Ice cream nostalgia brings back memories to war-rattled Syrians

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An enticing aroma of boiled milk, vanilla, gum Arabic and pistachios; the rhythmic pounding of wooden mallets deep into stainless steel vats; the clink of spoons on glass accompanying cheerful conversation.

These are the sights, sounds and smells of Bakdash, billed as one of the oldest shops in the world selling Arabic ice cream and located in Al-Hamidiyeh bazaar in the world’s oldest capital, war-rattled Damascus.

These sensual delights make people’s mouths water in Jordan’s capital Amman, but memories of them are also bringing tears to the eyes of Syrians who have fled the conflict in their country and are nostalgic for a taste of home.

What they are missing is Bakdash’s “booza”, a uniquely Middle Eastern type of ice cream that is elastic in texture, like taffy. Adding to its distinct flavour and texture is salep, a flour made from the tubers of the mascula orchid.

Mohammad Hamdi Bakdash opened his shop in Al-Hamidiyeh in 1895, and it is still going strong there despite the civil war that has killed more than 94,000 people and is increasingly threatening the capital.

Earlier this month, a Bakdash franchise opened in Amman on Madina Munawwara Street. The decor is identical to the fast-food ambience of Bakdash itself, with its glaring neon lights, large mirrors, long rows of tables and waiters squeezing past customers ordering cones to take away.

“I am so moved,” said Sleiman Muhanna, a Syrian architecture professor who teaches in both the Syrian and Jordanian capitals. “They have recreated the spirit of Damascus.”

Janoub, the 25-year-old Jordanian who runs the Amman shop, said 60 to 70 percent of his customers are Syrian, many of them among the nearly half a million of their countrymen who have fled home and are now living in Jordan.

He also speaks of the emotional impact of the place.

“I have seen elderly ladies weep” when they come in, he said.

Janoub speaks as two young men, white bandanas wrapped around their heads, pound the booza with long wooden clubs that look giant pestles to soften it and make it more elastic. What is pulled out of the containers could look to the untrained eye like pizza dough or even chewing gum.

As he works, 24-year-old Mohammed tells of how he came here to work from the mother store just a few weeks ago.

Damascus “is not like it was before. The situation is getting steadily worse. Here it’s like being at home, but it’s not really Damascus.”

“They say the perfume of Damascus is here, but they all long to go home.”

Ice cream nostalgia

Transporting booza is fraught with risks

The pounding is done in Amman, and the final product mixed with pistachios and other delicacies for serving, but the ice cream itself is still made in Damascus to “preserve the true cachet of Syria”, Janoub said.

But getting it to Amman, 170 kilometres (105 miles) to the south, is fraught with risks.

“The ice cream is made in Al-Hamidiyeh and transported each day in refrigerated trucks,” Janoub explained.

The trucks head south through Suweida, then across to Daraa before crossing the border,” all the time skirting bombed-out areas and potential obstacles along the way.

“Sometimes it’s the FSA (rebel Free Syrian Army), sometimes the (national) army and sometimes criminal gangs.”

While two of his employees came from Bakdash in Damascus, Janoub said the others are either refugees or fled to avoid being forced into military service, which is compulsory at the age of 19.

One of them is Karim, whose timid face rarely breaks into a smile.

He is from the central western city of Homs and declined to give his real name. “My parents are still there, and I saw three of my cousins killed before my eyes.”

He said he left in July when he turned 19 “because I didn’t want to fight in the army”.

As customers dig in to their booza, he relates a bitter tale similar to that of so many other young men his age.

“My brother, who is 24, said one of us would go off and join the fight against the regime. He went, and I am here.”

For now, Madina Munawwara Street has become a sort of Little Syria, full of shops and restaurants that speak of home.

But the thoughts in so many hearts are the same: “As soon as the regime falls, I’m going back to Syria.”

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