The Long Read: For Syrians in refugee, meat 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 infants. They crossed their own borders to Lebanon and headed for the capital city, Beirut, where Mastos husband, Mohammed, had been working to support his family since before the civil campaign began.
When they arrived, Masto registered their own families 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 “peoples lives”, she told me.
On the first day, Masto acquired herself with more than 30 females mobbed into an unprepossessing room with a single stove and a sink. They gazed each other up and down. Almost all, except got a couple of Lebanese females, were Syrian refugees: sophisticates from Damascus and Aleppo, Kurds from the northern, homemakers from tiny villages in the northwest. Some were Christian and some were Muslim, some were veiled and some not, some were pro-regime and others had lost sons opposing it. An ambiance of wariness pervaded the room.
Designed with the help of Kamal Mouzawak, a suave entrepreneur who has done much to promote traditional Lebanese meat in the last decade, the course has the objective of teach females how to use their home-cooking knowledge which they took for awarded 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 home to share their narratives and recipes, to empower them.
The first task was to stimulate kibbeh, parcels of bulgur wheat filled with minced lamb. Kibbeh is a bowl acquired in all areas of the Countries of the middle east and regional permutations, as well as several transliterations kibbeh, kubba, kubi bristle. The outer shell can be made with semolina or ground rice, the filling is also possible 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 large-scale meatloaves. In Lebanese eateries, 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 shaping kibbeh and everyone craved theirs to be the best. Among the classmates were two Assyrian Christians, Marlene and Nahren. They stirred 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 simmered like this before.
I was so curious to know how they were doing it, Masto told me earlier this year. But they deterred it trade secrets. They would prepare their dough at home and bring it in ready-made. This stirred me even more curious.
One morning in class, when the status of women were talking over coffee, Masto tried to engage Marlene in dialogue. I tried in my own style to be polite and kind and to counter their wariness and their horror of Muslims. Of course, my real motive was to discover the secret ingredient in their kibbeh dough. But there was this barricade between us, between Christian and Muslim, so I tried to remove the barrier. I tried to show them the peaceful message of Islam and be said that Mohammed was a peacemaker, just as Jesus was. This brought us together a bit and we began to develop a friendship.
Still, closer relations between classmates occasionally became strained. One period, Samira, a widow with grown-up infants, questioned Marlene if she could help her train 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 supervising the class the working day, had to intervene, telling the women that they were all there to discover together, and that they should each teach the other a bowl we are able to cook together.
Samira and Marlene agreed, but Marlene was not so pleased to see you both. 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.
For Syrians, meat is an especially important part of national identity. Syrian cuisine has evolved over thousands of years of defeats, trading and immigration, shaped and mixed by dozens of peoples: Arab, Kurdish, Druze, Armenian, Circassian, Assyrian, Alawite, Turkish, Turkmen, Palestinian, Ismaili, Greek, Jewish, Yazidi. The Syrian table is an expression of a multicultural country and a style of living together that is being destroyed by civil war.
Six million Syrians have fled their homeland since 2011. Lebanon has more than thousands and thousands of registered Syrian refugees, although most people agree that the full amounts of the amount is much higher. Even in refugee, many Syrians talk about meat with the same dignity, ardor and obsession with terroir as the French do. Quite often, when I was talking to Syrians in Lebanon, they would grumble about the inferiority of Lebanese veggies, the blandness of the importation of the Australian lamb and the lack of various forms of the restaurant food.
The fat the fat of Syrian lamb! recollected Magdy Sharshafji, an Assyrian tycoon who left Aleppo after the campaign began. I met him one darknes in Loris, the fancy eatery he had opened in Beirut. He ordered a bowl 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, their own lives, a culture that may be lost to him for ever.
In Sharshafjis hometown of Aleppo, the cuisine is known for its pepperiness because it was an old Spice Road hub: a crossroads where elaborated Ottoman dishes mixed with sweet and sour recipes was put forward by Chinese caravans, and the combination of meat and fruit beloved by the Persians. A famous Aleppan dish is kibbeh stirred with quince, cooked with fresh pomegranate juice.
In Lebanon we have maybe six or eight all kinds of kibbeh. In Syria they have endless discrepancies, Anissa Helou, a Lebanese meat writer, told me. She laid out the different regions various forms of Syrian meat: In Damascus, the dishes are heartier, more straightforward; street meat. 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 ].
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