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.