Syria’s famed sweets bringing smiles once again

A worker prepares traditional Syrian delicacies at a shop in Damascus’ Midan neighborhood. Syria’s grinding conflict has brought bitterness to producers of the country’s renowned Middle Eastern sweets, but after years of struggle they say business is finally picking up again. (AFP)
Updated 02 November 2017
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Syria’s famed sweets bringing smiles once again

DAMASCUS: Syria’s grinding conflict has brought bitterness to producers of the country’s renowned Middle Eastern sweets, but after years of struggle they say business is finally picking up again.
At the “Daoud Brothers” sweet shop in the capital Damascus, 20 workers surround large metal platters, preparing hundreds of wafer-thin barazek, a famed Syrian biscuit dotted with pistachio pieces and coated in sesame seeds.
Syria’s Arabic sweets were once a leading export as well as a must-have souvenir for visiting tourists.
But the war that erupted after March 2011 anti-government protests decimated the industry, with tourism disappearing and domestic consumption nosediving as the conflict ravaged the economy.
Fighting cut routes that brought the finest ingredients from across the country to producers, and closed borders that once facilitated exports to the region and beyond.
“With the war, exports were basically interrupted,” said Radwan Daoud, the shop’s export manager.
“There was no demand, and we couldn’t deliver on what orders there were because the workshops were in Damascus province,” he said, referring to areas where clashes between Syria’s army and rebels were frequent.
“Getting through was difficult and dangerous, and the routes were often cut.”
Parts of Damascus province outside the capital are some of the last remaining strongholds of Syria’s rebel forces, but in recent months fighting has dropped off thanks to the implementation of a “de-escalation zone” in the region.
Elsewhere in the country, Syria’s regime has recovered territory, backed by ally Russia, restoring supply and export routes.
Daoud said exports were back on the rise in the past few months as a result.
“Primary materials and products can reach markets easily and quickly,” he said.
“Things have finally started to pick up again, and we’ve recovered about 15 percent of our activity.”

There are no publicly available official figures contrasting sales and exports in the sweets sector before the war and at present.
But Daoud Brothers once exported up to 40 tons of sweets a month, mostly to Canada, the US, Europe and the Gulf.
For the moment, sweets are exported either by boat from the ports of Latakia and Tartus, or taken by land into neighboring Lebanon and flown from Beirut airport.
But producers are eagerly awaiting the promised reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan so they can once again export to the Gulf by land.
Most of the capital’s most famous sweet shops are clustered in the southern neighborhood of Midan, where an enticing smell wafts from stores and owners offer passersby samples from their doorways in a bid to draw them in.
Inside Abu Arab Haider, one of the city’s most famous sweet shops, Abu Moataz carefully slices a tray of baklava, its delicate golden layers of flakey pastry sprinkled with vibrant green and purple pistachios.
“We have been stopped for a long time, but the time has arrived to restart work,” he said.
“Every ingredient comes from a different city. The pistachios are from Hama, the samna (fat) is from Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, the flour comes from Houran,” said Abu Moutaz, 45.
“When a particular region was affected by the events in Syria, the taste of the sweets would be changed because we’d have to use alternative ingredients, which generally weren’t of as high quality.”
Like all the sweet-makers in Midan, Abu Moutaz’s shop closed its door for two weeks in the summer of 2012, when clashes between the regime and rebels reached the neighborhood, which was briefly captured by opposition fighters.
In recent years, the store has opened branches abroad, four of them in Germany and a fifth in Jordan, which sell both sweets made locally and imported from Syria.
“Syrians are everywhere abroad, particularly in Germany,” said Abu Moutaz, referring to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have made their way there.
Sitting behind his desk, shop supervisor Riyad Naama said he is optimistic after years of slow sales.
“Today we’re feeling good about the export market. We started preparing last year and now we’re already exporting.”
Naama breaks away to attend to some Iraqi customers, who end up buying more than 50 kilos (110 pounds) of sweets for around $300.
But even if exports are picking up, local consumption remains slow.
Laila, 40, accepts a sample proffered by an employee as she admires the sweets displayed in the shop window.
“Before, we would always have Arabic sweets at home, but because of the crisis I’ve had to do without them,” she said.
“A kilo of luxury sweets nowadays costs a quarter of my husband’s monthly salary.”
In the end, she settles for buying just three pieces of the “mabrouma” dessert, little cylinders of golden syrup-soaked vermicelli stuffed with a center of pistachios.
“One for my husband, one for my son, and one for me,” she says, with a broad smile.
“There’s nothing to be happy about these days except sweets. I thought that the war had made us old, but I feel like a happy little girl with my dessert.”


Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

Displaced Syrian children attend class at a makeshift school in the village of Muhandiseen, in the south western countryside of the Aleppo province, on September 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 25 September 2018
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Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

  • Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side

ALEPPO, Syria: In rebel-held northern Syria, displaced children sit or lie on the ground of an unfinished villa, bending over their notebooks to apply themselves as they write the day’s lesson.
Four teachers instruct around 100 children — girls and boys aged six to 12 — at the makeshift school in an opposition-held area in the west of the northern province of Aleppo.
Between the bare walls of the villa abandoned mid-construction, children sit or lie on sheets or plain carpets, their small backpacks cast by their side.
Dubbed “Buds of Hope,” the teaching facility has no desks, library or even working toilets.
Instead, the air wafts in from beyond the pine trees outside through the gaping windows in the cement wall.
Dressed in a bright blue T-shirt and jeans, her hair neatly tied back in a pony tail, a barefoot girl kneels over her book, carefully writing.
“This isn’t a school,” says 11-year-old Ali Abdel Jawad.
“There aren’t any classrooms, no seats, nothing. We’re sitting on the ground,” he says.
In one classroom, a gaggle of veiled young girls sit on a bench, as the teacher explains the lesson to one of their male counterparts near a rare white board.
In another, the school’s only female teacher perches on a plastic chair, as her students gather around on the floor, their backs against the wall.

Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side.
The children — as well as their teachers — have been displaced from their homes in other parts of Syria due to the seven-year war, a teacher told an AFP photographer.
Some hail from Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, a former rebel stronghold that fell back under regime control in April after a blistering offensive and surrender deals.
Others come from the central provinces of Hama or Homs.
A dry fountain lies in the courtyard outside the villa’s elegant facade, where girls link arms and swing around in a circle.
Schools in opposition-held areas are generally funded by aid organizations, but have in the past been hit by bombardment.
“We’re always scared of bombardment and of the situation in general,” says one of the teachers, giving his name as Mohammed.
The building lies in rebel-held territory adjacent to regime-controlled parts of Aleppo city to the east, but also the major opposition stronghold of Idlib to the west.
Some three million people live in the Idlib province and adjacent areas of the neighboring Aleppo and Latakia provinces, around half of them displaced by war in other parts of Syria.
Earlier this month, many feared a regime assault on Idlib, but last week Damascus ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara announced a deal to temporarily halt it.