For Syrians in exile food is more than a means of sustenance. It is a reminder of the rich and diverse culture being destroyed by civil war
In February 2013, Ebtisam Masto fled Syria with her six children. They crossed the border to Lebanon and headed for the capital, Beirut, where Masto’s husband, Mohammed, had been working to support his family since before the civil war began.
When they arrived, Masto registered the family with the UN refugee agency in the city. There she heard about a cooking programme for women that was run by the Catholic charity Caritas. Masto, who was scared, insecure and on the verge of clinical depression, signed up. “I wanted to do something with my life,” she told me.
On the first day, Masto found herself with more than 30 women crowded into an unprepossessing room with a single stove and a sink. They looked each other up and down. Almost all, except a couple of Lebanese women, were Syrian refugees: sophisticates from Damascus and Aleppo, Kurds from the north, housewives from tiny villages in the north‑west. Some were Christian and some were Muslim, some were veiled and some not, some were pro-regime and others had lost sons fighting it. An atmosphere of wariness pervaded the room.
Designed with the help of Kamal Mouzawak, a suave entrepreneur who has done much to promote traditional Lebanese food over the past decade, the course aimed to teach women how to use their home-cooking skills – which they took for granted as a domestic chore – to find jobs in catering. More importantly, Mouzawak told me, the course was a chance to get the women together, to give them a place to share their stories and recipes, to empower them.
The first task was to make kibbeh, parcels of bulgur wheat filled with minced lamb. Kibbeh is a dish found throughout the Middle East and regional permutations, as well as numerous transliterations – kibbeh, kubba, kubi – abound. The outer shell can be made with semolina or ground rice, the filling can be bulked out with pumpkin or potato, or flavoured with lemon, garlic, cinnamon, allspice, dried mint, parsley, sumac, cumin, chilli. Kibbeh can be fried or roasted or stewed, layered into sloppy casseroles or baked into big meatloaves. In Lebanese restaurants, they are small and pinched into an American football shape. In Iraq, a kubba is a giant hubcap of dough encasing a sprinkling of meat. In Israel, kubba is a Sephardic dish of dumplings in soup.
Everyone on the course had a different way of making kibbeh and everyone wanted theirs to be the best. Among the classmates were two Assyrian Christians, Marlene and Nahren. They made their kibbeh into a large flattened disc stuffed with lamb. It was soft instead of crunchy and no one had ever seen kibbeh that was boiled like this before.
“I was so curious to know how they were doing it,” Masto told me earlier this year. “But they kept it a secret. They would prepare their dough at home and bring it in ready-made. This made me even more curious.”
One morning in class, when the women were talking over coffee, Masto tried to engage Marlene in conversation. “I tried in my own way to be polite and kind and to counter their wariness and their fear of Muslims. Of course, my real motive was to discover the secret ingredient in their kibbeh dough. But there was this barrier between us, between Christian and Muslim, so I tried to remove the barrier. I tried to show them the peaceful message of Islam and explain that Mohammed was a peacemaker, just as Jesus was. This brought us together a bit and we began to develop a friendship.”
Still, relations between classmates occasionally became strained. One day, Samira, a widow with grown-up children, asked Marlene if she could help her prepare kibbeh. Marlene rebuffed her, telling Samira not to interfere. Samira took umbrage and shouted back at her. The kitchen became tense and Mouzawak, who was helping oversee the class that day, had to intervene, telling the women that they were all there to learn together, and that they should each teach the other a dish they could cook together.
Samira and Marlene agreed, but Marlene was not happy about it. “I am obliged to agree,” she told Masto, “but I am only going to give the real recipe to you. You are the only one who is a good enough cook and trustworthy, and I know you will make it in the correct way.”
“The fat – the fat of Syrian lamb!” recalled Magdy Sharshafji, an Assyrian businessman who left Aleppo after the war began. I met him one night in Loris, the fancy restaurant he had opened in Beirut. He ordered a dish of the famous Aleppan cherry kebab for me to try. “I can tell you the difference where the sheep has lived, whether it is from Aleppo or Hama, just by the smell of the fat!” He grinned, remembering, and then held up his empty palms as a gesture of nostalgia and sadness for a world, a life, a culture that may be lost to him for ever.
In Sharshafji’s hometown of Aleppo, the cuisine is known for its pepperiness because it was an old Spice Road hub: a crossroads where elaborate Ottoman dishes mixed with sweet and sour recipes brought by Chinese caravans, and the combination of meat and fruit beloved by the Persians. A famous Aleppan dish is kibbeh made with quince, cooked with fresh pomegranate juice.
“In Lebanon we have maybe six or eight different kinds of kibbeh. In Syria they have endless variations,” Anissa Helou, a Lebanese food writer, told me. She laid out the regional variety of Syrian food: “In Damascus, the dishes are heartier, more straightforward; street food. And, of course, Damascus is the kingdom of baklava. On the coast you have fish, and close to Jordan, in the desert you have mansaf [a traditional Bedouin dish of meat cooked in fermented dried yoghurt].”
Dima Chaar, a young Syrian chef, bright and pretty with a pixie haircut, told me that when she grew up in Damascus, cooking was “a time for talking and gossip”. As we sat on a restaurant terrace late one evening after her shift, Chaar described a dish her grandmother used to make: lamb cutlets seasoned with a whole head of garlic and dried mint, cooked in lemon juice and water. “She used to put ghee [clarified butter] in is as well, to make it richer – we used to cook it on Fridays when everyone would gather.”
Chaar still travels back and forth between Beirut and Damascus. She visits her grandmother and writes down her old recipes. “Nowadays,” she said, “women are no longer cooking the complicated stuff. There aren’t large families to feed any more. Their sons are killed or have left, they no longer celebrate.”
Chaar drew deeply on a pull of apple-flavoured shisha. “I think most of us feel that we are lost. I wanted to stay in Lebanon rather than follow my family to Montreal. Yes, I think I hoped to go back to Syria. But after five years, honestly, now I am just living day by day.”
Then Ebtisam Masto graduated as one of the stars of the Caritas programme, Kamal Mouzawak asked her to set up a kibbeh stall at the Souk El Tayeb, his farmers’ market in Beirut. This is where I first met her in April earlier this year, and I marvelled at her display of kibbeh, which were multicoloured and came in different shapes. I bought a lumpy potato one stuffed with spicy walnut muhammara, a semicircular variety with meat and mushrooms, a rolled kibbeh with spinach and pistachios and another made with lamb and quince.
“In Syria, we would always put meat in them,” Masto told me, “but here in Lebanon they prefer lighter and vegetarian.” Two eyebrows rose beneath her neatly pleated headscarf as if to signal amusement at the flighty sophistication of Beiruti ladies.
Everything about Masto’s outward appearance was neat and correct. She wore her long outer coat carefully buttoned up, her face was pale and clean of makeup. Her demeanour, however, was warm and voluble. She was wary of journalists – the last one she spoke to had portrayed her as an opponent of the Assad regime, in order to craft a heartwarming story about two Syrian women on either side of the war, who were nonetheless great friends, cooks and colleagues.
This had infuriated Masto, who had always maintained a careful position of neutrality. She lived in an area in Beirut that was mainly populated by pro-Assad Syrians, and after the article came out, Masto was worried about possible recriminations. Worse, being perceived as anti-Assad meant it would be very difficult for her family to return to Syria, even if the fighting lessened. In distress, she complained to the UN refugee agency and it asked if she would consider leaving Lebanon. Masto and Mohammed agreed that it was time to go.
When I met her, the family’s application for asylum had been approved. They had been told they would be resettled in America. At first this news had caused consternation. Germany or Canada, they knew, were good countries for refugees. “But, as Muslims, we assumed we would not be accepted in America,” she said.
As she quizzed me on what kind of article I intended to write, Masto made it clear that she did not want to be quoted about politics in case it caused problems with her asylum application. But she was willing to let me come to her home to learn how she makes kibbeh.
Masto lived with her family outside the centre of Beirut, high up on mountain slopes, in a wooded area that was lush with foliage and strewn with garbage. The day after she agreed to show me how to make kibbeh, she welcomed us into her home, a windowless cube, off a small courtyard of tiny, one-storey concrete structures – more a shanty of interconnected rooms than a cluster of houses. The room glowed green under a single fluorescent bulb. It had a rough concrete floor, two or three thin pallets arranged around the edges, a small television, a large refrigerator, a scuffed sofa and two plastic chairs. It was ruthlessly scrubbed and spotlessly clean.
Masto’s husband Mohammed came forward to greet us. He had a handsome square face, framed with grey hair that was brushed into a side parting. He declined to shake my hand and touched his palm to his chest instead.
“Welcome!” Masto repeated.
“Kibbeh!” I said, anticipating, clapping my hands together.
“Yes, but coffee first.” Khaled, Masto’s 17-year-old son, brought us two cups of Nescafé, while his sister Sidra followed with a bowl of sugar.
Masto sat cross-legged next to me on a thin foam pallet. Once Khaled had lugged out a big, shiny, sausage-grinding machine and plugged it into a loop of extension cord, Masto carefully pulled on a pair of white plastic gloves. A bowl of bulgur wheat was placed next to a plastic jug of water. Masto was ready to make kibbeh.
Ebtisam Masto was born in 1980 in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. She left school when she was 12. When she was 15, she married her cousin Mohammed. “She was considered one of the best cooks!” said her husband proudly. “They would all cook together, making kibbeh. There were always lots of daughters, friends, sisters, because in the village women were at home.”
“My sister had a garden with rows of vegetables, and we would have picnics there and just pick the vegetables and eat them just like that,” recalled Masto.
Jisr al-Shughour is a Sunni town with a tradition of opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his father before him, Hafez al-Assad. In 2011, when Syria began its Arab Spring demonstrations, the people of Jisr al-Shughour were among of the first to take to the streets. That summer there was fighting – one of the earliest battles of the civil war – and in the confusion and gunfire large numbers of the town’s population fled. Masto and her children went to Lebanon to stay with Mohammed, but the children were not attending school there. After a couple of months, Masto’s parents told her that government forces had re-established calm in the town, so she decided to take the family home.
At first it was quiet, but soon the fighting started up again. “My children were traumatised listening to the sounds of war all the time,” said Masto. Pickup trucks piled with corpses drove past. The water was cut. There was no electricity. They scavenged firewood. Supplies could not get into the town from the countryside and food was scarce. “Eventually, it got to the point where I couldn’t find even flour to make the bread or anything to burn as fuel,” she said.
In early 2013, they began to kidnap girls. “Who were ‘they’?” I asked. Masto pursed her lips. Who knows who. They kidnapped the girls as a business and demanded enormous sums of money. Mohammed had not been able to visit them for more than a year. When Masto called him in Lebanon, she told him she was frightened for their daughters. It became clear they had to get out. They left Jisr al-Shughour at six in the morning, and after close calls at government checkpoints, they arrived in Damascus at 10pm. From there, they took a bus to the Lebanese border where Mohammed met them.
Safe in Beirut, I watched Masto sprinkle the grains of bulgur with water and knead them together. Then she fed lumps of the crumbly mixture into the electric grinder. The grinder pushed the dough out as coils. She gathered these up, kneaded them together and then fed them into the grinder again. With each grind, the bulgur absorbed a little more of the water and the dough became a little softer and drier until it was as pliable as Play-Doh. Masto likes to add a little fine corn meal to her kibbeh. This is her special touch.
Masto was fastidious. She kneaded the dough as she talked. Nothing spilled, no grain was wasted. “You need to be delicate in the way you make the dough,” she said as she worked it. “You have to make it with love so that people will love it. If you do it without love, you cannot touch people.”
The World Food Programme, the emergency food assistance branch of the UN, currently supports more than 700,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Since spring 2016 the programme has dispensed a monthly allowance of $27 per head to the two-thirds of refugee families it evaluates as the most vulnerable. The money is credited to an electronic card given to each family. They can then spend their allowance on food at 490 grocery stores registered with the scheme across Lebanon. Since 2012, $770m has been transferred through this system. One day in early May, I visited a family in the Bekaa Valley who rely on this scheme.
Abadi al-Eid had arrived in Lebanon with his wife, Khawla, and their three children, more than two years earlier, having escaped the Syrian city of Raqqa, which has been controlled by Isis since January 2014. They have since had another little boy. They live in one of the many small refugee camps that have sprung up on fields throughout the fertile plateau between Beirut and the Syrian border.
I went with Abadi and Khawla as they did their monthly shop at a small grocery store on the Damascus-Beirut road. They brought with them their eight-year-old son Ibrahim, who had an undiagnosed neurological condition and whose growth was stunted. Everyone called him “Hajji”, an ironic name more commonly used to refer to an elder who has made the hajj pilgrimage.
Hajji grinned and stuck out his arms to shake my hand. He giggled, swaggered and marched, he became suddenly aggressive and then teetered on the edge of a tantrum. He wanted sweets, he wanted biscuits. His mother gave him a packet of biscuits, and he hugged them to his chest and shovelled one after another into his mouth.
“He wants to eat everything!” Khawla told me, sighing. He ate all the time, she said, but still he was skinny and scabbed. The family had taken him to the UN clinic, but there was no money for a blood test. “Before the war, he was not like this. They said he cannot go to the school because he is disruptive. We have had to move camps five times because other people do not accept him.”
As Abadi pushed the trolley around the little shop, Hajji stamped and screamed, hot tears wet on his cheeks. He wanted chocolate cereal. Khawla put an expensive box of chocolate cereal into the trolley.
At the checkout, the Al-Eids bought the following:
Two rounds of white cheese
A bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice
A bag of zataar, dried thyme
Three large boxes of dried molokhia, a kind of green leaf vegetable
A large pot of yoghurt
Several kilos of different lentils, beans and bulgur wheat
A 16-litre tin of cooking oil
A 4-litre tin of olive oil
Two large cans of fresh peas
Two cans of meat
Four tins of sardines
A 2.5kg kilo tin of tomato paste.
They did not buy any eggs or vegetables or fresh meat, which are expensive. There is a joke about a Syrian dish called batata ou farouj – potatoes and chicken cooked with lemon. These days it is very rare to have chicken, so the refugees make the dish without any meat and call it “flying chicken” because the chicken has flown away.
The Al-Eids live in a tent large enough to stand up in. The frame is made of wood, while the walls are a patchwork of corrugated iron, slats of thin plywood and tarpaulin stamped with the UN refugee agency logo. The roof is covered with old waterproof advertising banners and weighted with car tyres.
Abadi did not work. He was friendly and smoked cigarettes and when I asked him about the future, he opened his palms to the sky, resigned to God’s will.
Khawla crouched next to a blue gas canister on top of which was perched a pot of yellow lentil soup. Back in Syria, Khawla told me, she used to cook whatever she liked. “Kibbeh, and stuffed vegetables, these things that I used to make, I don’t make any more. I am stressed and worried all the time. Sometimes I can’t even remember things. I have a bad memory because I can’t think properly. I am only living day to day. I miss my family, we would all gather together to eat.”