17 January 2015

A Narrow Place Can Contain a Thousand Friends

On Eating Syrian Food in Istanbul
photo 1-7
I have never been to Istanbul in the summer. The first time I went was right after my husband and I were engaged, deep in November when cold air and clouds blew over the Bosphorus. It rained nearly every day but we didn't care, happily lost in the Bazaar, waiting in line to tour the mosques with a scarf tied closely over my head. The cisterns beckoned with their steamy underground warmth. On that trip I dragged my now-husband along to find a famous roast chicken at a local Syrian restaurant, three hours tromping around in the cold and rain, all of which was quickly forgotten over a menu written in Arabic script and a flamingly delicious chicken.

On my most recent trip I am back again, this time in the cold first week of January. I am in town for vacation, having worked over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, and I have always loved taking vacations when everyone else is going back to work. Tourists are fewer, shopkeepers are more relaxed, more willing to chat and more generous with bargaining.  The presence of Syrian restaurants in Istanbul has a new meaning, providing sustenance and warmth to those who have made it out of the war-torn country. It is a topic of discussion all over the city, the rising rents, the begging on the street.
photo 2-9
We walk and walk and walk until our toes and fingers are unbearably cold, the air crisp and heavy like it gets right before it's going to snow. Up and down Istiklal, the main pedestrian drag, I hear Syrian Arabic everywhere, those long stretched out vowels, the slightly nasal intonation. We look at ikat fabrics in the bazaar, I buy gloves at a leather shop to help my frozen fingers, we eat steaming spicy kebaps and sticky chicken pudding bundled in our coats.

My husband has developed a taste for salep, a steaming milky drink thickened with powdered orchid root that is popular all over the Eastern Mediterranean. Steamed milk has always had a disturbingly putrid sour smell to me, but I indulge him in repeated coffee shop stops, ordering apple tea and fiddling with our phones. One afternoon, a small Syrian boy comes in to the tea shop where we sit, hand out stretched, and the owners generously empty their tip jar into his small hand. A Turkish customer nearby grumbles angrily, the shop suddenly turning quiet. I watch the boy go back to his two friends waiting outside and their faces light up, shrieking at their new found wealth, none of them could be older than seven or eight.

Ten minutes later the smallest boy comes back to the shop, marching up to the counter and speaking excitedly in a mix of broken Turkish and Arabic. He is showing off the new wool hat he has bought with their tip money, strutting about, pulling the hat up and down to cover his ears. The young men at the counter are exceedingly kind, ruffling his hair, trying to joke with him despite the language barrier. I ask the little boy what his name is and he points at himself in surprise, then says 'Abd-al-Salam, from Aleppo. As we talk I notice how small his waist is, I tell him it's going to snow tomorrow and he should stay inside. When we leave, I put a large bill in the tip jar.
photo 2-8
That night, over Turkish wines and cheese at Sensus we talk about the problems of refugees, about aid distribution and displaced persons policies, about the logistic problems of how to get the right things to the right people. It is starting to snow and I wonder if 'Abd-al-Salam has gloves. I feel silly for being such a sad sap, and remind myself of all the places that I've been and worked that were full of poverty and refugees and malnutrition. But Syria, of course, is different. As my husband says, paraphrasing a quote we once heard about New York, "you lived in Syria and never really got over it."

The next morning we wake up to a beautiful blanket of snow over the city. We abandon plans to go the Asian side to see a copper pot showroom, and instead take refuge inside the Pera Museum where we are the only visitors to see an exhibit on Polish Orientalist paintings, the sounds of wind whipping harshly around the buildings. Over the next few days we walk in the snow, shop, attempt to see a movie that ends up being in Turkish, and eat delicious meals at Mikla and Yeni Lokanta.
photo 4-4
On our final morning I tell my husband, who luckily travels on his stomach, that we're going to a Syrian place I've heard about and we tromp through the freezing snow. The corner shop is clearly marketing their chicken and schwarma, but it is early and I see that they have fetteh on the menu, both with fetteh with olive oil and fetteh with clarified butter, which is a good sign that these guys know what they're doing. I order a large bowl and we take a seat in the corner.

The restaurant is immaculately clean and several young Syrian men stand behind the counter alternately prepping things for the day and snapping pictures of the snow on their phones and talking about the virtues of Instagram vs Twitter vs WhatsApp. I learn that they are all from different parts of Damascus, which I chide them is evident from their menu, and we talk about Damascus's neighborhoods, about the felafel stand in Muhajireen and the best way to make hummus musabaha. One of the young men shows me a picture of my old neighborhood from that morning, its cars covered in a foot of snow from the freak storm that's covering the region. Like every conversation I have with Syrians, there is that lull in the conversation that happens right after you've talked about the old days, the pause where you are both remembering what has happened since.

The fetteh, a steaming bowl of hot chickpeas, yogurt, tahini, and fried bread, is the best I've had in years. It reminds me of the difficulty of recipe writing, those simple dishes like my mother's Thanksgiving stuffing that hinge delicately on technique and proportion. Several other Syrian men also come in and sit down to bowls of fetteh and hummus and tea, but of course that's not really what this restaurant is about. They show me proudly the copies of Souriatna, an independent newspaper, and it's clear that the restaurant doubles as a place where like-minded Syrians can meet and organize. When we leave, the cashier seems confused when I insist on giving him an extra large tip. Somehow the concept of Western liberal guilt doesn't translate well, but I go back out into the snow happy and encouraged to see people working to make the best of their situation. And well, that fetteh was really good.
photo 3-5

Recipes: Fetteh (plain) and Fatteh (with Eggplant)
See Also: Small Projects Istanbul

6 comments:

Susan G. Hauser said...

That was lovely.

Lakshmi said...

Onward we go... hopefully towards clarity, peace, calm and closure.

lynn2mary said...

I made your plain Fetteh. I don't know if you would consider it good or not, but I thought it was good.

pntre pantre said...

كيكة التمر من الحلويات الصحية والمفيدة للجسم تعرفوا من موقع باتيه وانترية طريقة عمل كيكة التمر
http://www.pntre.com/how-amel-dates-cake/

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