From Syria with Baklava - Chapter 4

Betrayal

As'ad Salloura examines pistachios for sticky, nutty sweets in his office at the factory where Salloura desserts are made. (Photo by Lauren Bohn)

As'ad Salloura examines pistachios for sticky, nutty sweets in his office at the factory where Salloura desserts are made. (Photo by Lauren Bohn)

By Dalia Mortada and Lauren Bohn

ISTANBUL - “It is betrayal,” As’ad Salloura declared from behind his giant wooden desk at the Salloura factory, tucked away on the outskirts of Istanbul. From here, he runs the transplanted 150-year-old sweets empire that is his family’s namesake.

It had been three months since he’d last seen Ahmed, his most cherished employee, Rashed, another integral part of the staff, and two others.

“No one told me they were leaving…I found out by chance maybe four or five hours before they left [for Europe],” he said, his thick dimpled fingers thumping the table as he spoke between sips of cigarettes and mate, an herbal caffeinated tea popular in Syria.

The word “betrayal” seemed to echo through the narrow three-story building, flanked from all angles by security cameras. From his leather chair, the 50-something-year-old As’ad watches his staff on an LCD TV through piercing blue eyes. Machines churn ice cream, huge industrial ovens bake paper-thin sheets of phyllo dough for baklava, workers spread out shredded dough for knafeh and the spongy, cheesy pancakes that make up the outer layer of Salloura's famous halawat al jibn.

Like an emperor on his throne, As’ad sees and knows all. But he didn’t see the betrayal coming, especially one so layered, each peel more bitter than the last.

It wasn’t just that Ahmed and Rashed left without telling him that felt like a stab in the back, As’ad said. Nor was it that Ahmed, the person he trusted most to run his business when he himself couldn’t, convinced others to leave Salloura to join him on his voyage.

If that were the extent of it, As’ad would better understand the rupture, and maybe, eventually, learn to forgive. “It is a difficult situation we’re in,” he said. “Some people have to give up their values to deal with it.” The war has turned them all into lesser, unfamiliar versions of themselves. Judgment could be suspended. But what followed might never be forgiven.

As’ad sensed Ahmed had been considering the leave like so many other refugees who had arrived in Turkey over the last few years. By last summer, more than a 100,000 had made the dangerous journey from there to Greece with the hope of reaching northern Europe. He knew Ahmed was struggling – with supporting his family on a single salary in a city far more expensive than he was used to; with having his kids isolated and out of school; with sending his 12-year-old son, Rubi, to the Salloura factory to work, just so he could pick up some type of skills. But As’ad also knew that Ahmed felt like he owed everything to his boss. He took comfort and pride in that.

Until one day, he got word that his trusty employees – ones who were instrumental in helping Salloura take root in Istanbul after being forced to flee its original home in Aleppo – were planning to leave. He tried calling Ahmed. He even sent text messages, warning him and Rashed that they wouldn’t have a job to come back to if they failed to reach Greece. But it was too late. They made up their minds. As Ahmed said months before, there would be no farewell, no thank you, no awkward apologies. They were gone.

As’ad scrambled to find details about their departure from other workers. The dagger dug even deeper as soon as he pieced it all together.

He learned that a Syrian-Kurdish businessman familiar with Salloura in Aleppo had persuaded Ahmed with a golden opportunity: he would pay Ahmed’s way to Germany and invest in a new sweets shop there, where hundreds of thousands of Syrians were now settling. The investor promised Ahmed autonomy – full control over how the sweets were made and how the business was run. He’d also fund whomever Ahmed chose to help start this new venture, spending close to €20,000 to smuggle four men from Turkey to Germany – a trip that would only cost a fraction of that if they could travel legally. Ahmed brought Rashed, his best friend and mentee, and two other colleagues from Salloura: Ramadan, a reserved, 30-year-old baklava master who had worked at Salloura for almost two decades in Aleppo, and Mahmoud, age 22, who started baking at another shop in Aleppo when he was 12 and joined Salloura when his family fled to Istanbul.

From left to right: Rashed, Ahmed, Ramadan and Mahmoud -- all who worked at Salloura in Istanbul -- crossing European borders by foot in the August heat. (Photo courtesy of Ramadan)

From left to right: Rashed, Ahmed, Ramadan and Mahmoud -- all who worked at Salloura in Istanbul -- crossing European borders by foot in the August heat. (Photo courtesy of Ramadan)

It seemed like a dream job, but there was one hitch: their new boss, unrelated to the sweets empire, wanted to name the new restaurant Salloura. He hoped to attract the Syrians settling in Germany with a name they knew and loved, with the flavors that transported them home. But he wanted to do so by riding on the back of a dynasty he didn’t help build. Without the family’s consent, the plan reeked of theft.

“They learned the trade from me, the skills, and then they go to Germany to open a shop with a different boss,” As’ad said, brooding. While clearly angry, As’ad also seemed resigned to the fact that he has little power to control what might happen far way from Istanbul. “And they want to call it ‘Salloura’! The whole plan is a betrayal.”

One can see why As’ad would be hurt. His great-great-grandfather back in the 1870s gained local fame for his sweet cheese dough. That Salloura patriarch would roam the streets of Hama, the northern Syrian city where the Sallouras originated, with a full tray of sweet cheese pancakes balanced on his head and holler, “Halawat al jibn!” Customers would flock to him, desperate for their fix.

With each generation of Salloura came a new innovation; a twist to the halawat al jibn or the introduction of a whole new dessert altogether. By the time As’ad’s dad took the reins, the Sallouras had a small storefront in Hama and had added ice cream, knafeh, warbat bil ishta and other desserts to their repertoire.

Through all this, history took its course: the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire, which at its peak governed much of the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans and more, crumbled after World War I. Syria became the responsibility of the French Mandate, and when that leadership was dismantled in 1945, a power struggle to rule the Levantine state ensued for the better part of the following three decades. Following coup after coup, renowned military general Hafez al Assad, father of the current ruler Bashar al Assad, took over in 1970 as part of the Ba’athist-led government.

In the 1970s, the tension that had been simmering for 30 years between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and military-run secular government in Syria began to heat up. Soon, As’ad’s father decided they should leave.

The Brotherhood, which was pushing for a government that ruled by Islamic law, had strong support in Hama. By 1976, the group had pushed for an Islamist uprising, launching small-scale attacks against security forces, and the government retaliated, tit for tat. In the late 70s, As’ad’s family moved to Aleppo, where his older brothers were studying and where they had a house.

They got out just in time. The year 1982 is remembered for one of the bloodiest campaigns carried out by the Syrian regime – or any regime in the Middle East. After an ambush by Islamist insurgents killed dozens of Ba’athist leaders, Hafez al Assad ordered a merciless crusade to squash all forms of dissent in Hama and its surroundings, silencing all of Syria in the process. Tanks rolled into the small city. Residents fled in droves. The once-thriving city was hollowed. Between 20,000 and 40,000 people were killed, with tens of thousands missing.

And it wasn’t just in Hama. Assad and the Ba’athists were notorious for decimating any whisper of dissent all over. Ahmed’s father-in-law, once a guard in a political prison in Damascus, fell victim to Assad’s purges. He was accused of facilitating the escape of Muslim Brotherhood members and was executed in 1983.

The Salloura family – As’ad’s uncles and cousins – scattered throughout Syria, and so too did their craft. Where a Salloura went, a Salloura shop popped up – in Damascus, in Homs, in Aleppo.

“We opened a shop in Aleppo and then another after that and another after that,” As’ad explained. “People love food in Aleppo, and we started learning from the customers, learning how to make new, different sweets, how to make them better.”

In Syria, food dominates, and Aleppo is its culinary capital. If you can make it there, it means your cooking skills are good enough to make it anywhere in Syria. Soon, Salloura not only received Aleppo’s accolades, but it became a part of the city’s parlance. “Salloura” became synonymous with dessert. Ahmed and Rashed were among the people who helped make it so.

That’s why, when asked if he betrayed As’ad, his boss and long-time friend, Ahmed bristled at the allegation. “I gave 24 years of my life to Salloura; aren’t I a Salloura too?”

Rashed agreed. “We want to honor the Salloura name,” he said, sitting next to Ahmed in their dorm room in southwest Germany, his royal-blue baseball cap flipping his hair like wings around his ears. They shared the room with Ramadan, Mahmoud and Ahmed’s 15-year-old nephew, Revval, who also joined the group on their escape to Germany. To end up there, the five men trekked across Europe together, by boat, train, car, bus and foot.

“We want to make Salloura even better in Germany than in Istanbul or Aleppo,” Ahmed insisted. The toll of the 1,500-mile journey from Istanbul to the tiny village of Birkenfeld in southwest Germany was clear in his beard, grayer than before, and his belly, which had shrunk since we last saw him in Turkey.

The five men stayed in a single room big enough to house eight people. Four bunk beds were pressed up against the walls, and in the middle was a big table the men used for eating, drinking and rolling cigarettes. Tucked away in a corner was a smaller table with a single electric burner – “We smuggled it in past the guards,” Mahmoud whispered sneakily; the camp strictly forbade the hotplate – and a stock of basic staples: canned chickpeas and tahini to make hummus, olive oil, rice and lentils. They were using the ledge outside their window as a refrigerator for some soda and frozen chicken nuggets.

With their plan for a German Salloura on hold while they wait for residence and work permits, Ahmed and Rashed’s thoughts often turn to wondering about what’s happening in Istanbul and in the shop they left behind. Before we traveled to Germany, Ahmed made a request: “Please, please bring dried coriander and Aleppo pepper from the Syrian market,” he asked in a voice-note over Whatsapp, the free mobile messaging service ubiquitous among refugees communicating with their loved ones across continents. “And don’t forget a box of baklava from Salloura!” he added. We packed nine pounds of syrupy, nutty sweets.

After a brunch spread of seven-spiced eggs and beans doused in garlic yogurt and olive oil, Ahmed asked for a bite. The men gathered around excitedly, unwrapping the purple boxes of sweets they used to painstakingly make just three months before.

The men missed the taste, but their request served a much higher purpose. They meant business. They weren’t tasting for pleasure, but quality. Just as Ahmed’s colleagues used to traverse embattled areas to give him a quality-control taste, we were now his messengers.

For a rare moment, the room went silent.

Rashed licked the sticky syrup from his fingers. The judgment was coming. “There’s supposed to be a rich smell of orange-blossom water, but it smells like nothing,” he critiqued. “There’s no flavor.”

Ahmed’s face fell as he picked apart a round sweet of packed, bright green pistachios, tightly wrapped in toasted shredded dough, called mabrumeh. “Tut, tut, tut…haram, haram, haram,” shame, shame, shame, he said shaking his head. The sweet, he explained, should come apart easily. “This is tough…and there’s burnt syrup on the bottom from a previous batch,” Ahmed said, demonstrating how difficult it was to snap the sweet in half. “I should call As’ad Salloura right now!”

Suddenly, a gasp. “Look!” He pulled out a piece of what looked like pistachios and snapped it in half: a shell. One of the others found a pebble in his bite and set it on the table next to the shell.

Ahmed had had enough. His brow furrowed, his spirit sullen, he moved to the other end of the room. “This has been our craft for 20 years,” he said. “To see it so deteriorated, it’s very, very sad.” Soon, his disappointment made way for guilt.

“I’m pretty much the only person [Salloura had] that can do quality control properly, but life in Turkey has no future,” he said regretfully. “We had to decide to leave for the sake of our families. We wouldn’t have abandoned Salloura. But we want to open Salloura here, we want to commemorate the Salloura we were part of. It won’t be different.”

If anything, he said, it’ll be even better, all to honor the family that, in his words, gave him everything.

Still, you could tell the rupture wore on Ahmed. Yet another decision foisted upon him by a war that has divided families and fractured relationships for the past five years. In an absence of good choices, is there a right decision? At what point does holding on hurt more than letting go?

Back in Istanbul, life had gone on without them. It wasn’t just the quality of the sweets that had changed. The Salloura store had transformed: the ice cream machine that once whirred at the front of the store under Rashed’s authority was nowhere in sight. They expanded upstairs, changed the uniforms from neon green polos to deep red ones, painted the walls an almost fluorescent white.

When we visited the restaurant after our return from Germany, friends of Ahmed and Rashed were eager to know the deal: How were they doing in Germany? What was it like? Were they happy?

They recorded Whatsapp video messages on our phones, telling the guys they missed them.

“Next time, take us with you!” one colleague half-joked to us.

But for As’ad, there wasn’t anything funny about their departure. He conceded that his sweets took a hit after Ahmed’s departure.

“There are some gaps that needed to be filled after they left,” he said. Gaps that have since narrowed, he tried to assure us.

But for As’ad, the men didn’t just leave him. They didn’t just leave his family’s restaurant.

“What’s more concerning is that they gave up on Syria,” he said, citing a proverb about how one loses his roots in exile. “They abandoned their country.”


This piece originally published on Culinary Backstreets and The Groundtruth Project on May 1, 2016.