The Atlantic: 'Remembering the Taste of Damascus'


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.

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.

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

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One of my favorite books is “Daughter of Damascus,” a memoir published in the late 70s about growing up in the the old quarter of Damascus on the 40s. Her food descriptions are as vivid as those in the article you’ve linked.

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Following is the blurb on about the book,

"Daughter of Damascus presents a personal account of a Syrian woman’s youth in the Suq Saruja (“old city”) quarter of Damascus in the 1940s. Siham Tergeman wrote this book to preserve the details of a “genuine Arab past” for Syrian young people. In it, she relates the customs pertaining to marriage, birth, circumcision, and death. She writes of Ramadan festivities, family picnics to the orchards of the Ghuta, weekly trips to the public bath, her school experiences, Damascene cooking, peddlers’ calls, and proverbs. She includes the well-known dramatic skits, songs, and tales of the Syrian Hakawati storytellers. And, through the words of her father, she describes the difficult period when Syrians were involved in the Balkans War and World War I. All this wealth of ethnographic detail is set in real-life vignettes that make the book lively and entertaining reading.

Little has been published about modern Syrian social life. In this English translation of an Arabic memoir originally published in Syria in 1978, Tergeman appeals to a wide audience. General readers will find a charming story, while scholars can find source material for university courses in anthropology, sociology, family and women’s studies, and Middle Eastern area studies. The introduction by anthropologist Andrea Rugh portrays Syrian social life for Western readers and points out some of the nuances that might escape the attention of those unacquainted with Arab culture."

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