Groceries for the Homesick
By Dalia Mortada and Ansel Mullins
ISTANBUL - On a recent sunny afternoon at the tiny Al Ahdab market, a wedge of light slashed through the front windows illuminating posters for condensed milk in Arabic script and one of an energy drink called Hell. The shop is easy to miss, tucked under the slope of Sarı Musa Sokak, which dips quickly from Millet Caddesi – the arterial avenue home to Istanbul’s Little Syria. By the front door was a rack of Cow Brand ghee, in large tin cans stacked like motor oil at a gas station.
Entering the shop we were met with a complex layer of scents. By the drawers along the wall a fragrant cloud of spice hung – cumin, coriander, cinnamon. Open tubs of pepper paste gave off their signature acrid smell, trumped only by the bright scent of square chunks of olive soap. The shop, the size of a large bedroom, is divided by two aisles down the middle and every upright surface is fixed with shelves sagging with goods – most of them brought into Turkey from Syria “duty free.”
“It’s been really tough. Our business has taken a big hit,” Jihad told us. “We haven’t been able to smuggle anything in the past six months.” Due to security concerns about the flow of foreign fighters and weapons in and out of Syria, the 500-mile border Turkey shares with its neighbor to the south has been sealed shut at every entry point, blocking people and anything they could be carrying with them. “What we have in storage is all we have left of anything that needs to be brought in from Syria,” Jihad said.
“Two and a half years ago, it was so easy,” he told us. The 33-year-old father of three – soon to be four – is about 5-feet-7-inches with wrinkles, deep rivulets, carved into his forehead. When Jihad came to Istanbul in 2013, he saw firsthand how difficult it was to find the ingredients Syrians – and Arabs more generally – needed to make the food they know, to feel at home. “Even though they are neighbors, Syrian life is different from Turkish life…our spices are different, our flavors are different, our words [for the same thing] are different,” he explained. So Jihad stepped up to the challenge.
Back then he easily found a network of people across Syria and Turkey who would bring goods through. Drivers would stop at the Syrian side of the border to hand off supplies of fragrant seven-spice mix, cardamom-laced coffee, unfiltered olive oil and sheep’s milk clarified butter to a driver on the Turkish side. The goods would take the 750-mile journey by land to Istanbul, switching hands – each time in exchange for cash – at different stops along the way.
Jihad’s employee, a young guy named Molham, was part of that network. “It wasn’t cheap,” Molham explained. “You have to pay the guy at the border, the guy at each stop along the way…it all adds up.”
Between the dangers of shuttling supplies within Syria itself, navigating through regions controlled by rival factions and Turkey’s recent crackdown on entries through its borders, Jihad and his team have had to change the way they do business. “Now, almost everything we have is brought in legally or made domestically,” Jihad said, pointing to the tins of Cow Brand ghee as an example of a Syrian staple now being produced in Turkey. He said it’s better this way anyway. “If everything is legal, our shop will survive longer.”
But for some products, there is no good alternative. He pointed to the giant white sack, nearly six feet tall, tucked behind a shelf. It was filled to the brim with molokhiyya, a dried green herb ubiquitous in Syria and other parts of the Middle East but unknown in Turkey.
“That’s from Syria,” Jihad explained. “Some farmers tried to grow molokhiyya in Gaziantep,” the major Turkish border city just 75 miles from Syria’s cultural capital of Aleppo, “but Turkish soil is different from Syrian soil. What they grew looked like molokhiyya, smelled like molokhiyya, but when it was cooked it tasted terrible.” That’s a big problem for an ingredient so crucial to Syrian households, so Jihad said he brings what he can from Syria and a different version of the dried green from Egypt.
While we sat talking to Jihad, a group of young men came up to pay for a few sacks of groceries. “Here, remember this?” Jihad said with a smile, handing them a strawberry cream-filled wafer treat from a box on the counter. The men seemed overcome with nostalgia, turning over the crinkly aluminum pack, looking at the lettering sprawled across it. “You just brought me back to first grade,” said one of the men in Arabic, through a mouthful of wafer.
That’s the linchpin of Jihad’s success: by importing the foods Syrians need to feel at home, he brings Syria to them, but even more, he brings them back to Syria. In Jihad’s shop, it smells like Syria, tastes like Syria, looks like Syria. Even as Syrian products parade under a Turkish name – a mark of their local production – Jihad translates them into what’s familiar for his customers.
Which is kind of ironic, considering Jihad never lived in Syria himself. “I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia,” he admitted. “My family left [the Syrian city of] Hama around the time of the massacres,” in 1982, when the Syrian regime cracked down on a violent Islamist uprising in the northern Syrian city. Jihad’s story isn’t unique – Hama practically emptied as Syrian military tanks rolled through the city.
Jihad’s parents settled in Saudi Arabia, and soon after he was born. His dad started a family business in marble and tiling, which Jihad took over when his dad retired a few years ago. “But after the war began and Syrians started trying to settle in Saudi Arabia, the country started kicking Syrians out,” he explained. Like most countries in the world, Saudi Arabia doesn’t give citizenship as a birthright. Jihad only carries a Syrian passport. “I didn’t want to be kicked out with my wife and kids, so I closed the business and moved to Turkey on my own terms,” he said. “Turkey is the only country taking in Syrians,” Molham added. “I tried the UAE, Jordan, anywhere I had family – no one will accept us.”
“[Saudi Arabia] let us in, took all the meat off us and tossed us out as bones,” Jihad said. “But thank God, there is no door without a key. There is no puzzle that can’t be solved, and we are doing well now.”
Out in the afternoon light, there was no mistaking the impact that Syrian entrepreneurs like Jihad have had on the district. In the space of one block we spotted a Syrian barbershop, Sham Salon, an Aleppo-style kebab house and even a shop for Turkey’s leading mobile provider, Turkcell, with an LED advertisement running in Arabic. As Syrian as this area may seem at points, it is not an isolated ghetto. Trams, metros and minibuses shuttle millions of Istanbul locals through here every day. A commercial hub, home to major hospitals and state bureaucracies of all sorts, everyone in Istanbul has some business in Aksaray.
On our way out of Al Ahdab, we observed a Turkish woman doing some shopping, studying products. Molham, who also speaks some Turkish, helped her with some questions. When he opened up a box of emerald green soap she leaned in for a sniff and quickly added two to her other purchases.
“We have been getting more and more Turkish customers. They’re becoming interested in our food,” Jihad said. “We made maqlubeh for our landlord once.” The dish, whose name means “upside down” in Arabic, consists of fried eggplant and cauliflower, poached chicken and rice layered into the same pot and flipped over. “Now we have to make it for him every week! He loves it!” Jihad laughed. Molham’s neighbors now come for dinner a few times a week. “They love my wife’s cooking,” he said excitedly.
This is a story Istanbul knows all too well. The past century has seen wave after wave of communities seeking refuge in the city – from White Russians fleeing the 1917 revolution to Bosnians forced out by the 1991 break up of Yugoslavia and Kurds seeking shelter from the violence of 1980s and 90s in southeastern Turkey. All of these people brought to Istanbul their food, which then became part of the culinary heritage of the city. It probably won’t be immediate, but as surely as hot red pepper flakes from southeast Turkey’s Urfa are now on most restaurant tables in Istanbul, so too will Syria’s seven-spice mix be incorporated into the city’s kitchen staples. When that happens, we’ll have Jihad and his network of smugglers to thank for that.
This piece originally published on Culinary Backstreets on May 27, 2016.