Jan 5, 2009

SYRIA & LEBANON

Above: a dreamy capture from the famous "Souk el Hamadiyé" in Damascus, Syria.
I just recently got back from a wonderful holiday and I want to wish you all a Happy New Year filled with lovely and blissful moments! For about ten days I had totally disconnected myself from any internet related activity (and boy did it do me some good!), but am today happy to blog away again and share with you some of my memories in two particularly interesting countries- Syria & Lebanon. In effect, that is where I had been for the past few days. Because there is so much to write about, I will have to split my posts into several parts- this being the first, with food related subjects of course!

Well what can I say about my trip? Syria & Lebanon are two troubled countries with exceptional beauty. In recent times, much is said about them on the news and through the media- often portraying both countries in stereotypical ways relating them to war and terrorism. As a visitor however, you do not feel any fright when walking around. On the contrary, there is so much to enjoy- the fascinating (and often contrasting) cultures, the incredible warmth of the people and the absolutely mouthwatering food! My goodness, do I miss the cuisine there! And maybe most of all, how I miss the taste of fruits and vegetables- everything is seasonal and nothing is genetically modified! A tomato actually tasted like a tomato- I tell you!
Above: the famous "Souk el Hamadiyé" in Damascus, Syria. Below: birds flocking over the entrance.

Above: a coffee and arguilé break at a traditional café in Damascus and a beautiful living room reflecting typical Syrian architecture and design.
Above: beautiful views & dinner in Byblos, Lebanon.

I must say that I found Syria & Lebanon to both be quite different. Having first landed in Damascus, I decided to go to Beirut by car (it is about a 2 hour ride). I was a bit worried about what would happen at the borders, but things often work out just fine if you tip people off with some “bakshish” hehe- this is the way to go in most Middle Eastern countries. When entering Beirut, visually, there is a noticeable difference- it is much more green then Damascus, and this greenery extends with a view on the glistening coast. Damascus is dry, but the warm beige colours are beautified with the golden sunlight, but the palm trees in both cities add a lovely Mediterannean feel. When I arrived to Beirut, you instantly feel there is something different… there is this unique “joie de vivre” in the city- it seemed as if people live each day as if it were their last. Going out at night (the night life is amazing in Beirut!) seeing people with happy faces walking past war destroyed buildings reflected this. During one of my night-outs, amidst the party music and the bottles of champagne in a club, the DJ passed on the national anthem in the middle of his set and the people were chanting along with pride. Whenever I meet a Lebanese person, I always feel how proud they are of their country- here in Paris I often see Lebanese wearing a necklace with their country icon. When you are in Beirut, you can understand this. The war marks in the streets alone explain how much they have suffered and strive for peace. You can still see bullets and shattered glass on buildings, with an omnipresent army and army tanks in the streets for security. Yet at the same time you can notice constructions going on, and new beautiful charming areas being built with a modern downtown area. The contrast in culture and religion is also impressive, it is not uncommon to see a church a few metres away from a mosque, or a gigantic Christmas tree in front of a mosque, and if you drive further you can view the Hezbollah inhabited areas. There is also a European feeling to Beirut- visually very much similar to Greece. The people have also opened up and are a bit “westernized” while maintaining a strong attachment to their country. Beirut is not a city like any other city in the Middle East (and I have been pretty much everywhere in the Middle East)- there is a certain feeling of freedom and a love for life, and I felt like my heart was beating stronger there then in any other country I visited. There is a festive emotion in every street corner.

Syria on the other hand feels a bit more conservative and less westernized (things are slowly changing however). The people however are incredibly friendly and helpful and they seem to be in such peace with themselves. A stranger can offer you a cup of coffee wholeheartedly, and a shop owner will not argue with you if you do not have the exact change. There is serenity in the country, and I became strongly attached to this. The Western world may be advanced and “civilized”, but the stress we have here (in the “modern world”) whether it be the pressure to succeed professionally or emulate billboard models physically does not exist to the same degree in Syria. Because the government filters out so much Western (and particularly American) media or businesses, the people live in their own “Syrian world" with values such as family, respect, love, friendship, and an evident love for food and sharing culinary experiences. Before I had left Paris, people were asking me if Christmas is celebrated in Syria- and the answer is yes! It is true the majority of the population is Muslim, but there is also a Christian minority, and both religions live peacefully together. I myself am Greek Orthodox (one of the main Christian groups in Syria) and we enjoyed a delicious Christmas meal with lots of lamb based dishes and Middle Eastern specialities. The tradition on Christmas day is also to visit all your family and relatives’ homes who open their door for you with a glass of liqueur and Jordan almonds- and this starts early in the morning, so you have to accept drinking alcohol on an empty stomach.
There is so much to say (which I will continue in a second post), but I wanted to also share how interesting it was being in both countries at the time the Gaza crisis broke out. Hearing about it on the news in France is very different then in Syria or Lebanon. The people there are much more involved, and in each shop and street corner, people are talking about the crisis and showing their support for Palestine. I myself personally cannot take a side, the only thing I wish for is that peace is once and for all established in this region.

So do come back and check my blog in the coming days as I will be sharing a lot of my culinary memories, from hummus to baklava and less internationally known Middle Eastern dishes!

To start off I would love to entice you with a Syrian ice-cream speciality called “éma”. This is by far one of the most amazing ice creams ever- it is made from whole milk, mastika and sometimes rosewater, generously rolled in pistachios (and when I say generously, I literally mean it- Syria has an abundance of pistachios so they are not skimpy with it!). The most famous place to enjoy éma is in the famous Souk el Hamadiyé at a parlor called “Bakdash”. No matter what time of the year, there is always a crowd inside and it is entertaining watching éma being manually churned and served (in generous portions, the way gelati is generously served in Italy). If anyone ever visits Damascus, I highly recommend that you stop by Bakdash- it is a must see and you MUST taste!


More on Syria & Lebanon to be continued…

14 comments:

Maria said...

You've truly managed to capture the beauty of these countries. Your photos are amazing and really transported me there ... can't wait to read more!

P.S. I could dig into that ice cream right here and now. The pistachios must have been delicious.

Peter M said...

Marianna, first off Happy New Year and continued health.

I've enjoyed your photo essay of Syria and Lebanon and I never knew they were that pretty.

All best and happy cooking!

Peter G said...

Happy new Year Marianna. This is a wonderful post truly capturing the essence of both Syria and Lebanon. I can't wait to see the rest. That ice cream sounds so delicious!

Antonio Tahhan said...

كل سنه و انت بالف خير
Your photos and write up are fantastic! Reading it brought me back to when I visited those countries for the very first time last winter. I can't wait for the next installments of the Syria/Lebanon posts :)

Antonio Tahhan said...

كل سنه و انت بالف خير
Your photos and write up are fantastic! Reading it brought me back to when I visited those countries for the very first time last winter. I can't wait for the next installments of the Syria/Lebanon posts :)

nicisme said...

That is a beautiful place!
Happy New Year!

Peko-P said...

Wow, I just stumbled upon your blog. It is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! I have to come back and read more.

This ice cream looks wondered. I love Middle Eastern food but haven't been to the region yet.

KyotoFoodie -- Peko P

Peko-P said...

Wow, I just stumbled upon your blog. It is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! I have to come back and read more.

This ice cream looks wondered. I love Middle Eastern food but haven't been to the region yet.

KyotoFoodie -- Peko P

Su-Lin said...

Oh how lovely that ice cream looks! Is this the kind that's ever so slightly chewy in texture? I always wondered if that was the mastic gum.

Fraigo said...

Very nice and interesting experience , I do agree with you people there are very friendly and spontaneous , food is delicious and unique

R khooks said...

Wow, Marianna. I've just come across your blog. And everything looks super scrummy. Thanks for taking the time to blog about it!

duodishes said...

Alright. Now we're seething with jealousy to have been you for just 1 day on this trip. Amazing!

Arlette said...

Hello Marianna

This is a very interesting blog, and thank you very much for posting about your trip and the two countries...

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Anonymous said...

My ancesters were from Alep,Syria.I was born and raised in Egypt.married in the USA:Thank you for the great blog,lots of memories.
Fina Azouz/Dalaty