How Two Women Are Changing the Conversation About Syria With Food

June 29, 2018

Itab Azzam first met Dina Mousawi at a friend’s house in East London in 2014. They connected, almost instantly, over a shared love of food. Itab, who grew up in Syria, began to share recipes from her youth with her new friend. Dina, originally from Baghdad, did the same. Together, they forged a friendship built on a mutual obsession—for food, for recipes, and for the flavors of their homes.

Moussawi and Itab, friends and collaborators. Photo by Susannah Baker Smith

Later that year, the friends travelled to Beirut. They were working on a theatre project with Syrian women who had fled their country and sought refuge in Lebanon. It was here that Azzam and Mousawi found community, resilience, strength—elements so often excluded from the dominant discourse surrounding the conflict in Syria. They met women who confronted their difficult pasts and challenging presents with laughter and song and, quite often, cooking.

This, they thought, isn’t the Syrian story we hear in the media—one of ruin and refugees. These are women with memories and wit and recipes. Their voices deserve to be heard.

So they set out to write Our Syria: Recipes From Home, a collection of dishes from the country Azzam and so many others will always call home, regardless of where they may reside. The book is a testament to Syrian cuisine; it’s also a record of its people. People who have had their houses, stores, families, schools, and hospitals ripped apart. People who have had to leave behind all that they know in search of new places to lay roots.

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In the book, there’s the story of Razan, a Syrian woman who left pharmacy school in Damascus and moved her family to West Yorkshire in England. Disappointed by the lack of halloumi cheese available in her new country, she began her own production. In just three years after her arrival, Razan and her company, Yorkshire Dama Cheese, are winning awards.

Or there’s Shaima, originally from Raqqa, who’s since been displaced from her hometown and now works in southern Syria, picking apples to earn a living. She remembers the ice cream she ate every summer as a child.

These are just a two of the stories peppered throughout Our Syria.

June 20 was the UN’s official Refugee Day. The international organization totaled around 7 million people of concern from Syria at the end of 2017; the country's recent diaspora has been staggering. I spoke to Azzam in the day’s following the UN’s Refugee Day to talk about her book, the importance of memory and finding comfort in the unfamiliar and often forlorn.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Valerio Farris: Can you tell me about the process of compiling these recipes? Putting together the book?

Itab Azzam: For me, because I'm Syrian I grew up with this, I’m really familiar with all the recipes. What we did is, as you can see from the stories, we talked to so many women and tried to collect stories that are food-related. Which wasn't an easy job, because people would tell me so many stories and suddenly there's something about food and that's what we were looking for. So first we put the list of 100 recipes that we were familiar with—and I got the help of my mother and my aunt who are still in Syria.

Photo by Liz&Max Haarala
Photo by Liz&Max Haarala

VF: Who are the women you talked to? How did you meet them?

IA: We wanted to do something really positive about Syria because we are constantly frustrated by the way Syrians have been portrayed in the media—as statistics, or victims—there’s nothing actually human about the way we talk about refugees in general and Syrians in particular. We wanted to do something positive and something humane. We wanted to shed light on the strength and resilience—and the fun—of the Syrian women we know and have met.

We worked with loads of women, and we selected the stories that we thought would highlight what we wanted. Hala (one woman featured in the book), for example, is a friend we knew before the uprising. She had moved to london but her father died in a mortar shell in Damascus. She cooks his recipes to remember him. There are other stories that highlight living in refugee camps or being under siege in Syria.

Photo by Susannah Baker Smith

We wanted to show human stories. Bittersweet but also funny stories. We wanted to show Syrians as any other human beings. They’re the teacher and the doctor and the farmer—as we are, like everybody else is. We just wanted to select stories that showed what they went through but also how strong they are and how they're adapting and finding new life in the countries they fled to.

VF: As Syria continues to be part of the global conversation, why is it important to make sure food is mentioned?

Food is the easiest thing that you can do and share with people that tells you about other cultures. It always puts a smile on people’s faces when they eat together and share food. To be honest, for Syrians leaving everything behind and losing everything, food is one of the most tangible things that keeps them connected to that place and familiarity of what they grew up with.

VF: Did you ever feel anxiety about having to represent Syria?

IA: Of course, especially because I'm not a professional chef, I’m more of a home cook. It's always nerve wracking to try to represent a whole country's cuisine. And then, when you think that other people are going to cook these recipes it becomes really nerve-racking. Whenever we receive messages from people saying that they cooked a recipe and enjoyed it, that’s always so enjoyable.

Photo by Susannah Baker Smith

VF: It means it worked!

IA: Plus, it’s nice for the women that we’re writing about, who we’re representing, the women who gave us these recipes, to say to them, “Look, these recipes are being made in London or New York and they're enjoying them and they’re working.” Its connecting these people who are in Lebanon in refugee camps to people all around the world. It’s a nice feeling.

For more stories from Azzam and Mousawi, check out their book, Our Syria: Recipes From Home.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.