Karen Fisher, People of Za'atari Camp
Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful)
"Sabah al-khair (good morning)," we tell each other over the tarab music and bustle as Abu Ali works the rakwa (coffee pot) atop the flame, expertly stirring my usual shwey (a little) sugar into the dark Turkish coffee. In seconds, my perfect little cup is ready to motor my day—superhot with heady foam and fragrant cardamom. Six sips, though, maybe eight, and I'm hitting the grainy sludge. Rules you remember: Carry the cup by the rim, never stir the coffee, and never drink the sludge.
My stomach has been growling since Amman, anticipating ftoor (breakfast) at Za'atari Camp on the Syrian border, past all the camels and sheep, and their herders in dishdashah robes and shemagh, the red-checkered head scarves worn by men everywhere. Syrians are renowned as the best cooks in the Arab world, and Za'atari Camp is the world's most exclusive restaurant. Started in 2012 for people fleeing the Syrian War, Za'atari is a closed refugee camp that requires invitation and security permission to enter. A field design ethnographer since January 2015, I fell in love with the food as quickly as I did the people.
Ftoor is high art. I bypass the lure of the handmade mana'eesh pastries—za'atar with olive oil, jibneh (cheese) and za'atar, spinach, spicy shatta (hot sauce)—so many kinds, coming fresh from the souk (market) ovens, vibrant vegetable stalls, and spice stands toward the caravans and Um Mohammad's house. We women greet the Syrian way, rhythmically with right handshake and kiss to right cheek followed by two kisses to the left cheek, brief pause, then one more kiss and maybe a fourth. Children's hands accept my gift of maple sugar candies from home. Chai is ready and we start to cook.
Sweet frying onion wafts from the tiny kitchen. My eyes are drawn to a pyre of flame undressing the skin of aubergine, unleashing their smokiness for mnazzaleh, a stew of chickpeas and eggplant. It's dark, as electricity won't come on until evening, but the desert sun finds us, as does the shamal wind, sometimes clamoring, sometimes whistling through the space under the thin metal roof. Wallah (we swear by God), we're good to be inside and away from the haboob sandstorms today.
Chattering in Arabic about family in Dara'a and camp news, Um Mohammad's sister and daughters are sous-chefs extraordinaire. They seamlessly work together without cookbooks, without tables and chairs—no measuring spoons, scales, appliances, or modern gadgetry. Their tools are their hands, their gauges are their senses, and their recipes are as old as Syria itself.
"Yallah (let's go) Karen," they say, as I as join them in the main room rolling grape leaves for yabraq, long parcels of fragrant lamb and rice, then tied into bundles and layered into the big pot for steaming. All cooking is social, prepared as large trays with an eye to beauty. That is the Za'atari way. Satisfied, in the kitchen we make foul modammas, the stalwart bean stew served drizzled with spicy oil, cumin, and tomato for breaking the long days of fast during Ramadan, but equally enjoyed yearlong, and tasqia or fatteh, a regional Dara'a comfort food of layered bread, tahini, yogurt, and chickpeas fired into gooey bliss.
The caravan floor transforms into our soufra (table) as cloth is laid to dine in the traditional Arabi style, the Bedouin desert way. Scholars say it is Quranic; floor sitting entails bowing your head and being more social; tables, bowls, utensils are ostentatious. Um Mohammad snips the yabraq, unleashing their steam, dressing each platter with fresh lemon. Bowls for foul madammas with cumin and hot oil, and stacks of bread for the adorned mnazzalah and tasqia, along with home-cured olives, lemon wedges, hummus, za'atar, jibneh, and labneh signal "Let's eat!" Sharing tapestried cushions and bolsters that double at night for bedding, we say Bismallah (In the name of God) and dig in, tearing the pillowy-thin bread to scoop, make little parcels, and dip—all ways of eating. In the desert where water is scarce, we waste not. In truth, dining Arabi is utterly splendid; it brings people closer together. Even in Amman, if you're with the right people, they will lead you to restaurants with private, caravani-size rooms for experiencing the old Arabi way of dining.
|Author with legendary baker Abu Mohanned at his shop on Market Street in Za'atari Camp.|
Kitchens everywhere are the best places for news, gossip, and truly being with others. Everyone at camp has a story. There are 78,000 stories, one for every person. Um Mohammad fled to Jordan with her children and sister in 2012, just after Za'atari opened. At that time, it was a collection of tents; people cooked over open flames or the desert way, in ovens tunneled in the sand, making dishes like zarb—pieces of fresh lamb or chicken slow cooked with herbs, rendering juices onto vegetables crisping in suspension underneath. People had few belongings then and were suffering from war trauma; families were scattered, with many trapped in Syria. It took coordinated effort by the Syrians, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), aid groups, and the Kingdom of Jordan for Za'atari to become what it is today: a community of resilience, pride, and identity.
The people brought many of the old ways of Syria to Za'atari—ways of cooking, ways of healing, and especially ways of eking out a living in the barren desert that most thought were long in the past. In a sense, leaving Syria and surviving the war also meant returning to Syria, to an earlier time. Remembering refrigeration without modernity, jerry-rigging generators and pumps to stave off the winter freeze and spring floods, against which caravans' metal walls and camp roads offer little protection, and relying on herbs and food to keep the body healthy and cure afflictions.
My red notebook, fat with stories, lore, and wisdom since January 2015, when I arrived from Seattle on invitation from UNHCR, smells like Za'atari. In truth, it's expanded into volumes with many people—children and people with disabilities included—writing in Arabic and doodling. My writing is the least legible. I'm a professor at the University of Washington in information science, a design ethnographer by way of librarianship, and I'm a long way from my island home of Newfoundland in eastern Canada. If Za'atari had a guest book, I'd surely peg as the only Newfoundlander.
In a sense, leaving Syria and surviving the war also meant returning to Syria, to an earlier time.
I wasn't invited to create a cookbook or cultural book. It happened organically—mashallah, by will of God and the people. In my first visit, which focused on how young people use mobile phones and the Internet, girls drew pictures of themselves baking cakes to help war orphans feel better. Next, people kept diaries about life in Syria and Za'atari, and their hopes for the future, pasting in photos taken with instant cameras. This was a way of understanding what life is like 24/7 from different perspectives. Sixteen-year-old Thikka's diary, in English, has my first recipe from Za'atari and was the inspiration for our book. It deserves to be in an archive instead of in my office in Seattle.
Ghada' is lunch, the biggest, most important meal of the day, and everyone gathers. Leading up, vendors hawk produce by donkey cart through Za'atari's dusty roads, calling out their wares to the background of the Muezzins' Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, which resounds beautifully from the many masjid (mosques) five times a day. Za'atari is vast, more than 1,300 acres divided into 12 districts, each with a theme and an array of colorful bespoke caravans and hidden gardens, community centers, schools, and a hospital—all surrounded by the Ring Road and then the desert, beckoning past Jordan's Bedouin border to Syria. Starting around 3 p.m., inshallah, ghada' brings camp to a standstill and Little Syria, Little Dara'a—the Cradle of the Revolution in southern Syria where most people are from—emerges. Camp is heavy with the aromas of home: shish barak (old man's ear), delicate pastries filled with meat and gently poached in yogurt. Majestic mleihi, choice lamb atop Bedouin jameed, dried homemade yogurt, adding creamy salty zest to a bulgur base. Rgagah aqaqa, layers and layers of dough, chicken, spices, and onion fired in the oven. Fatoush tossed with pomegranate seeds, sumac, and nana (mint); tabula (rocket salad); stuffed mnazzaleh (aubergine) and mahshi (zucchini); olives; lemon; labne; and stacks of soft bread begin to round out the sides. Later in the evening, as neighbors visit for coffee and sweets—baklawa and cream puddings with syrup, rose water, dates, and nuts—over shisha, games of cards, and tawilat alzahr, Syria's famous hand-tooled backgammon boards, to sounds of singing, oud (guitar), and tabla (drums), the leftover bread is placed outside in thanks to Allah for his mercy.
The souks have amazing street food—golden crispy falafel with fluffy insides, savored as finger delicacies glistening with dark earthy sumac, popped fresh from the hot oil or smashed with condiments in sandwiches; juicy chicken as shish tawook or shawarma with homemade pickles and sauce wrapped in hot bread baked on the saj next door; and lamb kabobs grilled in the open air that lure you from blocks away, all prepared and sold by men. Everything is fresh, local, and organic. But the best food was inside the caravans, made by the women. I asked UNHCR if we could do a cookbook, building on our work identifying community assets and strengths. The cookbook would document and preserve indigenous knowledge about food practices handed down through generations. The next day, the cookbook was launched.
The cookbook would preserve indigenous knowledge about food practices handed down through generations.
Writing a cookbook was not simple. I met with women to ask if they wanted to do such a project. They wholeheartedly said tmam (yes), but the next question was, "How do we start?" There were no examples at camp, no one brought cookbooks from Syria (think what you would take if fleeing your home from war), and no one really had cookbooks anyway, because everyone had learned from their mothers and grandmothers.
We started to build the cookbook through workshops or gatherings. It was a gradual process. First, we discussed "What is a cookbook?" "What is a recipe?" and "What goes into a recipe?" These were deep discussions and we didn't want to be tainted by Western or Arab books. Za'atari women prepare food in large quantities and cook socially. They don't use measuring spoons or cups, but instead use their hands, jar lids, cups, eyes, and approximations such as size of a chicken head to describe an amount. Then there was the challenge of specifying ingredients, such as spices, and methods, such as put on fire, use dough, or cook until done. The women had to agree to be explicit in their terminology, tacit knowledge that they had never described and that had mixed meanings to each cook. The cooks of Za'atari went beyond penning the expert yet vague recipes of Michelin chefs, who assume the a priori knowledge of the initiated, to capture the fine inner details.
Other decisions: what to include in each recipe? In addition to listing the title, ingredients, and method, the women wanted to be referenced by the Arab convention of Um or Abu, meaning "mother of" or "father of" [son's or daughter's name], and Anseh [name] for an unmarried woman or girl to protect their identity as refugees and from the regime. They would also include their village in Syria, and their district in Za'atari. Other commentary included why the recipe is good for you, the time of day or season to serve the food (in keeping with Arab medicine), how they learned to prepare the dish, and something about their personal story.
With all of this nailed down, we began identifying recipes like food detectives. Word went viral across Za'atari. A highlight was a workshop in August 2016. A large workshop might draw 25 people. This workshop drew 140 people and it was 108 degrees… and we were all inside a canvas tent. More remarkable is that men participated. Za'atari, like much of the Arab world, is a gendered society in which women and men perform separate activities, or, when mixed, sit apart with women on one side and men on the other. Together we brainstormed the recipe sections, posted sticky notes on the tent walls, and then started figuring out the recipes for each section.
The men also came to participate in the inaugural Za'atari Camp Top Chef Contest. Organized on the fly like many things Za'atari, the contest came together magically (Yallah!), co-designed by the community with the support of UNHCR and aid workers. The community determined the rules for entry and participation (e.g., double blind, team entries, hot dishes judged first) and what they would like as prizes. I shared the suggested prize list with UNHCR for items that would facilitate food safety, as well as time and energy savings. Thus, prizes included pressure cookers, large pots, and electric fryers. All participants received welcome gifts such as oven mitts and silicone spatulas. To great fanfare, the nine judges from the community and aid agencies announced 10 winners, with a first-place tie between the maglouba (a showstopping "upside down" main dish) and basboussa cream (a simple but most deceptively difficult-to-make sweet). During the judging, the community had a breakout talent show, with people sharing the microphone to sing and recite poetry.
More than 2,000 Syrians participated in writing pages by hand as the cookbook morphed into Za'atari: Food and Stories from the Syrian People of Za'atari Camp. Food transcends cultures and boundaries of gender, age, ability, and trauma. Food heals the soul. As people wrote pages together on high-quality linen paper, a camp artist did illustrations to reflect the themes. Each page is a work of art illuminating the collective creativity of Za'atari and Syria. Many are multi-authored, such as the pages on Arab medicine or instances where a person with deep knowledge but low literacy was assisted with writing by a friend or aid worker. As the book grew, people added poetry—most highly regarded in the Arab world—paintings, stories from Syria and Za'atari, and other art. Stories of girls planning futures as surgeons and human rights lawyers over early marriage; single mothers supporting their children and elderly parents; disabled young men designing wheelchairs to handle Za'atari's roads; boys juggling school and work to help their families; men in the souks and artists who could be teaching entrepreneurship at any Ivy League school; and elders teaching the traditions of old Syria to children born in the camp. Syrians photographed food and cultural moments. I, in the meantime, pursued learning the Za'atari way of cooking firsthand by co-cooking with women in their homes, visiting all the souk food stands and the school-lunch-preparation center. Where food was, so was I. In Amman, I continued my study of Syrian and Arab food, learning how Za'atari preparation was unique to people's origins in Syria and had been adapted to camp, such as dyeing peanuts green to replace expensive pistachios and using corn oil in lieu of beloved olive oil. Wartime food practices echo throughout history. Think WWII and how cooking changed, with substitutes for butter, eggs, milk, flour, coffee, meat, and vegetables, a preview of the premade, box-top, fast-food industry to come.
|Ghada' at Um Ahmad's caravan: delicious rice and chicken.|
Translating the pages into English proved difficult: There is much cultural variation across the Arab world itself, and Arabic speakers in the U.S. were unfamiliar with Za'atari's usage of caravan, Ring Road, and other cultural idioms. I understood Za'atari, especially as I was there during the writing of each page, but my Arabic was weak. Even translators from Syria were a poor fit if they did not understand Za'atari. One translator inserted phrases from the Quran; another omitted a recipe because it wasn't the Damascene way of making shawarma. Arabic is a highly poetic language. The people of Za'atari expend much emotion in every word. If a woman wrote that she thought of her mother when preparing a dish, in Arabic the words would be amplified 10 times over. We needed a translator who was Syrian, a foodie who understood the speech and cultural idioms of Za'atari and Dara'a, as well as the need for authenticity, and who would capture poetic depth. Mashallah, we found him.
As we neared completion, we had to make some final decisions. First was taking stock of all the pages, scanning for duplicate recipes, and identifying the best version. By now, the women approached the project as domain experts. We held a workshop for each recipe category and sifted through all the pages. Ironically, many of the early pages with the most beautiful illustrations hit the cutting floor. The women were merciless. Sometimes they decided two or three recipes should be blended, or that no version sufficed, and the recipe had to be redone. Second, we had to identify what was missing. This was more challenging, requiring stepping away and asking, "What are we not seeing?" Missing were the most ubiquitous, everyday staples—hummus and pita bread! Where, I asked, where is hummus? Where is hummus? Everyone roared, not believing that we had missed hummus, and started jotting down recipes along with their many variations. But pita bread was more perplexing—nobody knew what the heck I was talking about. I tried Google Translate (my fallback), and finally showed a picture from the Web. "Ahhh, you mean normal bread, tmam, normal bread." And laughter, amid disbelief, roared again.
Salaam Alaikum (Peace be with you), Ahlan bik (Welcome) to Za'atari, and see you at ftoor.
Karen E. Fisher is a professor at the Information School, University of Washington, and an embedded field researcher with UNHCR Jordan. She has worked with the people of Za'atari Camp since 2015 to produce Za'atari: Food and Stories from the Syrian People of Za'atari (Goose Lane, Spring 2021, in English, French, and Arabic). Her expertise lies in using design ethnography to understand and support communities. A proud Canadian, she has found her second home at Za'atari Camp. firstname.lastname@example.org
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