Syria’s Famished Victory

As the Syrian regime revels in its conquests, people under its rule are struggling to put food on the table

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Syria’s Famished Victory
People queue up outside a bakery in Syria’s northwestern city of Idlib on April 24, 2020, on the first day of Ramadan/ Omar Haj Kadour/ AFP via Getty Images

Syria, 2005. It was still hot in early October when the holy month of Ramadan started. At first it was hard to adjust to the social opprobrium of eating and drinking on the street; the inability to drink water when I was out and about gave me a fearsome headache. But I soon adapted. Especially when I realized what the quiet days brought with the sunset: the magnificent feast of iftar, eaten as a celebration in a festive atmosphere.

Every single evening, homes and restaurants prepared an astonishing range of dishes for the meal. There would always be a soup — clear chicken or tomato — and either fetteh (a dish with layered flatbread and yogurt with chickpeas, and any sort of meat or vegetable, according to taste) or ful (a fava bean stew, with garlic, cumin, onion, and lemon juice). Also on the table at the start of the meal might be maqdous, small zucchini or aubergines stuffed with meat and rice, or crispy bread with aubergine, tomato sauce and tahini yogurt; perhaps burak, small pastries with cheese or meat, or vine leaves stuffed with rice and meat, and always salads — fattoush, green salad, or tabbouleh. But that was just the beginning. The centerpiece of iftar every day would be some form of lamb or chicken dish (when there were guests there would be both), and a vegetarian dish alongside. Accompanying the meat or chicken might be freekeh (grilled wheat) or rice with beans or peas; or it might be cooked in a stew with okra or lukhiya (a green similar to spinach, from the mallow family). There were always desserts, with two or three sorts if guests were coming: kanafeh, a sticky pastry made with cheese and syrup, or katayfi, small pastries with pistachios and dough. And fruit was ever-present in this country which grew so much of its own.

Fast forward to 2020, when Ramadan fell in May-June, and iftar tables in Syria looked completely different. “Everything is still available,” my friend Yasmine, who has lived in Norway since 2012, told me. “But no one can afford it.” Prices have risen on average 111% year on year through this nine-year conflict; in other words, every year your food expenditure more than doubles if you carry on eating the same food. And that isn’t to mention the hikes in prices of gas, heating, rent, and travel. Life has become too expensive for the basics, let alone any luxuries of celebration. Where there might have been ten small dishes, three mains, two desserts, and a side of fruit, now there is one single dish, and no possibility of inviting friends and neighbors to the table. “We tried to keep things going for the kids,” Yasmine’s mother told us, “so we did invite my brother’s family, but my brother had to chip in. Before I might have asked him to bring fruit or kanafeh, but now he has to contribute to the main meal. There’s no way of affording it otherwise.”

Rana, a Damascus-based journalist, says that sweets are impossible anyway. “They depend on nuts, mostly pistachios or walnuts, and we can’t get them.” When she visits her village, they don’t take such luxuries. “Instead of taking baklava we take tissues or mate,” the tea substitute originating in South America — cheaper but still expensive and appreciated goods. “All this food will disappear sooner or later if we stop making it at home,” Rana sadly concluded.

After Eid the situation worsened. In June 2020, America implemented the Caesar sanctions, named in honor of the whistleblower who leaked thousands of photos from Syrian regime’s prisons documenting the systematic torture there. Inflation went rampant. The official exchange rate immediately jumped from 704 Syrian lira to 1,256 lira per dollar, with reports of 2,800 changing hands for a single dollar on the black market the very same week. (Before the conflict began, the official rate stood at 47 lira per dollar.) Now, as I write, day by day the numbers increase so as to be meaningless; 3,500, 4,000. The Syrian currency has become worthless. The sanctions are also affecting how money gets into the country, with everyday remittances sent from family and friends abroad — a lifeline over this past decade for many — now impossible. Added to all these problems is the freefall in the economy of neighboring Lebanon, where many Syrians saved their hard currency: one friend has seen her entire family’s savings wiped out. There is nowhere to turn for help.

Many dishes were first replaced with chicken, then lower-quality chicken imported in frozen blocks from India, and then just the scraps and bones of chicken

As Yasmine lists the prices to me over the phone from Norway, I cannot help gasping at each. The best lamb is now over $14 per kilo, at a time when, thanks to inflation, a government employee earns around $25 per month; the maximum salary we found reported in the private sector was $100. (With the exchange rate changing daily, these prices will be out of date by time of publication; each day brings new reports and prices, new figures for black market currencies.) You can buy inferior quality meat (the price drops to perhaps $7 per kilo), or just the bones to boil for broth. Many dishes were first replaced with chicken, then lower-quality chicken imported in frozen blocks from India, and then just the scraps and bones of chicken. Meat dishes are now made from pulses or soya products with, if you can afford it, just a little meat, broth or fat mixed in to remind people of the original flavor.

Even the cheap food is getting exorbitant: when I lived in Damascus, I sometimes bought a falafel sandwich on my way home. Three or four falafels wrapped in flatbread alongside tomatoes, onion, hummus, tahini, yogurt, parsley, and sumac cost 10 Syrian lira. Now, one single falafel, the ball itself, is 60; a sandwich is 600. Eggs have gone from 1,000 lira for 24 a few months ago to 4,500 — over a dollar with the current exchange rate. Pre-war, these eggs would be 120 lira — just cents. Children are given an egg a week, instead of seeing them regularly on the breakfast table.

I ask everyone who reels off such lists of incomprehensible numbers: “How are people living?” The answers come back the same: fewer dishes on the table, meat reduced or substituted, fruit absent or bought by the piece rather than the kilo. But nothing adds up — not the finances of living on $25-50 a month nor the calorie intake of such a reduced diet. If you’re buying one or two bananas instead of a kilo or two, your household is not eating enough fruit. “There are kids around who don’t even know some of the fruits because their families just can’t afford them,” a Syrian commented on a Facebook group. This in a country which not only used to produce its own fruit; it even exported to neighboring countries. Now Syria is dependent on expensive imports, which very few can afford.

Where is all the local produce going? It depends who you ask. Of course, many agricultural areas have stopped producing altogether because of the violence — crops destroyed, labor fleeing. But there is more. “It’s the corruption,” Rana explains. “Those with access, they’re smuggling the good meat, the fruit, the vegetables to Iraq and Jordan and Lebanon.” These neighboring countries are easily accessed by road, the borders porous. “I myself have seen hundreds of trucks going on the small, old roads through the mountains to Lebanon,” she told us. Those with contacts are lining their pockets while the population starves.

“Recently I went to the butcher, I saw an old woman come in with only a hundred lira in her hand,” another friend in Damascus described. The butcher took the money and gave her a handful of scraps, straight into her hand: “It didn’t even fill her hand. Imagine that, giving such little food that you carry it in your hand.” Thus has dignity disappeared in the urgent need for food, in a country where people are proud. “Normally even poor people have some dignity and pride, refusing help or money — now you don’t have to even insist before they take it,” Yasmine told me. One common slogan of the Arab spring was “Dignity before bread.” If people are now sacrificing their dignity for their bread, what comes next?

To think of bread in Syria is to remember the domed bread ovens in tiny bakeries throughout the country, on streets and in restaurants, rolled out circles slapped on the inside walls or, of the very thin saj bread, on the top of smaller hot domes — like a curved griddle, the thin dough puffing and crisping as it heats. People queue and take it home as fresh as it can be, to be delivered onto the table still hot. But whereas they used to buy a stack, now the individual pieces are counted and apportioned — by law. With wheat fields on fire across the country at the hands of unknown arsonists, the shortages are more acute than ever, prices high and queues long.

Yasmine recalls the bread riots of the 1970s in Egypt, against Sadat’s price hikes. “If people didn’t rebel before they will now because of hunger. When people are hungry there is a higher rate of criminality — people do anything to feed their children.” According to the World Food Programme, 7.9 million people inside Syria are unable to meet their food needs, and a further 1.9 million people are food insecure, from a population of just 16.9 million (down from 23 million pre-conflict; the difference is in the millions of Syrian refugees around the world and the more than half a million dead or disappeared). That is, half of Syria is starving, with the disintegration of the economy, farming, and trade routes creating further suffering on top of the death, torture, trauma, and destruction of this long and brutal war.

But food, especially in a country so famous for its cuisine, is not just about nutrition; it is also about culture. The meals are changing, and the implications are more profound. “All our celebrations, from religious festivals to celebrating a new baby, even smaller things like a baby’s first tooth, or just having neighbors round on a Friday or one evening — everything in our culture revolves around food.” What do you do when you can’t afford the food? You stop inviting people, apart from the ones you don’t feel embarrassed in front of when you can only serve coffee. This is changing the very fabric of society. Mixing with family and neighbors was the main activity for the older generation; now they sit at home alone.

This inability to host is rapidly changing norms. Ramadan isn’t only about fasting and evening sociability and celebration; the spiritual aspect includes remembering the poor, sharing their experiences of hunger through fasting, and also sharing what you do have. Thus a major part of the month is charity, with many donating to mosques or charities that cook iftar for those who cannot afford to feed their families. “My mum used to prepare a tray of what we were eating and give it to this woman who used to come by, or to orphans,” Yasmine remembers. But this is becoming less and less normal because people simply can’t afford it. When you are struggling to feed your own families, using scraps of meat to flavor dishes, fruit and sweets entirely absent, you cannot find the money to pay for others. (There are changes in the spiritual aspect for other reasons, too: People are fasting less, reacting against the extremists who controlled large swathes of their country for years, or seeing it as a further danger for their health.) Many people fled to Damascus to escape violence in other parts of Syria, often taking only what they could carry, starting over with all the necessities, from blankets to saucepans. Jobs are scarce even for the educated, and now charity is evaporating also.

What effect this has psychologically on a culture in which charity is central to society, let alone the effects on those already impoverished, remains to be seen. Family ties have already been loosened by the all-encompassing nature of this conflict, with families divided by geography and politics. The social fabric is being weakened further by this inability to host and celebrate. As Yasmine said when we first began to talk about this subject, “I keep thinking how ugly this war is. It’s not only killed people or forced them to leave but it’s killing all our traditions as well.”

Syrian food is still being cooked, just not in Syria. Recently I got a call from Hana, a Syrian mother of six who lives down the road from me. “I’m just cooking,” I say, “But I’ll pop in after I’ve eaten.” Knowing this woman and her Syrian hospitality only too well, I stressed the point. “I don’t need to eat, because I’ll have had dinner, OK?” She agrees, and when I arrive, chocolate biscuits in hand, there is coffee waiting, a separate cup for me because she knows I like it saada, plain, without sugar. We talk, and I ask her about the changes in her cooking since they arrived in the United Kingdom in 2016 as part of the U.N. resettlement scheme. It sounds uncannily similar to the responses of those in Syria, though not nearly as extreme.

“We can buy anything here; you know the Makkah supermarket?” I do know it, full of all the things I myself miss from the Middle East, from Saudi dates to Lebanese zaatar to vast sacks of pulses and grains. I ask about Ramadan — did she cook the same things? After bewailing the fact she never served me iftar (we were still in lockdown then, forbidden to visit other households), she described serving fewer dishes each day, paring down the side-plates, having fewer of the traditional sweets and more of the cheap sweets Western society has to offer.

As I turn to her daughter Nourhan to help with her homework, the mother disappears. While I explained some maths and helped Nourhan cover her German book, Hana quietly filled the table with food. Of course. What I say has no bearing on her own values of hospitality, and she bats away any protestations. “Come, sit, sit, Nourhan put that away.” Nourhan doesn’t need to be told twice, and we all sit, and naturally I can’t resist the delicious food Hana has prepared.

This is the Syrian hospitality I remember. But Yasmine fears the worst. “I’d rather not go back, but keep the Syria I know in my head,” she says, echoing the refrain of so many exiles through the ages, and also the guilt at having so much in comparison. And she’s rueful about the pre-war times, when Syrians had no inkling of what was to come. “What goes around comes around: we used to go to Lebanon and make fun of how little they put on the table; this is what they carried from the war, and now we know what that means.” She mourns for Syria, but continues to keep the traditions alive in Oslo, cooking all the dishes her mother cannot, in an act of hope that one day Syrian society will be rebuilt, as hospitable and welcoming as ever.

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