x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Bakdash provides sweet reminders for displaced Syrians

As the war in Syria enters its third year, Syrian expats in Dubai and in Amman gather at an ice-cream parlour that reminds them of home

Bakdash, a well-known ice cream parlour in war-torn Damascus, Syria. There are now franchises in Dubai and Amman, Jordan frequented by Syrian expats.
Bakdash, a well-known ice cream parlour in war-torn Damascus, Syria. There are now franchises in Dubai and Amman, Jordan frequented by Syrian expats.

More often than not each morning when I turn on my radio, there is yet more bleak news about Syria's civil war. Four-and-a-half years ago and a world away, freezing downpours had chased me into a cafe in Damascus, cursing my soaked feet and in desperate need of shelter. Behind its glass-fronted doors, men, women and families were crowding about a counter or seated at trestle tables as waiters carried silver trays high on their shoulders, stacked with glass bowls of ... ice cream.

Hot soup would have suited me better, but once inside, I chose the only dish available: white paste-like ice-cream studded with bright-green pistachio nuts. To a soundtrack of men beating huge wooden pestles against the bottom of deep metal vats to soften the stuff that would eventually become the main attraction, I sat pondering its oddly elastic texture, drawing it with a tinny spoon.

I had found Bakdash, one of Damascus's most famous cultural outposts, and I was not alone. Outside under the bullet-ridden tin roof that covers Hamidiyeh Souq, stall traders were trying to tempt passersby to buy scarves, belly-dancing costumes and other forgettable souvenirs, but there were few tourists to speak of as anyone with any sense seemed to be hiding away eating ice-cream with me.

There are even fewer tourists in Damascus now, Mazen tells me. He worked for 12 years at Bakdash in Damascus before coming to Dubai to take up another 5 kilogram pestle at Arabesq Sweets in Dubai Mall; it is one of a number of franchises linked to the original Bakdash that are spreading out with Syria's diaspora. Mazen smiles as he reaches his hand into the ice cream before rolling it in a mountain of pistachio and handing it over. The taste is authentic, just as I remembered it, but he prefers his former life, making ice cream all day long back home.

Hazem, the Syrian store manager, tells me that the ice-cream stall is growing in popularity. Outside of Ramadan, rousing music draws potential customers to wonder at the ceremony of pestle and drum, and queue to buy a Dh25 serving.

Of course it's popular with Syrians, he says, "it brings nice memories of home". But other nationalities are beginning to appreciate the taste too: "In the beginning it was for Syrian customers or foreigners - they saw the show and they thought it was Turkish - [Now] all nationalities come to see the show," Hazem says. As I leave, a family approaches the counter and the mother shrieks, "What's this?", as if to verify his story.

The next day, back in my kitchen, I find that I, too, am left remembering Syria. Thinking of a place where everyone from shopkeepers to shepherds would fling open their arms in greeting until "welcome to my country" became an almost constant refrain. That's why a cheap-looking metal teaspoon has found its way into my cutlery drawer. The words "M.K. Bakdash Est. 1895 Damascus Syria" have been printed into the handle. I'd like to think that I might have the chance to return it one day but, somehow, it has become too precious for that.

* Clare Dight

From Amman, Jordan

The families who gather here one Ramadan evening devour the traditional, Syrian pistachio-covered ice cream.

But the conversation among the clientele at Bakdash in one of Amman's traffic-congested streets is about lost loved ones and a nostalgia for home. Late into the night, dozens of displaced Syrian families fill the ice-cream parlour and the outside tables, reminiscing about the good old days, when they used to queue in the old Hamidiyeh Souq or sit patiently at tables in the Bakdash cafe in Damascus waiting to get a taste of the Levant's most famous ice-cream, with its elastic texture and different flavours, from traditional Arabic varieties to chocolate and mango. But Bakdash, which opened in Amman two months ago, the third such branch in the country, is not just about ice cream.

"It is heritage. It is a landmark. Bakdash for Syrians is like Petra for Jordanians," says Khaldoun Abbabneh, who manages the Amman shop, as he was handling the cash register. "We got the franchise here because of the growing [number of] Syrian expats. They are happy now that Bakdash is here. They say, 'We feel we are in Syria'."

The war, now into its third year, has displaced about 1.8 million Syrian refugees in countries abutting Syria. Jordan is home to at least half a million refugees, the majority of whom are absorbed into the local community in the northern cities of Irbid, Ramtha and Mafraq, close to the Syrian border.

Many live in dire conditions. Families are left struggling on their own, living on intermittent charity including relief from the UNHCR and food vouchers distributed by the World Food Programme.

With no end to the war in sight, many feel lonely, frustrated and depressed and they yearn for a sense of belonging outside their home country.

Bakdash is but one of an increasing number of places offering Syrians a traditional atmosphere. The place has identical wooden chairs, flowery tablecloths that decorate the outside tables, the same bowls and spoons and, most importantly, the same taste offered back home. But for Um Fuad, a 70-year old Syrian refugee, the ice cream doesn't taste the same outside her country.

"I remember Al Sham and Al Hamidiyeh souq," she says, accompanied by two of her nephews and their two children. "I had the ice cream two years ago in Syria, but I couldn't eat it tonight. It made me feel sad because I remembered home. I adore Syria. I escaped with others, and now I wish I can return."

Qasim Othman, her nephew, says: "I brought her here so she can have a good time. Instead she remembered home and became depressed. She lost two of her sons," he says as he's leaving. "Outside her country, ice cream does not have the same taste."

Since the opening, business has been brisk at Bakdash. It's attracting Jordanian and Iraqi clientele too. It has opened other branches in the region, including Lebanon and Dubai. The majority of employees at Bakdash are also Syrian. It has been over a year since Hamza Hashish, 19, worked in the Hamidiyeh-based shop. Since he was 12, he used to churn the ice cream with a large wooden paddle.

"There is no place better than Syria even though I like it here," he says. "Everybody is looking for a better business opportunity. I wish I can return but I am wanted for recruitment."

Hashish left the eastern Ghouta area of Damascus in June 2012. "Four to five months after the revolution, we have been living under constant shelling. But last year I was supposed to meet a friend in a square in Damascus when an explosion took place right before we met. We were unharmed but I left the country that same day."

Rami, 22, is another Syrian employee at Bakdash. He was studying law at the University of Damascus. He left Reef Damascus three months ago, after the regular army questioned him at a checkpoint.

"He asked me for my ID and then started mocking me. He says, 'Welcome my colleague from the Free Syrian army'. I thought he was going to arrest me. But after half an hour of questioning, I convinced him I was a university student and he let me go."

Back in Syria, the family house and farm were reduced to rubble after a bombing five months ago. But Rami says work is helping him feel at home. "I feel I am in Damascus since most of us are Syrians working here," he says. "All Syrians come here to Bakdash, they all want a Syrian atmosphere. They always say how it reminds them of Syria but also I hear them frequently say, 'God rest his soul,' in their talk. Every family had lost someone. I lost many of my cousins too."

* Suha Philip Ma'ayeh