Like Oil and Water
During the International Day celebration in my junior year of high school in Dubai, groups of students, staff, and faculty from common nationalities collaborated to make booths that represented their respective countries. Large flags hung on the walls of the gym, and people offered their local dishes and donned their traditional outfits. It was a day of pride and remembrance, a day when people revisited their roots and showed off their cultures while teaching others about their traditions and histories.
It seemed easy. Find Syrians on campus? Check. Ask them to donate? Check. Buy a large flag? Things get complicated.
The official Syrian flag consists of three horizontal stripes: red, white, and black, with two green stars in the middle. However, since the beginning of the revolution in 2011, revolutionists have revived an older Syrian flag as a symbol of their struggles: three horizontal stripes, but here they are green, white, and black, with three red stars in the middle. Since then, a person’s choice of flag has shown their political views. I can tell which side someone supports depending on which flag they choose to use.
At school, the supporters of the two Syrian parties were at odds over the flag. It was one of the first topics that came up, and the one that took the most time to resolve. Insults were thrown and tears were shed, not only during attempted meetings but also in random encounters in the hallways. The vice principal had to interfere and declare that the flag of the revolution could not be displayed—it was both unofficial and dangerous to use for fear of persecution. But we all knew this already; those supporting the revolution weren’t vying to display their own flag. They merely would not accept the official one; it had become a bitter sight that didn’t represent their ideals of freedom and democracy.
It took many days and several attempts before the conversation got anywhere. We resolved to focus on the other aspects of the booth and decide what to do about the flag later. The factor that finally softened the edges between us was the food. As an integral part of every culture and the primary incentive for visitors to stop by our booth at all, we knew we needed to call a truce and plan the dishes we were going to offer.
You see, the food could not care less whether the hands that shaped it were pro- or anti-regime. Bulgur sought to be molded into oval kibbeh stuffed with meat, while vine leaves just wanted to be rolled into mouth-watering yalanji. The sweet star of the day, sh’ebiyat, longed to bask in its butter-infused glory. If we did not cater to the food, our booth would be a complete disaster.
We went all out. Some brought their homecooked meals while others chipped in to order from trusted Syrian restaurants. We hired a traditional tamr hindi seller who handed out water infused with dates and roses from the large golden pot hung on his back. Other than the main dishes, there were all sorts of little sweets and candies, from sugar-coated roasted chickpeas to small boot-shaped hard sugar, that reminded me of strolling down Al-Hamidiyah Souq with my family before the war, nagging at my mom to buy me those toothache harbingers.
“You see, the food could not care less whether the hands that shaped it were pro- or anti-regime”
It’s not that on International Day we looked past each other’s flaws or dismissed the vitality of our political stances. The lack of a flag behind us, replaced by a simple white banner spelling “SYRIA,” served as a constant reminder of our quarrels, both in our country and on campus. I don’t know whether other students questioned the lack of a Syrian flag, but the delicious aroma wafting from our national dishes drew in visitors anyway. We successfully supported our booth, standing side by side without touching, serving the food and explaining our heritage to strangers but rarely addressing each other. That sounds uncomfortable in retrospect, but at the time each of us found pride and joy within our own perspectives and celebrated with dabke dances and stolen yalanjis.
It was a precarious balance, but a balance, nonetheless. Although it was on a small scale, I’ve seen it happen in grander settings as well. It’s particularly apparent in Global Village, a vast, outdoors venue for discovering cultures and reuniting diasporas in Dubai. My family and I visit it a few times every season despite knowing that we may run into Syrians supporting a different political party. The Syrian foods and spices, which are difficult to find elsewhere in Dubai, make the visits worth it.
Global Village is divided into pavilions that represent different countries. Each beautifully-rendered gate invites visitors in with its traditional carvings. The design is different every year, and during the latest season, the Syrian gates’ arched doorways reflected those of the antique Al-Hamidiyah Souq of Damascus. The ancient Roman ruins of Palmyra were painted on the walls, and a rendition of the Citadel of Aleppo rested on top of the gates. It was nostalgic to see these three defining landmarks of Syria yet heartbreaking to remember that the latter two have been damaged by the war. While the renditions were spot-on, the originals were no longer in that shape. The constant that remains every year is the large red letters spelling “SYRIA,” tying the display together.
“It was nostalgic to see these three defining landmarks of Syria yet heartbreaking to remember that the latter two have been damaged by the war.”
Despite the lasting pain of the war, I always find it uplifting to know that authentic Syrian food awaits me. Outside the gate of the Syrian wing stands a tamr hindi seller, looking just as traditional in his fez and embroidered vest as the one at our International Day. He sells the refreshing drink with a welcoming smile. I feel a sense of pride, but a voice nags in my head: What if he supports the other side? I dismiss the voice and walk on.
When I enter the section, I find people of several nationalities shopping for locally-made yogurt, olives, thyme, and shinklish, a type of cheese made into balls and covered with thyme or chili. Further inside, Syrian sellers loudly call people to their stalls, usually with funny or rhyming two-liners. For example, the vendors who sell balila, chickpeas boiled with lemon and cumin, sing a two-line song that I’d memorized since childhood, and I sing along under my breath, “Balila balbalouki, w bil Sham ba’ouki.” Foreigners may not understand the meaning of, “Balila, they have wet you, and in the Levant, they have sold you,” but the Arabic alliteration and rhyme still make for a cheerful time. The sounds and smells engulf me, and for a while it feels as if I’m transported back to a time when I felt secure walking amongst my people before the conflict tore us apart.
I often rush straight to the stall that sells sahlab, or salep, a drink made of orchid powder and topped with cinnamon and pistachio. It’s usually conserved for the bitingly cold nights of winter Syria, but I make do with it in the hot Dubai weather. As I order my drink, I do not ask the vendor which side he supports. He does not ask me which side I support. Neither of us wants to know. It is easier that way.
Occasionally, some stalls give subtle hints of their political affiliations, sometimes in the colors of their flags or the words of their songs, so I turn the other cheek and focus on the food and the memories rather than the indicators of the conflict.
When I imagine Syrians of different political parties occupying the same space, I picture chaos. I see fighting and shouting and blaming, a vague culmination of the armed confrontations I’ve witnessed, the stories I’ve heard of families breaking apart, the guns and airstrikes and missiles and flags, the irreversible diaspora. Yet that’s not what I’ve experienced. What I saw on International Day and in Global Village is Syrians celebrating their culture and food, making dishes that follow the same recipe. We all crave our national dishes the same way.
No, I don’t believe that food will be the solution to all our problems; the war has scarred everyone beyond such naivety. But food is a commonality amongst the differences. Before the war, during the war, and if ever there’s an after, our food remains the same, transcending generations and politics. So perhaps it will be a way to break the ice, to coexist, not like thyme dipped in oil and eaten as one, but like oil and water: together, but unmixed. ❖