Remembering the Taste of Damascus

The painful, perhaps impossible, task of sustaining the memory of a lost home

A man browses through a shop selling candies and spices at al-Bzoria market in Damascus February 9, 2014. (REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)

After my parents fled the war in Syria for Egypt in 2013, they did their best to recreate their old life. My mother, a stellar cook and hostess, arranged the living room in their new home in Cairo to resemble the one they’d left in Damascus, filling an elegant bowl on the coffee table with little chocolates wrapped in colorful paper, and throwing her decorative cushions from Syria across the sofas. My father replicated his favorite corner from our old house, lining up his knick-knacks on the small table next to his favorite chair. The kitchen always smelled of spices, olive oil, and garlic when my mother cooked, just as it had back home. Yet these efforts to bring the past into the present were always somehow incomplete. Something remained transient, temporary, and not quite set.

For over 20 years, my parents had lived in the same single-story Damascus apartment surrounded by a garden, where we could smell lemon blossom and gardenia on hot summer nights. Summer was also when our friends who owned groves around the capital would send us crates of apricots and peaches, all ripe and juicy. This meant it was time to make jam—for Syrians, a precious summer ritual. Neighbors would exchange seasonal jars, and plunge into debates over whether jams made entirely on the stove were as tasty as those made the traditional way, with just a few minutes on the stove before being left to crystalize in the sun for several days. For my mother, the process began with simmering the apricots in a large pot, just long enough for their juices to start bubbling. After that, she would place the fruits on trays, lay a thin white mesh across the top of the trays, and set them outside beneath the sun. She would check on the apricots every few hours, churning them lightly with a wooden spoon before rearranging the mesh to keep the flies away from the sugary mix.

It has been said that the senses can restore memories, emotions, and even physical sensations thought to be lost. Marcel Proust wrote about how some cues, even the taste of a pastry he once ate as a child, could provoke a reconnection with his past. This experience rings painfully true for me. When I take a bite of eggplant puree infused with pomegranate sauce, I see my deceased grandmother standing before her cooking pots in the old house she lived in until the day she died. Every whiff of orange blossom reminds me of biting into a pistachio-filled Syrian pastry, dripping with blossom-flavored syrup. And last summer, on the day my mother made apricot jam for the first time since moving to Cairo, something clicked, restoring a crucial link to our life in Damascus—a life that now seems an impossibility.

When those of us who left Syria come together, we move from heated political conversations to sentimental remembrances. Then we hear the beats of the dabkeh, a traditional celebratory group dance. We stop talking, jump out of our seats, hold hands, and dance, yearning, angry, happy, mourning, hopeful, and, sometimes, tearful, all at once. Once, talking about old bazaars and the smell of jasmine would have bored us. But now, with Syria on fire and its future so bleak, we seek refuge in clichés, stereotypes, and a nostalgia that may have once seemed silly to us.

These days, I find myself moved to tears when I read Facebook posts by Syrian friends that recall jasmine bushes and picnics in Ghouta, the countryside near Damascus where people have been starving under siege. Other friends will write about quotidian experiences that few of my generation can recall. I myself have never picked walnuts in Idlib or pistachios off the trees in Aleppo. But I have heard so much about them from my father and his generation that I can imagine picking them, as if their memories are my own. I try to replace images of destruction with ones of picnics under walnut and pistachios trees. I become the protagonist of somebody else’s stories.

Infusing my present with flavors from my past has become a daily act of resistance for me—of survival. In the last seven years, I’ve been unable to cook anything but Syrian or Levantine cuisine. I have stopped using any tablecloth but the delicately embroidered Aghabani, which most of my friends around the world call “Syrian tablecloth.” I have sprinkled orange blossom water or maazahr (“water of flowers”) over fruit salads and poured it into cake batter. I have added pomegranate molasses or debs rumman to all the tomato-based sauces I have cooked in the last few years. I have taught myself how to make kibbeh (cracked wheat meatballs), and how to roll the perfect vine leaves. I have learned to patiently stir goat yogurt for hours to make the perfect base for shishbarak, a succulent little dumpling cooked in yogurt soup.

I have resorted to smells and flavors as a way of sustaining some semblance of home. Feeling lonely? Sprinkle some cardamom into your coffee, and a sunny morning with your mother will appear before your eyes. Homesick? Add a dash of cinnamon to your broth, and you’ll be transported to the spice bazaar in Damascus. Missing your grandmother? Prepare your chicken with Laura leaves and a generous handful of cloves, like all Syrian grandmothers do.

I pour rice into a serving dish and cover it with a mix of yogurt and tahineh (sesame paste), then sprinkle chopped parsley and pomegranate grains over the snowy surface. My late maternal grandmother suddenly whispers in my ear: Remember that we eat with our eyes too. Everything must look pretty and dainty. We must have a variation of colors in every dish. I look at the fatteh I made, and know that my grandmother would be proud. I made it exactly as she once did, layering the crispy pita bread, then the rice with pulled chicken, then the yogurt and, finally, chopped parsley and fresh pomegranate seeds to add color. I serve it to my guests and wait for their reactions. The one that sticks with me comes from a friend who visited me often in Syria, uttered after she closed her eyes and allowed all the flavors to invade her mouth: “It tastes like Damascus.”