from the stem.
Ants were abundant. All around the garden, in the sandy patches or between the tiles on the walkway, ant colonies thrived. Spiderwebs seem to form everywhere we didn’t walk through for a few days. I didn’t mind ants and spiders; I was terrified of geckos. The net enclosing the porch offered no relief from geckos; there were tens of them above the doorway day and night. Coming home from school, I would stand a distance from the porch and yell to my mom to open the door. When she did, I ran into the house, fearing one of the geckos would fall on my hair and “attack” me.
One day, I was helping mom clean out a raised built-in closet (s’eefeh) in my room. I walked up the ladder, opened the closet door and sat in it handing mom who stood on the ladder stuff she had stored in there. I was wearing shorts, sitting facing mom, moving boxes from my right and handing them over to her. As I moved one box, I saw a gecko drop from the box, and run across the closet, over my legs. I screamed and in a panic jumped onto mom. Thankfully the bed was behind her, the two of us fell back onto it. I was certain the geckos offered no purpose in life other than to scare children like me.
My favorite summer treat was Syrian ice cream; while many family members enjoyed the creamy ice cream served in cones by street vendors near Sibki Park, I savored this Syrian summer delight.
I loved because it was a feast for my senses.. the ice cream maker prepared it in view of passersby. I watched him pound the thick white rubbery substance and toss it from side to side on a cold marble slab using large flat metal spoons. I smelled the aroma of Arabic gum, fresh pistachios and rosewater; a heavenly combination. The smell was only surpassed by the taste; a thick chewy gum-like consistency brought on by the Arabic Gum (Mistika) in the recipe, sweet enough but not too much. I had bowls full and didn’t stop until I felt brain-freeze.
Mom brought Syrian Ice Cream home on special summertime occasions. Visiting guests, a birthday, a family member’s graduation. It came in a log-like shape, that mother sliced to pieces. Some covered with Pistachios, others plain. It was served with waffles cookies shaped like today’s Pringles Chips.
Back then, ACs weren’t popular, so unless it was a cool summer night, the ice cream provided the cooling effect. The ultimate experience was having a bowl, under the dark evening sky on the balcony, gazing at the stars.
One of my oldest memories of Hama was in the kitchen in Jiddo Mohamad’s house. The smell of the warm buttery crust, the spiced meat and toasted pine nuts flowed down the halls of the old house, leading me to the kitchen. My step-grandmother “Khaleh Um-Samir” was standing over a large metal tray of meat pies (Ush el Bulbul) that was delivered from a nearby Oven (elFuren). Ush el Bulbul literally means the bird’s nest. She would carefully hold up each of her creations, inspect it, and place it in a glass platter to serve lunch.
After eating the main meal of Ush el Bulbul with local buttery rich sour yogurt, we had desert. Cream filled pies (Shaibiayt) consisted of the best Hamwi (Ushta) filling, served warm, topped with rosewater flavored syrup. Yummy!
I would later learn the bakery was called “The Oven” because its only service was baking goods that Hamawi women prepared at home. Like Khaleh Um-Samir, all Hamwi women until the late 70s kneaded dough, prepared the filling and sent the pies ready to elFuren ready to be baked.
I owe much of my knowledge of Syrian cuisine to my paternal aunt (Ameh Mokhlesah) who’s an authority on Hamawi recipes. I asked her one day how older women in Hama stayed so thin despite the rich ingredients. “They worked hard” she responded. “Their days were spent kneading bread, drying and preserving seasonal vegetables making yogurt from fresh milk, hand washing their family clothes, cleaning the house and courtyard.”
Apricot jam was a special treat; I could have developed a liking to it because I watched older women in the family making it. The process was fascinating. I don’t remember the sequence or the entire process, however, I remember walking into the kitchen to find my paternal aunt (Ameh Mokhlesah) wearing her cooking head scarf (meant to keep hair out of the food), standing over a large pot of boiling liquid, stirring away with a large wooden spoon; white face shining from the steam, cheeks rosy from the heat rising from the pot.
In season, balconies, and garage roof-tops would fill with large pans of the golden orange substance, basking in the sun. I also remember my great uncle’s wife (Um Bashar) sitting on a small straw stool, pouring the ready jam into glass jars saved from previous years. After she filled all the jars, she allowed me to clean off the pan, wiping it with a piece of bread and eating it. As I did that, she would cover the jam jars with a piece of cloth, tying another around the jar rim for a tight seal.
When a family member visited and gifted us a jam jar, I knew they loved and appreciated us. To give a gift so precious, something they labored over for days, had to mean we were special and we had to show gratitude in return.
Everyone in my family spoke Arabic, and they spoke it with a relatively uniform accent. Therefore references to our Turkish, Kurdish, North African heritage didn’t really make sense to me until later in life. When I visited my great maternal aunt (Khalto Najah), I heard some speak a different language and took notice of their strange names that didn’t sound Arabic. Names like Jwan, Zaza, Farhad, were common. I attributed these differences to Khalto Najah’s husband; she had married into what I thought was a strange bunch. Their entire neighborhood was called (Kurdish Ally) Haret ElAkraad. Later I would come to know the language they spoke was Kurdish, and my Maternal great grandmother is Kurdish.
An’a Radia was fair, tall and had a strong frame. One of two sisters and five brothers who were on average 6 feet tall. An’a Radia She was unique for a women of her time. An athletics teacher, traveler and sports enthusiast, I grew up seeing photos of her playing tennis, posing on a running track, on a cruise ship and piloting a glider plane. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Later, I would come to realize how unique she was and how much of her passion for sports, travel and adventure I carried in my genes. She seemed to live a non-conventional lifestyle.
The Turkish influence is felt most in our cuisine. You can only identify half the names of our dishes as Arabic and the other half as mispronunciations and Arabization of Turkish words. Imam Bayuldi, Yalanji, Shish Burak, are but a few of the many dishes An’a passed on to her daughters, who carried through making the dishes and teaching their daughters.
An’a Radia’s height, skin tone and features, complemented Jido Naim’s. He was dark, short and built like a short distance sprinter. Jido Naim’s family ascended to Damascus from North Africa. His father came from a town in Libyan, mother had Egyptian Nubi lineage. While he was born in Syria, spoke Arabic with a Syrian accent, he had an affinity to North Africa. It hit me that his roots were Libyan after watching the movie Omar Almukhtar. I suddenly realized the hat and scarf he wore, that looked out of place in Damascus were traditions he carried from his Libyan forefathers.
Food in Syria is a tradition, a source of pride, a way of life. Volumes can be written on recipes, their names, serving traditions, cultural relevance, and origins.
Breakfast (kasr el sufra) consisted of:
Jiddo’s delicious homemade fruit cocktail; its consistency varied
from eatable semi-sold to drinkable liquid depending on the fruits in
Thick honey (asal jabali) from a local farm or brought from Yemen,
local cheeses (halloum, ashawaan, mudafarah),
home-made apricot, strawberry, apple, citrus jam,
thick yogurts (labneh and shinkleesh),
pickled eggplants stuffed with walnuts, red pepper and garlic (makkdous)
sesame paste (halaweh)
a Damascus mix of thyme with olive oil (ground dried green zaatar with pistachios, coconut, summak and sesame seed)
On special occasions when we ate in large groups, any of the following plates would be added to the breakfast menu:
Semolina Porridge (Halawt elsmeed) a delicious sweet warm semolina based porridge sprinkled with roasted pine nuts, served with Arabic bread and Halloum cheese.
Flour Porridge (Halwt eltheen) a sweet warm flower based porridge served with Arabic bread
Mixed seeds (Huboob) – a mix of boiled beans mixed in a sweet syrup with sweet spices and served in winter
Beans (foul) – prepared in a variety of ways, the base recipe consists of black-eyed beans, tomato, parsley, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Some regions add yogurt and sesame oil, others chickpeas, egg or green onions.
Chickpea platter (Fatet Hummus) – Made up of leftover hardened Arabic bread, boiled chickpeas, lemon juice, sesame oil, ground chickpeas and garlic, topped with ghee and mixed nuts and eaten with raw onions; this dish requires a two to three hour rest period after consumption.
The last two recipes could not be eaten on Friday brunch before prayer; since they contained garlic and onion, it was considered against the prophet Mohamad’s teaching to offend fellow Muslims with bad breath of any kind. Hence, Jiddo would insist the meal is served after noon Friday prayer.
Spending summers in Syria meant taking part in traditions. Some I welcomed, others I dreaded.
Lunchtime with mom’s family was one of the most memorable traditions. Khalo Ameed (Uncle), Khalto Hazar and Khalto Nowara (Aunts) and later my younger cousins, sat at my Jiddo’s dinner table, feasting over his signature dishes. Baked meat (Lahmeh Bissenieh), meat, cheese and spinach pies (Sfeeha) and fresh yogurt we brought in a pail from the corner store. Jiddo lived a healthy life, aside from being a smoker. He ate well for breakfast, a big meal for lunch and a light meal for dinner. At lunch he told us the latest track and field stories; as a coach, he had many. He gave us updates on Ali Beik and Aleka Khanoum, his close friends, and recounted stories of his younger days traveling on horseback between Damascus and Hama.
On Eid day (Adha or Fiter), Jiddo would arrive to our house after attending Eid Prayer and visiting the cemetery where his elder family members were left to rest. He wore a Kumbaz (traditional Syrian costume). By the time he arrived, we would have mopped the house, and got dressed in newly purchased outfits commemorating Eid. After drinking a cup of Turkish coffee we set out to visit family.
We started with a visit to the Turbeh (cemetery) to lay Aas (a flower used for cemetery visits), read Quran verses and ask God to forgive and bless our departed family members. Then we moved on to visit elder family members, my Jiddo’s older sister, his uncle, and my An’a Radia’s older brothers Khalo Mazhar. We returned home to receive younger family members who came to visit Jiddo Naim. Visitors would come in waves all day. By the time evening came, I would be ready to sit on the balcony and watch the glittering stars, while listening to Jiddo reading Quran or telling stories.
Jiddo was a great storyteller. His memory seemed supernatural to me. He recounted dates by the day, month and year and went well into history. I attributed that to his love for reading. His library seemed huge; the fact that he had read all those books made him an authority on everything in my eyes! He seemed to have lived a full life; he told stories on politics, sports, religion. Stories on culture and poetry having been close to many of the famous Syrian authors and poets; stories on travel to Europe, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and the far ends of Syria. He was still traveling as the coach of the Syrian National Track and Field Team and writing articles on his passion, sports. When he wasn’t telling stories, he would write; surrounded by books and magazines, he wrote for hours; occasionally looking up at me with a tender smile.
My least favorite tradition was mourning rituals (Aaza). Riddled with protocol, shrouded with sadness, and sufficient insincerity to make me shy away from any Aaza as an adult. Since my parents had lived in Damascus, it seemed we only visited Hama to attend Aaza’s. A few I attended, remain vivid in my memory; An’a Radia’s and Jiddo Mohamad’s Aazas were painful. I was very young when An’a Radia passed on in Damascus; hers was the first and last Aaza I attended there. I hid under a coffee table, as women wearing black, with shear black head-scarves poured into her family room. Qu’ran recitation echoed in the halls of their home. My mother cried, and was consoled by Tant Aleka and others of An’a Radia’s friends. In the next room, men filed in to pay their respects to my grandfather, who was seated in the far end of the living room.
My Jiddo Mohamad’s Aaza in his hometown of Hama was noisy. All I remember was the house filled with women. It seemed the men’s Aaza took place elsewhere. As women walked through the front door, they looked at their reflection in the foyer mirror, fixed their head scarfs, turned left, and howled loud cries. I couldn’t understand what brought the frenzy on. I knew their screeching voices bothered me, and seemed to bother members
of my family who set out in panic anytime someone came in howling. Who were these people, and how could they go from full composure to utter madness in a few seconds? On that day, I decided that I wouldn’t attend anymore Aaza’s in Hama; and since my Jiddo Mohamad had died, I saw no reason for us to go there, ever again!
Tradition dictates that visitors enter the room, heading straight to the close family, seated at the far end of the mourning hall. There’s an order to who sits at the head of the hall; wife, mother, first born daughter. They shake hands, say a few consoling words and move to an empty seat. They stay long enough to read a few Qur’anic versus, and drink a cup of black, bitter coffee. While tradition dictates that after drinking at someone’s home you should say “may it last” (Daymeh), during a Aaza, the verse is replaced with one of a number of Aaza appropriate replies such as “May Allah console you” (Awad Allah Ajerkon” or “May you live a long life” (Elbaeyeh bi hayatkon).
Remembering the departed took on another form in Syria; visiting their burial sites on special occasions. My mother would take us to visit An’a’s burial place for Eid. This was not fun for several reasons. First, An’a Radia was buried in a cemetery on Qasyoun Mountain. After a taxi ride that seemed like a vertical climb, we had to trek up very steep steps to get to the cemetery. Second, the place seemed awfully crowded. We struggled to reach our destination burial ground without stepping on other people’s graves. My maternal aunt (Khalto Nowar) explained during one visit that families purchase a site, and that member of the family are buried together, or next to each other. Our family location seemed too small to me to accommodate one let alone many family members. I hated crowded spaces. Finally, the visit brought on sadness; everyone came away crying. Why did we do this on Eid? A day that was meant to be festive and happy!
I disliked Hama’s cemetery visits for different reasons. Shortly after my paternal aunt’s husband passed on, Jiddo Mohamad took me with him and my youngest uncle Samir to a cemetery in Hama where our family members are buried. I must have been between 5 to 7 years old because on the way to the cemetery, a tooth that had been wiggling for a while finally came loose. I held it in my hand and walked out of the car closely following Jiddo Mohamad.
The place seemed hazy brownish beige. An open space, that seemed endless at the time, with domes of sand all around. We walked for a while until we got to one that Jiddo Mohamad confirmed was my uncle’s tomb. How he could tell the difference was beyond me. But I didn’t care much, I was consumed with my fallen tooth which had dropped along the way. As my uncle Samir and Jiddo Mohamad stood reciting versus of the Quran, I got busy looking around for my tooth. I felt a great sense of loss when it was time to leave, and I had to leave my tooth behind in this empty place. I was also upset because Jiddo Mohamad seemed quite sad.
A year later, I would visit Jiddo Mohamad’s grave site in the same location with my uncle Samir and my cousin Bashar. I searched again for my tooth, after doing a very quick Quran reading at Jiddo’s tomb. In reality, that would be the last time I visited that cemetery in Hama. In my dreams, it would visit me years later. When Hama became the target of a government raid, stories emerged at the mass grave sites that were dug in the cemetery, where hundreds of our family members were piled on top of each other. The only way the world would learn about this was from the half-dead who managed to crawl out of the grave site to nearby villages. That image haunted my dreams for years and reconfirmed my distaste for cemeteries.
My hatred for cemetery visits would later be confirmed by a Wahabi education in Saudi. The Wahabi sect deemed the practice un-Islamic. We were taught that visiting the cemetery was a pagan tradition left over from past regional cultures. Given my experiences in Syria, I didn’t need to questions that. Anytime my mother asked me to visit my An’a Radia’s burial site, I would recite a few versus from my religion book and tell her I can’t. I was happy to have the excuse to keep me away.
In hindsight all traditions contributed to my sense of identity. Whether I accepted that at the time or not, the effect became clear when I had my children.
Allan de Botton’s book Status Anxiety is my favorite read. I read it at age 32; it explained feelings of discomfort, displacement, social anxieties and the yearning to belong.
At age four, my mother and I traveled from Damascus, Syria to Khobar, Saudi Arabia to meet my father. He had lived there for a year before we joined. It was the early days of Saudi’s construction boom. Because of a shortage of skilled resources, professionals (engineers, doctors, accountants) were being recruited from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine. Although I was young, the feeling of the scorching summer heat and humidity against my face was imprinted in my memory. It was a new sensation I had not experienced in Damascus; one that I would feel for the next 13 years on returning to Khobar from our summer vacations.
Damascus had four seasons. The city was surrounded by forests (Al-Ghoota) and lush orchards. Our house in Abu-Rummana (father of the pomegranate) neighborhood was the ground floor in a three story building. The circular living room was surrounded by a small gated garden. I recall walking out of the house and smelling the dark
reddish-brown soil after the morning rain. I remember watching snails crawling around in the flowerbeds. The smell of jasmine and Ful (Arabian Jasmine) bushes planted at the entrance lingered into the house.
Family members alternated taking me to Sibki Park (Jenainet ElSibki). Across the street from our building, trees lined a walking path that circled the garden leading to the central pond where ducks and geese swam peacefully. A small playground stood where children my age took turns sliding and swinging. At the garden gate is where street vendors park their carts to sell ice cream, corn on the cob, figs (teen) and sweet cactus fruit (sabbarah), calling out to passers-by to buy their products.
If we weren’t picnicking in Ghoota, we spent weekends at my grandfather’s house in
Zabadani, a valley 30 minutes outside of Damascus. Jiddo Naim owned a few acres of farm land and ran boyscout camps for the summer. I went for walks with my grandmother, An’a Radia in the orchards where apple, peach, orange, lemon, pomegranate, Loquat (Acadenia) and cherry trees grew. An’a Radia would instruct me to stay close to her because foxes were close by. Streams were abundant and cold. I could only put my feet in for a few seconds. Jiddo Naim would place a watermelon in a stream, and in a few seconds, it would crack open because of the cold water temperature.
My memories of winter in Damascus are faint. Unlike summer, when visits from Saudi reinforced early childhood memories, we barely visited Syria in Winter. My only recollection is that Winter was cold and dry in Damascus with occasional snow-fall. I remember the smell of roasting chestnuts on the Soba (coal heater), and the ritual of filling the house with rugs that had been stowed away in the spring / summer. One winter, we went up to the mountains to Bludaan, snow had covered roof-tops and hung on tree branches. We built snow men and slid down little hills.