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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Preserving Syrian Culture During the War Through Food

Media & Culture

Zeina Shahla

Wed, 18 Sep 2019 11:36 GMT

In 2013, when the Syrian war had reached a high point of violence, death and destruction, a young Syrian woman left her home in the capital Damascus in search of a safer place to live and work. This was the case for thousands of Syrians.

Rita Bariche is in her thirties and she settled in Frankfurt, Germany and continued her career there as a banker and translator. However, the way she spent her leisure time was different from others and carried a rather special meaning. 

“What is the best thing to do when you miss your country while living in a diaspora?” she asked herself and the answer was somehow very close to her heart and mind. “Let me cook and try to find the taste and smell of home in this new kitchen and remember my old, lovely kitchen in Damascus.”

Reunite and feel you’re home again

In September 2013, Rita started to post on her personal Facebook profile what she described as fun and a challenge at the same time. “I was trying to recreate Syrian food here in Germany by using local materials and matching them with Syrian ones. A mission that was not easy at all,” she told 7Dnews. 

To her surprise, many of her friends who had left the country in the same period had similar challenges: finding alternatives for Syrian food items in other countries and trying to preserve the familiar taste of their local foods. A new idea emerged, to create a Facebook group that gathered Syrians living abroad who were willing to share their new culinary experiences.

Thus, in 2014, the group ‘Exile Kitchen’ or ‘Matbakh Gherbeh’ as it is called in Syrian dialect, saw the light. In the years that followed, hundreds of Syrians around the world joined it and it now has more than 18,000 members, with large numbers of administrators managing the posts and comments. Each day, members share what they are cooking, how they prepare their food and what it really means to them, while living in exile from their country.

“I can say that the main goal of this group is to have a space for us, Syrians who had to leave our country after spending a large part of our lives there, to express our feelings through food and to feel as if we’re home again,” Rita said, adding that food, in her opinion, is a very important part of culture and national identity, and this is why preserving it, especially during times of crisis, becomes very important.

Another aspect of the group, Rita explained, is to allow its members to find old ties with their lives before the war: “When cooking a dish that we used to eat in Syria, we remember a lot of things related to our homes, families and friends. Imagine how often we reminisce about the past on this Facebook page and how lovely the way we’re doing it is.”

New ties have also been created through this ‘Diaspora Cuisine’. Even though members of the group can be very different and separated politically, socially and ideologically, food is one thing that can unite them all again. “Each Syrian home had the same memories about food. It is a real part of our culture. The Facebook group proved to me that we can, for a moment, put our differences aside and enjoy what can bring us together,” Rita said.

As time passed, people still living in Syria also joined the group, adding more richness to its content. Members of the same families scattered all around the world can now discuss the food they eat and children can ask their parents about the best way to cook a certain dish. For Rita, “It’s another way for us, who are living outside Syria, to stay in touch with our beloved ones there.”

Daily communication, thousands of members

“Hi everybody. Where do you think I can find here, in Berlin, a yogurt that tastes similar to the one we used to eat in Damascus? Please help.” “Hello my friends. I’m looking for a specific kind of spice that I need for a special Aleppean dish. Do you know if it exists here in the US?” These are examples of posts found on Matbakh Gherbeh, where members interact and comment daily.

Basel Abdo is one of the most active members of the group and also one of its administrators. The 30-year-old, who lives in Canada and works as a software developer, joined the kitchen in 2017.

As he loves cooking, Basel is keen to post regularly about the food he cooks and he considers Matbakh Gherbeh a special space, where members can share their thoughts about diaspora and its difficulties and also express their feelings when they prepare dishes that remind them of home. “Without this space I would have gone crazy here,” he told 7Dnews, laughing.

For Basel, Matbakh Gherbeh is a kind of “small Syria”, where he can find people from all around the country, sharing pictures of their food and wishing others “bon appetit”. “We don’t have differences of opinion as this group is only for and about cooking.” 

Around the same period, Iman Falioun, a Syrian woman who now lives in the Gulf with her family and three children, also joined the group, and she describes it as an intimate place that has greatly helped mitigate the effects of exile.

Every morning, Iman, 57, opens her Facebook account and browses Matbakh Gherbeh, exploring new recipes and helping those who ask for advice, as they benefit from her long experience in cooking.

“I am passionate about the group now. I love teaching young people how to cook certain dishes and helping them to create real Syrian food in their new countries,” Iman said, laughing about now having children all over the world.

The platform is a place where Syrians can completely forget about their problems, focus only on food and communicate with respect, and this online kitchen has become a place of real comfort for Iman. “One of the greatest feelings when living outside your home country is having this virtual family. We exchange greetings on all kinds of occasions, posting pictures about food for a particular event and asking each other for advice. Perhaps the war has divided us on many levels but this place is still able to unite us in a very special way.”

Middle East