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A Taste of Refuge

by Ellie Waters


As months went by, the elusive man who sat across from me at Tarbush graced me with many more meals, and, like most Syrian affairs, food was at the center of our relationship. 


On a rainy night in 2014, my heart was heavy.  A combination of expat blues and homesickness had been plaguing me for quite some time, and thoughts of leaving Turkey had started to brew.  Laying hungry in bed, I received a call from a friend, who I had reminded to invite me to the next Syrian meal in Aksaray, a seedy, yet bustling industrial district of Istanbul that holds many of the city's foreign restaurants.

That night in May, I thought I was going to drown my sorrows in Kabsa, a saffron rice dish topped with meat of choice, or ladle spoonfuls of hummus into my mouth.  And I did, I ate all of that and more, yet the highlight of my meal was the man who sat silently across from me. While we all talked about failed relationships and politics and spread Krem Tum (a garlicy mayonnaise) on virtually everything, I couldn't help but wonder what he was thinking.  The man I so curiously contemplated had just arrived from Aleppo the month before.  He was a victim of the Syrian war, and had left his mother in hopes of eventually creating a safer way out for the entire family.  The irony is that for thousands of years, Aleppo was at the heart of the Silk Road, and a culinary empire way before cities such as Paris.  Syrians, who had once shared their country with peoples as diverse culturally, geographically and historically as the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, Romans, Nabataeans, Byzantines, Muslim Arabs, European Christian Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, Western Allied forces, and the French, were not welcome anywhere.  The only one inviting them for dinner was Turkey.

 

 
 
Muhammara: a red pepper dip made with olive oil and sometimes tahini. 

As months went by, the elusive man who sat across from me at Tarbush graced me with many more meals, and, like most Syrian affairs, food was at the center of our relationship.  Unlike the typical courtship, he lacked the time and enthusiasm to live the embellished expat lifestyle that most of the people I knew were accustomed to.

But one thing we did do for each other was cook.  He spoke so passionately about his food, and how superior Syrian ingredients were.  For a moment, it seemed a bit obsessive and overindulgent, but then I realized that this food he so passionately named was his only comfort.

I gained about five pounds within the first 3 months of our relationship; the dish to blame was mamounieh, a semolina-based breakfast that could best be described as sweet grits, served hot with slabs of sweet butter and sopped up with white bread.  On days where we found nothing in the refrigerator, we would sprinkle zataar onto a bowl full of olive oil, and dip into it with khbz, a typical Syrian flatbread eaten at every meal.  He cooked for me and I cooked for him, and even though I had never visited Syria, I got a taste of its essence every time I sat in his kitchen.  I had indulged in food with a lover before, but this was different.  As I tasted history, I began to understand that this food which he so lovingly cooked was his only link to home. This food was indeed his refuge.

 

 
 
Mamounieh: a semolina-based breakfast mixed with sugar and topped with sweet butter and nuts

The next few months were bittersweet.  My ears had become oversaturated with the Syrian conflict, and while I had the kindest man in Istanbul filling my belly with all these wonderful foods, I could not help but wonder why I felt so empty.  The hopelessness of people who were simply trying to live without bombs hitting their windows, the parents who had sacrificed safety to stay behind and protect their homes, the children who started to wash up on the shores of Greece; the biggest refugee crisis since WWII was making me feel things I had not felt since I left my beloved Guatemala in 1996.  Here I was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but all I could feel was loneliness and guilt.

Every day became a reminder of how fortunate I was, yet with all the tragedy and displacement, I felt undeserving of both joy and pain.  A sort of guilt lingered in me for not wanting to live in America (the “Land of the Free”), until a winter night when we all gathered for dinner, and I was introduced to a girl who was soon eligible for the German passport.  She had the commodities and “safety” that all Syrians were dying for, but she had no desire to remain in Germany.  Cultures apart and countries away, she wanted nothing more than to taste Syrian food.  We decided to take her to Salloura, an Aleppian chain not far from Tarbush, famous for its pistachio cookies and milk ice cream.  As she tasted the first bite of Halawet El Jibn, a type of syrup-infused cheese roll, she started to cry, remembering her sweet Syria with one single bite.  It had been four years since she had eaten it, and four years since she had seen her family.  Her culinary reunion pacified my guilt.  Our desire for home was simple; we were both fighting for a better future, but in the end we realized that we could not barter commodity for comfort.

 

 
 
Zataar: a ground mix of mainly thyme and sesame seeds that is served over or beside olive oil and is used as a dip. 

As 2015 approached, my worries started to shift. At first, the Syrian war seemed manageable or at least contained, but as ISIS took hold of territories in Syria and Iraq, the world started to question the future of the Middle East. What appeared to be an “Arab" problem, started to manifest itself in various parts of Europe and Turkey. Suicide bombs in Ankara and Suruc, and attacks on European cities like Paris made the conflict a worldwide crisis. Hundreds of social media posts reading “Don’t just pray for Paris, pray for the World”, were popping up everywhere.  Fair enough!  This was happening globally, but something happens when you attack icons and idols, when you massacre people in the home of the Eiffel Tower, or blow up the Twin Towers in New York-you attack the familiar, and the hopes and fantasies of places that seem untouchable. And for me, it was finally hitting too close to home. The brave girl who moved to Turkey became scared; my home had become a target.  

So now I am here questioning my safety and purpose in Istanbul, with all my friends and relatives telling me that it is time to come “home.”  But where is home?  Is it with my Syrian partner cooking meals and telling stories of old Aleppo?  Is it in a terrace cafe overlooking the Bosphorus strait?  Or is it in the false sense of safety of my American dream?

Salloura Restaurant can be found not far from the Yusuf Pasa tram stop in Aksaray at: Molla Gürani, Turgut Özal Millet Cd No: 62, 34093 Fatih/Istanbul

 

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As I tasted history, I began to understand that this food which he so lovingly cooked was his only link to home. This food was indeed his refuge.

 

Our desire for home was simple; we were both fighting for a better future, but in the end we realized that we could not barter commodity for comfort.