Breakfast in Ayn al-Tineh

Saturday afternoon – May 2013, I receive the latest report from my contact in the UN; Ayn al-Tineh has been taken over by radical religious militias who massacred the men of the town, dumping their bodies in a mass grave and took 300 young women and girls as slaves; that’s correct, not hostages, slaves!

IMG_1113I reached for my laptop and opened the photo album documenting my visit to Ain al-Tineh in 2011; the memories I had stored away of Ayn al-Tineh reclaimed my consciousness, I felt a sudden shortness of breath and tears that had not shed since the revolution started gushed.

IMG_1115Ayn al-Tineh is a magical place in northwestern Syria located east of Latakia. It is situated on a limestone spur in the northern an-Nusayriyah Mountains. It derives its name from a spring that flows under the nearby Citadel of Salah Ed-Din, also called the Citadel of Zion.

To get to Ayn al-Tineh we drove an hour from the mediterranean seaside town of Latakia up into the mountains and through valleys. We drove along orchards and farms lush green and aromatic. Towards the end of our drive, the scenery became breathtaking; distant views of the glistening mediterranean, green dense forests, clear streams and virtually no civilization.

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The Citadel stood as a reminder of the amazing achievements past generations had in this rugged terrain. The only transportation medium consistently running since the time it was built are the resilient brown mountain donkeys that looked more fit and well nurtured than any other donkies I’d ever seen. Our guide, a Ayn al-Tineh native, said “contrary to the bad reputation donkeys have in the Middle East, ours are particularly smart. They are sent on errands to deliver goods to neighboring farms, which they perform efficiently and effectively.”

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We stopped to greet our guide’s father, Abu Salem, an elderly man in his 80s who was sat up on a metal frame running wires for grape vines to wind through while his son was beseeching him to come down and let him do it. Abu Salem joked that if was going to get done right, he had to do it and asked his son to give him a hand to get him down. He greeted us and asked us to follow him up the street to have tea at his neighbor’s home.

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We drove up behind the two men, stopped the car and met Abu Adnan who insisted on us having breakfast with him and his family. He directed us to a side street shed housing a clay oven “Tannour”, a preparation table and a wooden dinning table and chairs.

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Within minutes of our arrival, Abu Adnan’s daughter appeared with her mom carrying platters of dough and sauces. His son Adnan brought a pot of hot tea and a plate of fresh mint and mayramieh collected from their front yard. Um Adnan proceeded to knead the dough, cover it with the pepper, cheese, thyme and meat sauces and place it on the Tannour. The aromas were divine, paralleled only by the scenery of orchards and blue mountain sky.

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Abu Salem gave us an oral history of Ayn Al-Tineh as we feasted on the assortment of homemade “Manaesh bi zaatar, flefleh, jibneh and lahmeh” served with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. The lines on his face spoke volumes of his experience; the look in his eyes was probably as fierce as it had ever been. A decorated war veteran, who shielded Assad Sr. from three assassination attempts and survived the shrapnels of two bombs.

 

“God divides his fortunes evenly”, said Abu Salem as he drew on a cigarette he just rolled and lit. “We live in the most beautiful part of Syria, land we can farm, crisp fresh air we breath; but we are an economically poor community and have been for decades. When I was 16, I received a letter from the army inviting me to join for a stipend of 5 Syrian pounds per month. At that time, it was a fortune for me, so much so, that I literally kissed my mother’s hand, and ran out the door with the clothes on my back down to the nearest bus stop that would take me to Damascus. All the men in our community did the same given the opportunity.”

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“Tell me about the Aloyat sect, how different or similar is it to Sunnis or Shias?” I asked, knowing full well that Ain Al-Tineh is in the heart of the Aloyat mountain range and wanting to hear an explanation of the sect from one of its own. Abu Salem inhaled and spoke in Quranic verses “We created you tribes and peoples to know one another and commune, the best among you in the eyes of God is the Taqi (one who guards his senses and actions from ill and harm to himself or others.”

 

He proceeded to say, “you probably heard this from your grandfather and others of his generation, we didn’t know the difference between muslim, christian and jew and certainly didn’t care. Some of us were preoccupied with getting basic life necessities, while others were rallied by the greater fight against colonial powers who invaded our lands and stole our resources. To stop and consider our religious practices as a dividing point would have been as absurd as me questioning your humanity. We prayed together, even if we didn’t understand the prayers, worked shoulder to shoulder and celebrated all holidays. We named each other’s kids after our prophets and saints and took oath under each other’s Gods. We intermarried, except when a family was known for its poor social conduct; no one wants to marry into a family of misers.”

 

When I asked him what he thought of the government today a sad look took over his face. “This is not what my generation fought for; the last time I set foot in Damascus, I visited the cronies in power and gave them a piece of my mind. I warned them that if they continue along the path they’re on, they are doomed, and sadly they will take many innocent lives with them.”  Abu Salem lost two of his six sons; a pharmacist  and a soldier defending civilians in the Golan Heights; both shot in the head. Abu Salem and his wife survived the Ain Al Tineh massacre, both are in deep mourning.

 

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Journal the Journey – Journal the past

It is every Arab’s responsibility to document the beautiful and rich history of our people, places and culture.

With our cities, towns and architectural landmarks turning to dust, all that remains are the memories of our elders. They stand as our national treasures. In their stories are the gems of our rich, diverse, peaceful, beautiful and simple past.

Now more than ever, it is critical to document their lives, the stories of where they lived and how they lived, their friends, the places they visited, their traditions, their values and flood digital channels with their narrative.

Saudi neighborhood.. a mini UN

Photo by Louise Knight

Our neighborhood resembled the United Nations. Families from Germany, Holland, England, the USA, Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon, and a few other European and American nations lived in homes lining a central paved circular road, and rubble and dirt roads extending off the center.   Each home had a garden fenced in with a Palm Tree Branched or ribbed plastic fence. Only two homes had high concrete walls, the Khoury’s Home and another where an American family live.  The Khoury’s estate had large grounds, housing 2 large pools, a tennis court, a trampoline, and a golf driving range.

I spent a lot of time at Auntie Louise’s house.  She was Dutch, married to a Englishman (Uncle Ricky) she met in Kenya.  They lived with his two boys, Jeremy and Jonathan, and their two children Richard and Carrot (nick-named after her red hair).

Auntie Louise, her family, me & Nawara at the American School Fair

Theirs was the most inviting home in the neighborhood.  In addition to the family, Auntie Louise took in every stray animal, they had 5 to 7 cats at any given time, a dog, and at one point, a donkey that took up residence in their large front yard.  The neighborhood kids enjoyed being at her home so much, she converted one of her rooms to a nursery and began charging mother.

Auntie Louise’s house was fascinating for many reasons.  It was buzzing with work and entertainment.  Animals, art projects, a vegetable garden and an open invitation to get involved in one or all the activities. If I helped cook dinner I could stay for the meal, if I helped her finish her ironing quickly she played a game of monopoly with me and Jonathan. Working in the vegetable garden, gave us rights to spend an early evening in their pool.  As we worked, Auntie Louise told stories of her travels to Switzerland, the US, and Africa.  She worked as an Au Pair to working in a hotel in Kenya; she shared her adventures in the beautiful nature of Kenya, her encounters with wild animals in Kenya and the US forests and the personalities she met along the way.  As long as I followed a few rules in her house, I was welcome anytime.  “Take off your shoes at the door, eat with a fork and knife, DO NOT Shovel your food with the fork, eat with your mouth closed, mind your language and remember your please and thank you’s”.

Auntie Louise's house

Auntie Louise rallied the moms in the neighborhood to celebrate special holidays.   Easter Egg Treasure hunts, Christmas visits, it seemed she had ideas to make everyday a festive one. For Christmas, she put up a beautiful tree,  decorated their porch, put out bowls of nuts and candy and wore a Santa hat around the house. The mistletoe was the most peculiar part of Christmas.  Uncle Ricky would tease me and say “you know if you go under it you’ll have to kiss Jonathan”.  I was so shy that I would blush and make sure I never walked beneath the green leaf.  Why they had that tradition, I never understood.  She made birthday parties especially fun.  She organized games and contests, and finished off with a Fondue Dinner.  At age 8 or 10, we sat around a table, conversing like adults, waiting patiently for our meat and chicken to cook in the Fondue pot. The cakes were the highlight of the party, as we got to take part in decorating them.  I celebrated my birthday with them regularly because Jonathan and I shared the birth date.  So while technically it was his birthday.. we always had two cakes and they went out of their way to make me feel special.

Abu Issa

The compound backed the sea. At times I heard the waves, smelled the salty water, fish and seaweed.  On Thursdays, a skinny, older man named Abu-Issa came carrying a woven basket filled with fish and prawns.  He wore a wrap-around long checkered skirt, a wife-beater shirt and green flip-flops.  He would squat near a garden faucet, descaling the fish and pealing the prawns. When he finished, he scaled up the palm trees to pick fresh dates; using a thick rope he wrapped around the tree and himself, he placed a cloth as a seat to provide his backside with a cushion. He then held onto the tree bark, and lifted himself up with his arm strength, drawing his feet up to the next outward facing bark.   He did this repeatedly until he reached the dates. He stayed up there leaning back into the cushion, picking the dates, or if the entire bunch was ripe, he would cut it off and drop it to the ground.

 

Saudi home.. Dammam

Our Saudi home was in a gated community on the outskirts of Dammam, close to Kateef. It must have been built in the early sixties. It housed two larger double story homes, and forty some mid-size homes.  It was gated in by a palm tree branches (sa3f) fence.  The gatekeeper, an older Saudi man lived in a single room near the main entrance.  He was missing an arm and had one functioning eye.  His abode had a ceiling fan, a rug on the ground and a black white TV with V-shaped antenna.

We started out in a 2 bedroom house, and over time expanded to a four bedroom, taking over the semi-attached villa next door.  Entering the gate to our home, you would see to your left an area of palm trees, straight ahead a few steps that lead to a netted porch, and to your right a long walk lined by bushes and a few trees, leading to a raised swimming pool. We leaved here for 8 years before moving to a larger villa in Alkhobar, close to our school.

That little garden felt like a wonder world; rich with insects, spiderwebs, geckos, and stray neighborhood cats. In the summer heat, it smelled of dates fermenting on the raw soil. In the fall, the smell of the single citrus tree filled the walkway to the pool.  The tree carried a very aromatic sweet thick skinned orange sized, lemon colored fruit الأترج.   Another tree Indian Almond had large leaves, carried date sized green fruit that turned to a dark red color.  The fruit was sour fibrous and stained the teeth and mouth red. Wild jasmine bushes grew around the garden.  I learned early on to pick the long stemmed flowers, and suck the sweet tasting syrup from the stem.

Ants were abundant.  All around the garden, in the sandy patches or between the tiles on the walkway, ant colonies thrived. Spiderwebs seem to form everywhere we didn’t walk through for a few days.  I didn’t mind ants and spiders; I was terrified of geckos. The net enclosing the porch offered no relief from geckos; there were tens of them above the doorway day and night. Coming home from school, I would stand a distance from the porch and yell to my mom to open the door. When she did, I ran into the house, fearing one of the geckos would fall on my hair and “attack” me.

One day, I was helping mom clean out a raised built-in closet (s’eefeh) in my room.  I walked up the ladder, opened the closet door and sat in it handing mom who stood on the ladder stuff she had stored in there.  I was wearing shorts, sitting facing mom, moving boxes from my right and handing them over to her.  As I moved one box, I saw a gecko drop from the box, and run across the closet, over my legs. I screamed and in a panic jumped onto mom. Thankfully the bed was behind her, the two of us fell back onto it.  I was certain the geckos offered no purpose in life other than to scare children like me.

More on the compound in Saudi…

summertime and pistachio ice cream

My favorite summer treat was Syrian ice cream; while many family members enjoyed the creamy ice cream served in cones by street vendors near Sibki Park, I savored this Syrian summer delight.

I loved because it was a feast for my senses.. the ice cream maker prepared it in view of passersby. I watched him pound the thick white rubbery substance and toss it from side to side on a cold marble slab using large flat metal spoons. I smelled the aroma of Arabic gum, fresh pistachios and rosewater; a heavenly combination.  The smell was only surpassed by the taste; a thick chewy gum-like consistency brought on by the Arabic Gum (Mistika) in the recipe, sweet enough but not too much.  I had bowls full and didn’t stop until I felt brain-freeze.

Mom brought Syrian Ice Cream home on special summertime occasions.   Visiting guests, a birthday, a family member’s graduation.  It came in a log-like shape, that mother sliced to pieces.  Some covered with Pistachios, others plain.  It was served with waffles cookies shaped like today’s Pringles Chips.

Back then, ACs weren’t popular, so unless it was a cool summer night, the ice cream provided the cooling effect.  The ultimate experience was having a bowl, under the dark evening sky on the balcony, gazing at the stars.

more on food.. much more !!

Hama delicacies

شعيبيات Sheibiayat - Hama Sweets

One of my oldest memories of Hama was in the kitchen in Jiddo Mohamad’s house. The smell of the warm buttery crust, the spiced meat and toasted pine nuts flowed down the halls of the old house, leading me to the kitchen. My step-grandmother “Khaleh Um-Samir” was standing over a large metal tray of meat pies (Ush el Bulbul) that was delivered from a nearby Oven (elFuren). Ush el Bulbul literally means the bird’s nest.  She would carefully hold up each of her creations, inspect it, and place it in a glass platter to serve lunch.

After eating the main meal of Ush el Bulbul with local buttery rich sour yogurt, we had desert.  Cream filled pies (Shaibiayt) consisted of the best Hamwi (Ushta) filling, served warm, topped with rosewater flavored syrup. Yummy!

I would later learn the bakery was called “The Oven” because its only service was baking goods that Hamawi women prepared at home. Like Khaleh Um-Samir, all Hamwi women until the late 70s kneaded dough, prepared the filling and sent the pies ready to elFuren ready to be baked.

I owe much of my knowledge of Syrian cuisine to my paternal aunt (Ameh Mokhlesah) who’s an authority on Hamawi recipes.  I asked her one day how older women in Hama stayed so thin despite the rich ingredients.  “They worked hard” she responded. “Their days were spent kneading bread, drying and preserving seasonal vegetables making yogurt from fresh milk, hand washing their family clothes, cleaning the house and courtyard.”

can’t stop writing about food … more to come 🙂

the art of apricot jam

Apricot jam was a special treat; I could have developed a liking to it because I watched older women in the family making it. The process was fascinating.  I don’t remember the sequence or the entire process, however, I remember walking into the kitchen to find my paternal aunt (Ameh Mokhlesah) wearing her cooking head scarf (meant to keep hair out of the food), standing over a large pot of boiling liquid, stirring away with a large wooden spoon; white face shining from the steam, cheeks rosy from the heat rising from the pot.

In season, balconies, and garage roof-tops would fill with large pans of the golden orange substance, basking in the sun.  I also remember my great uncle’s wife (Um Bashar) sitting on a small straw stool, pouring the ready jam into glass jars saved from previous years. After she filled all the jars, she allowed me to clean off the pan, wiping it with a piece of bread and eating it. As I did that, she would cover the jam jars with a piece of cloth, tying another around the jar rim for a tight seal.

When a family member visited and gifted us a jam jar, I knew they loved and appreciated us. To give a gift so precious, something they labored over for days, had to mean we were special and we had to show gratitude in return.

Still more on food.. stay tuned..

Heritage

Everyone in my family spoke Arabic, and they spoke it with a relatively uniform accent. Therefore references to our Turkish, Kurdish, North African heritage didn’t really make sense to me until later in life.  When I visited my great maternal aunt (Khalto Najah), I heard some speak a different language and took notice of their strange names that didn’t sound Arabic. Names like Jwan, Zaza, Farhad, were common. I attributed these differences to Khalto Najah’s husband; she had married into what I thought was a strange bunch.  Their entire neighborhood was called (Kurdish Ally) Haret ElAkraad. Later I would come to know the language they spoke was Kurdish, and my Maternal great grandmother is Kurdish.

An’a Radia was fair, tall and had a strong frame. One of two sisters and five brothers who were on average 6 feet tall. An’a Radia She was unique for a women of her time. An athletics teacher, traveler and sports enthusiast, I grew up seeing photos of her playing tennis, posing on a running track, on a cruise ship and piloting a glider plane.  At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Later, I would come to realize how unique she was and how much of her passion for sports, travel and adventure I carried in my genes.  She seemed to live a non-conventional lifestyle.

The Turkish influence is felt most in our cuisine. You can only identify half the names of our dishes as Arabic and the other half as mispronunciations and Arabization of Turkish words.  Imam Bayuldi, Yalanji, Shish Burak, are but a few of the many dishes An’a passed on to her daughters, who carried through making the dishes and teaching their daughters.

An’a Radia’s height, skin tone and features, complemented Jido Naim’s.  He was dark, short and built like a short distance sprinter.  Jido Naim’s family ascended to Damascus from North Africa.  His father came from a town in Libyan, mother had Egyptian Nubi lineage.  While he was born in Syria, spoke Arabic with a Syrian accent, he had an affinity to North Africa.  It hit me that his roots were Libyan after watching the movie Omar Almukhtar.  I suddenly realized the hat and scarf he wore, that looked out of place in Damascus were traditions he carried from his Libyan forefathers.

kasr el-sufra .. breakfast Syrian style..

Food in Syria is a tradition, a source of pride, a way of life.  Volumes can be written on recipes, their names, serving traditions, cultural relevance, and origins.

Breakfast (kasr el sufra) consisted of:

  • Jiddo’s delicious homemade fruit cocktail; its consistency varied
    from eatable semi-sold to drinkable liquid depending on the fruits in
    season.
  • Thick honey (asal jabali) from a local farm or brought from Yemen,
  • local cheeses (halloum, ashawaan, mudafarah),
  • home-made apricot, strawberry, apple, citrus jam,
  • thick yogurts (labneh and shinkleesh),
  • pickled eggplants stuffed with walnuts, red pepper and garlic (makkdous)
  • sesame paste (halaweh)
  • a Damascus mix of thyme with olive oil (ground dried green zaatar with pistachios, coconut, summak and sesame seed)

On special occasions when we ate in large groups, any of the following plates would be added to the breakfast menu:

  • Semolina Porridge (Halawt elsmeed) a delicious sweet warm semolina based porridge sprinkled with roasted pine nuts, served with Arabic bread and Halloum cheese.
  • Flour Porridge (Halwt eltheen) a sweet warm flower based porridge served with Arabic bread
  • Mixed seeds (Huboob) – a mix of boiled beans mixed in a sweet syrup with sweet spices and served in winter
  • Beans (foul) – prepared in a variety of ways, the base recipe consists of black-eyed beans, tomato, parsley, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.  Some regions add yogurt and sesame oil, others chickpeas, egg or green onions.
  • Chickpea platter (Fatet Hummus) –  Made up of leftover hardened Arabic bread, boiled chickpeas, lemon juice, sesame oil, ground chickpeas and garlic, topped with ghee and mixed nuts and eaten with raw onions; this dish requires a two to three hour rest period after consumption.

The last two recipes could not be eaten on Friday brunch before prayer; since they contained garlic and onion, it was considered against the prophet Mohamad’s teaching to offend fellow Muslims with bad breath of any kind.  Hence, Jiddo would insist the meal is served after noon Friday prayer.

A lot more to cover on food… stay tuned.