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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Bassam Ghraoui, Syria's luxury chocolatier, dies in exile 

The charismatic, impeccably-styled man was a pillar of Damascene mercantile circles 

Bassam Ghraoui in 2010. The civil engineer-turned-businessman died in exile in Hungary on 1 May 2018, after battling with cancer for six months. Louai Beshara / AFP
Bassam Ghraoui in 2010. The civil engineer-turned-businessman died in exile in Hungary on 1 May 2018, after battling with cancer for six months. Louai Beshara / AFP

Syrian businessman and luxury chocolatier Bassam Ghraoui died in exile in Hungary on 1 May 2018, after battling with cancer for six months.

Mr Ghraoui, a handsome, charismatic and impeccably-styled man in his 60s, was a pillar of the societal and mercantile circles of Damascus before the 2011 revolt against President Bashar Al Assad. The state crackdown and subsequent violence forced Mr Ghraoui and his family to flee Syria in 2012. First to France, before obtaining Hungarian citizenship and relocating to Budapest in August 2015, where he would stay until his untimely death.

Syria's tragic developments, the violent state crackdown and the fate of its people deeply troubled Mr Ghraoui.

He eventually felt the need to distance himself from the Sunni business elite, many of whom supported Mr Al Assad's actions and instead focused on expanding his confectionary - a family business dating back to 1805.

Mr Ghraoui, a member of one of Damascus' oldest merchant families, modernised the company to rival the world's premium chocolates.

He had to leave Damascus, a city he had grown up in and knew by heart, and was set on demonstrating his intricate knowledge of it to friends and visitors alike.

Visitors to Damascus are likely to have stopped by one of the Ghraoui shops to pick up their refined chocolates and fruits.

From dried apricots to traditional chocolate-dipped biscuits, the varied flavours of caramelised chocolates, chocolate-covered fruits and dark chocolate-covered orange sticks. All carefully wrapped in the Ghraouri trademark packaging - elegant orange wrapping paper.

The Ghraoui story began in 1805 when the family set up a trading business in the global hub that was once Damascus.

At first they exported dried fruits, before the began producing chocolate, towards the end of the eighteenth century. But it was the late Mr Ghraoui who took the brand to the international arena.

The orange chocolate boxes became prized by discerning customers in the Americas, Europe and Russia. Mr Ghraoui revamped the product, giving it a luxurious feel and unique taste. Most chocolate connoisseurs considered it superior to Swiss and Belgian counterparts.

A former Syrian ambassador to London used to send a box of Ghraoui to Queen Elisabeth every year as an official gift, and the queen, who purportedly shuns food gifts, made an exception and accepted it, having fallen in love with the chocolate.

Mr Ghraoui epitomised the grace and intellect of the Damascus elite - those who were able to maintain their integrity and class despite the rise of the Assads. Those who, like most Syrians, were forced to deal with their state's tyranny and corruption.

Underneath the dignified Damascene crust was a kind and loyal person, a genuine human being who stood by his friends. And most importantly, a man who shattered the widespread belief that Damascus' merchants had sided with Mr Al Assad's regime.

Prior to the revolution, the Ghraoui business delivered across Europe and exported around the world. But his factory was located in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the capital that revolted with great zeal against the regime and were in turn punished for it. The factory was destroyed in an indiscriminate military campaign, headed by the regime and its Iranian-backed militia allies.

Mr Ghraoui relocated to an old workshop in the Damascus district of Muhajireen to continue making chocolate for the one remaining shop in central Damascus. Nevertheless, he continued supporting the nearly 400 employees who used to work for him.

Mr Ghraoui's death in exile is a painful reminder of the millions of Syrians who might never see their homeland again.

The scion of a family associated with centuries-old Damscene traditions died far from the city he loved and will be buried on foreign soil.

But solace can be found in the immortality of the Ghraoui trademark, thanks to his wife Rania and daughter Zeina and step daughter Layla. The Ghraoui products will always keep Damascus alive, even in exile.