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Memory has a funny way of playing tricks on you. Until very recently, I was convinced that I had spent most of my childhood summers on my aunt’s farm in Mashta el-Helou in Syria. Even now, nearly 50 years later, I have vivid memories of lazy afternoons spent with my cousins in al-Dar — “home” in Arabic and also the name of my father’s ancestral home, a square stone building made up of a series of vaulted rooms set around a courtyard, with a marble fountain in the middle.
The house originally belonged to my father’s grandfather and his family. The descendants inherited a room or more each, depending on how many they were in the family. My father had two rooms, although he never occupied them. He was orphaned when very young, and his sisters had sent him and his brother to study in Lebanon. Later he went to America to finish his studies, after which he settled in Lebanon, where he married my mother. He never came with us when we visited ammto (aunt) Zahiyeh, his sister, who lived in a beautiful stone house down a lane from al-Dar, lost today among the ugly concrete buildings of modern Mashta.
And because it is a Christian enclave, high up in the mountains not too far from Homs, the capital of the Syrian revolution, Mashta el-Helou has become a refuge for many who fled Homs as it was battered by the Syrian army. Some left homes in the old city just like my father’s, which they too would have shared with extended family. My memory has proved unreliable but my wish to return is an impossible one. Sadly, all that is left of old Homs now is rubble.
The Syrian revolution started as a peaceful uprising in March 2011, with demonstrations asking for reform. It turned into an armed struggle following the regime’s brutal suppression of the demonstrations, with the army and the shabiha (paramilitaries loyal to the regime) ordered to fire on demonstrators, and subsequently on crowds at the funerals of those killed. And while the rebels gained control of large swathes of the country, they have now been dislodged in some areas by jihadists, with the Islamist militants Isis controlling part of Aleppo, Raqqa and, further to the east, Deir el-Zor. The rebels are now fighting against both Isis and the regime, which is still in control of Damascus as well as the coastal part of the country. It has also managed to retake some territory along the Lebanese border and Homs itself, although not before almost completely destroying it.
Back in my days, Mashta el-Helou belonged to the family until the Ba’ath party reallocated the land in the 1960s, giving most of it to the farmers who tilled it. When Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, he reversed some of his party’s socialist policies and my family was able to reclaim its land. Still, even when my aunt’s fields didn’t “belong” to her, her farmers continued to share the produce and we were free to pick whatever seasonal fruit we wanted — I remember gorging on mulberries, figs, grapes and jujube. And when I was not out in the fields I was in the kitchen, watching my aunt and mother prepare our meals or churn butter, knead dough and prepare preserves from the bountiful produce. My interest in food started early.
I was a city child from Beirut, and being in such a free, rural setting was thrilling. And even more exciting was returning to Syria as an adult, and meeting farming families who prepared food and baked bread just like my aunt did.
We stopped going to Mashta when I was a teenager and I didn’t visit Syria again until my early thirties, when I toured the country one springtime with a friend. We went to most of the heritage sites, of course, including the dead Byzantine cities around Aleppo, the gastronomic capital of the Middle East. They dated from the first to the seventh century and were abandoned between the eighth and 10th centuries because the advent of Islam had led to a drop in the trade of olive oil. Some, like al-Bara and Serjilla, were remarkably well preserved while others were less so, but all were within beautiful agricultural landscapes with farming communities living alongside them.
In those days there wasn’t much urban encroachment in the countryside. One day we stopped in Qalb Lozeh, famous for its fifth-century church. There we found farmers harvesting wheat still green, which they burnt in the fields to make frikeh. Seeing them at work brought back memories of my aunt’s frikeh, which she cooked for us once a week, killing one of her chickens to serve with it. I never saw her farmers prepare frikeh because we never got there early enough in the year, and I was delighted to finally see how it was produced.
Frikeh is my favourite grain — and seemingly everyone else’s now. I always cook it with chicken, just how my aunt prepared it, boiling the frikeh in the chicken broth. I can still picture her holding the bird by the neck and swiftly slitting its head off, before throwing the body on the ground to let it thrash its last breath.
Many years later and shortly before the uprising in Syria, I came across another farming family preparing frikeh, this time near Apamea, a stunning Roman site with the longest remaining colonnaded street, which sadly has been heavily looted in the fighting. This time the setting was very different. The family lived in a nondescript, three-storey concrete building and the landscape was marred by electricity pylons; you couldn’t see Apamea from where they were. The women were dressed in a mixture of traditional and modern garb, wearing logoed baseball caps over their scarfs to protect their faces from the sun. Again, it was a thrill to see them burn and thresh the green wheat, which is then gathered in plastic sheets and carried to the roof to dry, before being taken to the mill. As I tasted the just-burnt kernels, I imagined myself and other chefs making the most scrumptious salads with it. It’s a shame that no one thinks of selling it at that stage.
When we got to Apamea, I found another farming family living in a low stone building, right by the ruins. They doubled up as merchants, having set up a stall selling cotton souvenirs and other trinkets, including fake antiquities (or at least I hope they were fake). On the porch of the house was one of the daughters sorting dried red peppers. Apamea lies to the west of Aleppo, the land of the mild pepper known as Aleppo pepper.
I walked up to her and asked if she had some for sale. She went inside and returned with two large plastic water bottles full of coarsely ground pepper. (It looked like the best ever Aleppo pepper — but turned out to be totally tasteless.)
When I was in Lebanon a few months ago, I visited some of the Syrian refugees and was struck by how they had kept a taste of home with the little they had. They had even decorated (if one can use that word) their shacks, or rooms if they lived in proper buildings, the way they had done their homes in Syria with long, colourful, rectangular cushions and modern Persian carpets. All the refugee women I spoke to ruefully described the generous meals they once cooked for their families and friends, and some longingly recalled how they roasted whole lambs for Eid.
The Syrian food I grew up with was mainly country cooking. Most of it was different from what I ate in Lebanon starting with the bread, which my aunt baked in a tannur oven, a pit oven built either below or above ground. Hers was built above ground in the field across from her house. A couple of times a week she awoke earlier than usual to light the fire on the bottom of the oven, which she let burn down until the walls became so hot that the flat loaves she slapped against them baked in seconds. In Beirut we bought pita bread from the local bakery, while at my maternal grandmother’s summer home in the mountains we ate handkerchief bread, a large, incredibly thin loaf baked over a saj (a kind of inverted wok) by one of her neighbours.
I always stood by my aunt’s side as she baked, ready to snatch a piece of hot bread as soon as she lifted it out of the oven, which I would then pass from one hand to the other until it cooled enough for me to eat. She seemed to have asbestos hands and never used a cushion like other bakers to slap the dough against the walls of the oven. Instead, she draped the disks of dough over the palm of her hand and very deftly slapped them, one by one, against the oven walls. She also used her hand, rather than a metal hook, to peel them off.
Before the uprising, tannur bread, a kind of round lavash, had become quite trendy in Syria. I often came across tannur ovens by the roadside, some traditional ones tended by women and others made from clay, lined several to a stall and overseen by men, all baking the bread to order for travellers stopping for a snack. In the villages the women still baked bread for their families in a tannur the way my aunt did.
As for ammto Zahiyeh’s cooking, it was less varied and fresh than my mother’s but just as delicious. I particularly loved her grilled kibbeh (a spiced mixture of minced lamb and bulgur wheat), which was different from my mother’s kibbeh bil-saniyeh (a crustless pie with two layers of kibbeh encasing a meat, onion and pine-nut stuffing) or kibbeh balls, which she simmered in a tahini or yoghurt sauce. Ammto Zahiyeh made kibbeh sajiyeh, flat disks of kibbeh encasing spiced lamb’s tail fat, which she grilled over a manqal (small rectangular barbecue), carefully turning over the disks so as not to break them.
As much as she was happy to let me sneak food to snack on before meals (my mother never let me), these were too large for me to pinch, so I had to wait patiently until they were done to have my share with fattoush, a herb and toasted-bread salad, which she dressed with her homemade pomegranate molasses.
Many years later, as I walked through al-Midan, a working-class neighbourhood of Damascus famous for its street food, I came across a stall where the vendor made and grilled kibbeh disks just like my aunt’s. Hers were better, of course, but it was a joy to find someone making and grilling them just like her.
Even more exciting was the camel butcher I found a little further on. I had never seen (or eaten) camel meat, let alone a head, which the butcher had hung, with its fur still on, outside as his shop sign. I very nearly came nose-to-nose with the beast as I walked past, but the gory sight was too intriguing for me not to explore further. I went in and the butcher explained he specialised in camel meat. He even ventured the information that all good Muslim men needed to eat camel at least once a year, because it was the only animal that was faithful. I didn’t press him on the logic of such a statement, nor its veracity, but I asked if I could have a taste — he had a charcoal grill inside his shop. I wanted my meat cut in pieces but he suggested I have it as kabab, otherwise the meat would be too tough. This confused me at first but when he explained that in Syria kabab describes minced meat, either rolled into balls or moulded around skewers, I understood; in Lebanon kabab means chunks of meat threaded on to skewers. I then befriended a camel butcher in the souks of Aleppo and always stopped there when I went to the city. Sometimes the fur would be dark, other times golden, and if he had butchered the camel that morning, the neck would be still dripping blood.
There are so many things to be sad about with the current devastation in Syria. The biggest tragedy, of course, is the loss of life and displacement of so many. However, the destruction of the medieval souks of Aleppo, once the most enchanting and best preserved in the whole of the Middle East is also devastating, as is the loss of the temples and tombs in Palmyra. The first time I visited the souks of Aleppo in the early 1980s I had to vie with donkeys laden with produce for a way through Souk el-Attarine, the souk of perfumers and the spice souk, a long narrow lane lined with tiny stalls crammed full of spices, olive oil soaps, pepper pastes and so much more. I never got bored of walking through the souks and with every visit I made more friends, until it seemed that I knew everyone.
Sadly, all of it is gone now, obliterated by the fighting. One day when it ends (we hope), the souks will be rebuilt the way downtown Beirut was at the end of the Lebanese civil war. But the atmosphere of uninterrupted history will be very difficult if not impossible to recapture — and who knows how many of those who lived and worked there will return. I remember the ladies I befriended who I liked to call black ghosts because they were dressed in black from head to toe, wearing the niqab and gloves so as not to show any flesh. Unlike Damascus, Aleppo was a very devout city, at least in the old part.
But in the modern part, where the Club d’Alep (a private club) was located, life could be quite glamorous. In fact, I had two lives in that city. There were days in the old town where I got lost on purpose in the souks to eat street food — although I could never muster the courage to stop at the old omelette sandwich man. His herb omelettes, which puffed up like pita bread as they fried, looked scrumptious but his stall was anything but, with years of grime caked over almost every surface. Then there were evenings mingling with the haute Aleppine society, either at the Club d’Alep or in my friends’ elegant villas, getting to taste the finest of Syrian cooking, including a whole range of intriguing sweet-savoury dishes where meat was cooked with seasonal fruit such as sour cherries or quince, or in fresh fruit juices such as pomegranate.
My favourite meals were at Lena Antaki, reputed to have the city’s best table. I can still recall the taste of her mini kibbeh balls (called qubab, meaning domes, because the tops were pointed) filled with melting lamb’s tail fat, coloured red by the Aleppo pepper. As I picked up one to bite into, Lena warned me to eat it in one go if I wanted my white shirt to stay pristine: if I had bitten the kibbeh in half, the red fat would have spurted out on me and possibly on my neighbour. At Lena’s friend Joumana Kayali, who had the reputation of being the best Muslim cook in town — Lena was Christian and the cooking of Christians differs from that of Muslims — I discovered kibbeh summaqiyeh, kibbeh balls (Syrians shape theirs round) cooked in a tart sumac sauce with eggplants and boned lamb shanks. That day Joumana also served one of the best desert truffle dishes I have ever had, with the sand-free truffles (no easy feat) cooked with lamb in a rich spicy sauce and served with a cardamom-flavoured rice. Between Lena, Joumana and Club d’Alep, I can safely say that I have tasted the finest of Aleppine cooking.
The memories of my trips to Syria before the uprising are all real, but it is my childhood memories of my summers in Mashta el-Helou that turned out to be slightly distorted. When my mother read Levant, my latest book, she wondered why I had written so much about Mashta when we’d been there only a few times! This came as a shock, as I had genuinely believed that we’d spent all our summers there. I guess these few visits had left such an indelible impression on my young mind that they expanded into many more, which is no bad thing: they fuelled my deep love for a country now battered and distressed.
‘Levant’ by Anissa Helou is published by HarperCollins
Photographs: Anissa Helou