Four days before the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the holiest festival in the Islamic calendar, people start preparing the special sweets eaten on this occasion, and from houses all over the Syrian capital of Damascus and other cities in the country emerge the smells and sounds of cooking. It is time for “Sambousek”, a sweet made mainly from dough filled with walnut and coconut or at least one of these ingredients and which Syrians only eat during Eid.
On Saturday evening, the night before Eid, Samia rushes to Jazmatieh market in Midan, one of the oldest areas in Damascus and famous for its oriental sweets. She goes to a stall where two men are making the dough for Sambousek and asks for three large pieces.
“It’s made from just flour and water,” she explains, “But we can’t make it at home as it needs special equipment and we come here every Eid to buy some dough and then make the sweets at home.” The two men spread the fluid mixture on a large, heated, metallic surface and bake it for only a few minutes before removing and folding it.
After buying the dough, Samia goes home, cuts it into small pieces, fills it, folds it into triangular shapes, then fries it and covers it with sugar syrup. She describes this process with great delight, calling it “a tradition that will never fade, despite the war that Syrians have lived with for years”.
However, the 50-year old admits that this tradition has changed dramatically due to the difficult economic situation; the value of the Syrian pound has dropped tenfold in the past eight years and many Syrians have lost their basic source of income.
“Before the war, we used to fill the dough with walnuts, coconut and cinnamon and every Eid we would make around ten pieces of dough. Now we can only afford to buy two or three and we just fill them with coconut.”
The only joy
After buying the dough, Samia goes shopping inside the old market. She asks about the prices of oriental sweets, without which Eid would not be complete, she says.
“Baklava, assieh, balourieh, and ma’moul are essential for every occasion but unfortunately, they’re too expensive,” she says sorrowfully. A kilo of these sweets costs between 4,500 and 10,000 Syrian lira (between seven and 16 US dollars), while the average income of a Syrian family does not exceed 200 USD.
In one of the sweets shops sits Yassine, its owner. He observes his customers with interest, weighs and calculates the prices of the sweets, his face showing both happiness and sorrow. “The only pleasure Syrians have during Eid is the sweets,” he says.
And while this and similar shops do not compromise the quality of their products, even if it means high prices, Yassine says that they are now making two kinds of sweets, ordinary ones and special ones, the difference being the quality and quantity of the ingredients. In this way they are able to provide affordable items to a large number of families, even though the prices are higher than ever.
“But what can we do? Day after day, everything is getting more expensive,” he says.
Yassine, who is in his fifties, has noticed that many families are buying smaller and smaller quantities. For example, those who used to buy five kilos of sweets now might only buy one or two. Others buy only half a kilo. He says that offering sweets to guests during the Eid festival is something that is deeply rooted in Syrian tradition. “This is why every household needs sweets, even in small amounts.”
Buy sweets or make them at home?
For Om Ayman, who lives in eastern Damascus, making sweets at home is more convenient as buying them is very expensive. It is also an annual tradition that her family loves and they gather the day before Eid and make the sweets together.
The war has greatly affected 45-year-old Om Ayman and her family. She lost her husband when a mortar bomb fell on their house three years ago and now she has to work hard to support her two sons.
To make sure they make the most of Eid and its sweets, this year she decided to save money by changing some of the ingredients, filling the pastries with peanuts instead of walnuts and adding food colouring to the peanuts so they look like pistachios. “We can find our own ways to feel joy,” she said.
Fifty-five-year-old Faten and her three sons live quite near Om Ayman. Since they were displaced from their village in Eastern Ghouta after the heavy fighting in 2013, life has become much harder for her family.
This year, Faten decided not to make any sweets at all. The reason is obvious, she says, as they don’t have any happiness or joy in their lives and the Day of Eid is just like any other day.
When I asked her what her sons think about this, she replied with a sarcastic smile, “My sons prefer spending the little money we have on more necessary things. Sweets are a luxury that we cannot afford now, unfortunately.”