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NAJIBA MRAKADEH: daughter of Damascus

In articles on July 6, 2012 at 10:06 am

I met Najiba in a meditation class. She is tiny, smily and very friendly. She came over to my house and we cooked together. The interview was published in issue #22 of Fork Magazine. While her English isn’t perfect, she is one of the most expressive people I have interviewed and put all sorts of technicolour pictures in my head. Given that all we hear these days about Syria is horror, I felt priveleged to see another side to it.

Najiba and me

When Najiba Mrakadeh talks, she effortlessly conjures up colours, smells, and sounds, and she talks with her hands and the expressions on her face as she does with her words, “I lived my first eighteen years in an old house in the old city of Damascus. Imagine a small door, just big enough for one person to fit through, and then a long corridor,” she smiles and her eyes sparkle, “and then, at the end of the corridor, you see heaven. Lemon trees, jasmine, Seville oranges and a fountain in a high stone basin.” Syria is one of those places we hear about all the time, but most of us know very little. “We serve the oranges as a delicacy. You cut them into quarters, roll them and sew them on a thread, then you boil them in a very thick syrup. When you pull the thread off, they roll into spirals. My friends still bring me them when they come from Syria to visit.”

She chops up an enormous pile of onions with her own sharp knife she has brought with her. I gallantly try to help but by the time I have chopped one onion, she has finished three. “The house is a classy hotel now, well half of it. They knocked down the other half to widen the road … they wouldn’t get away with it these days.” The onions go into a hot pan with plenty of olive oil, “We need to cook these until they caramelise.” We’re making mujaddara, a dish of lentils and bulghur and cumin, and of course, the caramelised onions. She sits and sorts through the dark red lentils, picking out the black lentils and bits of grit. “We would spend hours doing this when we were children, sitting in the courtyard and chatting. Mujaddara is a winter dish because it has lentils and it’s something we would eat on a Friday. I’m Greek Orthodox Christian and my father was a priest. We didn’t eat meat on Fridays and there is a whole vegetarian cuisine based around Lent.”

The lentils go into a heavy pan where they simmer in time to the sizzle of the onion. We’re also making fatouche a vibrantly coloured salad with deep fried flatbread pieces on top. “When I was young, the baker’s boy would come and deliver the bread every morning and then anything that was left over was left out to dry and then you make fatouche with it. The salad is a summer food. Of course it’s different now – you can get everything all year round and people make things to freeze. In those days, we had an enormous pantry in the house and all summer, we prepared for the winter. We would get big drums of olive oil. We dry tomatoes and apricot on the roof and make a concentrated paste. You can’t get anything like that here! Or there’s makdous, small aubergines, boiled and stuffed with walnuts and garlic and then pressed and dried for storage for the winter. In summertime, it’s all about the fresh vegetables that grow in the valley around Damascus. We’d make labaneh too, a yoghourt so concentrated you can roll it into balls and preserve it in oil. In the winter it’s bulghur, rice and lentils. In different parts of the country, they just used to eat what was available – in the north, just mutton, yoghourt and aubergine with bulghur and in other parts, they eat camel.”

Once the lentils are done, the bulghur goes in and we chop tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce for the fatouche. Syrian food, like the Syrian Arabic dialect, forms a continuum with Lebanon on its southern border, there is much that is familiar here from Lebanese cuisine and Najiba tells us that the Lebanese are famous for making successful restaurants, but the food is only half the story. “My favourite is tabbouleh. It’s the most colourful food you can imagine and when I think of it, I think of friends,” her smile is warm. “We chop big piles of parsley and chat and laugh. It’s like when we make stuffed vineleaves, you spend hours making them the day before you eat them with the whole family or your friends.”

When I ask her if Syria has changed, she looks up from the lemons she is squeezing with the help of the handle of a knife and nods vigorously. “You know about this,” she says to me, “you have lived abroad. When you leave somewhere, you put it under a glass jar and it doesn’t change for you. But if you stay, it changes and you don’t even notice it. If you want to go back to the old ways, you have to find it elsewhere, like in some parts of the USA there are Syrian communities that have kept all the old ways.” Najiba understands about being an outsider. Even though she was Syrian, her mother grew up in Haiti and came to Syria to marry her father. “Like me, she went abroad for love. When I was young I didn’t understand how much of an interesting woman she was. I just wanted to fit in and for her to be like the other mothers. But she read French and she was interested in politics, she didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to look a man in the eye or touch people without thinking about it.” She laughs out loud, “‘Mum!’ I used to say, ‘why can’t you understand that we don’t do that here!’ And now my daughter says the same to me here. Now I know that being an outsider is a quality, a blessing. It means you really see things with your eyes and you can appreciate them more. You understand that, no?” I agree. It’s only through living away from this country for so long that I can really appreciate what a wonderful place it is.She looks wistful, “I can imagine going back there. One day. I do miss it but when I go back, I’m a beloved guest. It’s been 21 years! I’m not a part of it anymore.” She shrugs.
When I ask her if she usually cooks Syrian or British food, she tells us she cooks British food but in a Syrian way. “We don’t have broccoli in Syria, but I cook it the way we would there – a bit of oil, a bit of garlic, a lot of cumin and a little water.” She stirs the lentils and adds in the bulghur and a hefty dose of cumin and turns the heat down low. She then arranges the maqali, deep fried thin sliced aubergine and blanched cauliflower florets into a bowl and begins to assemble the salad. “These are turnip pickles,” she says, pointing out the violently pink slivers in another dish, “the colour comes from beetroot.” She checks the onion, it is dark brown and string like. Once the bulghur is cooked and the water all absorbed, she spoons it with the lentils onto a flat plate amidst clouds of steam and arranges the fried onions over the top. “If my mother was here,” she chuckles, “she would be shocked. ‘Where is the meat?!’ she would say. This is poor person’s food. As soon as you get money in Syria, you get meat and always give the best to guests. Even if there isn’t enough for yourself.”

Talk of not enough seems academic as the table is laden with beautifully coloured food and the kitchen filled with smells of cumin, onion and freshly squeezed lemons. We tuck in, spooning great mounds of it onto our plates. “I teach Arabic now,” she says, helping herself to a little more salad and some pickles, “but when I came here, it wasn’t the language that was so difficult to learn. It was the culture! We’re so used to the way we do things and we all use these codes, you know? In Syria, we eat brains and tongue and liver and hearts and some people say ‘Oh, how could you!’, but then I think you make the blood of a pig into a sausage ‘Oh, how could you!’. You see?” I realise as I listen to Najiba how much in my life has gone now. How much of the things I used to take for granted aren’t anywhere to be found any more and that more is lost in time than can ever be lost in distance. But she’s right. We adjust and we change. I smile and I shrug, Najiba style, and I help myself to another big spoonful of steaming lentils.

This interview is an extract from issue 20 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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