At beloved falafel shop, Syrians get taste of pre-war Raqqa

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Raqqa is still mostly a sinister ghost town of gutted buildings and rubble-strewn streets but there is one place teeming with activity in the Syrian city: Ammar Qassab’s falafel shop. (AFP)
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Syrians buy falafel at the King’s Restaurant, the oldest and most famous falafel restaurant in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. (AFP)
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A Syrian man prepares falafel at the King’s Restaurant, the oldest and most famous falafel restaurant in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. (AFP)
Updated 17 January 2018
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At beloved falafel shop, Syrians get taste of pre-war Raqqa

RAQQA, Syria: Raqqa is still mostly a sinister ghost town of gutted buildings and rubble-strewn streets but there is one place teeming with activity in the Syrian city: Ammar Qassab’s falafel shop.
“We reopened almost two weeks ago,” the 33-year-old said, as one of his employees spooned balls of yellow chickpea mixture from a battered, bullet-pierced vat and dipped them in searing oil.
“King Falafel is famous here,” Qassab said, smiling as customers crowded his tiny shop in central Raqqa.
Only a few months ago, the northern Syrian city was still the inner sanctum of the Daesh’s now defunct “caliphate.”
A huge military operation, led on the ground by Kurdish fighters and in the air by US warplanes, defeated the extremists but also left the city completely disfigured.
Once home to around 300,000 people, Raqqa’s neighborhoods were empty when it was declared retaken in mid-October.
Three months on, despite the lack of infrastructure and the lingering threat of unexploded mines and bombs, a trickle of residents — a few hundred families — are attempting to return.
“I cannot say how happy it makes me to see people return to the city and come here again,” said Qassab.
He sells around 1,200 falafel sandwiches a day, a number he explained was the result of recent returnees not having working kitchens to prepare their own food.
King Falafel, across from the famed Harun Al-Rashid park, was itself a food landmark in Raqqa for more than four decades.
It stayed open even after extremists took over the city in 2014 but had to close a year ago as fighting to oust IS got closer.
For Qassab and other Raqqa natives, the reopening of the falafel shop signals a return to familiar things.
The owner and his helpers are back to dropping balls of mashed chickpeas into a deep frier, then pressing the crispy puck-shaped falafel into flatbread with pickles and tahini.
And like they once did years ago, customers pull up plastic chairs to the storefront to dig into their savoury sandwiches.
“I was 10 when I came here for the first time,” said Issa Ahmed Hassan, a white-haired man in his fifties.
“My family and I used to come for the park to watch the people walk by,” he said.
Hassan left Raqqa two years ago with the rest of the city’s Kurdish minority, and King Falafel was one of his first stops when he returned to his hometown.
“A lot of people didn’t come back because of this crisis. God willing, the situation will get better and Raqqa will be even more beautiful than before,” he said.
Across the city, life is attempting to take hold in neighborhoods that were restricted military areas just weeks ago.
Returnees seek out the few shops that have reopened to find basic goods, but many struggle to contain their anger at what they see is the slow pace of reconstruction.
“I came back to find my house a wreck, with rubble two meters high,” said Abdel Sattar Al-Abid, a 39-year-old who returned to rebuild his home in the devastated Old City.
Dozens of security forces and civilians have been killed and wounded since October by the explosion of booby-traps and roadside bombs left behind by Daesh.
Abid was critical of the local authorities, saying not enough was being done to bring back water and clean up the streets.
“I risked my life and started cleaning up without even checking for mines. We just started because we want to live here,” he said.
Across the city, residents have similar complaints.
With infrastructure still ravaged, they are relying on neighborhood electricity generators and water that has been trucked in.
Iman Al-Faraj, 40, returned to Raqqa almost three weeks ago to find nothing standing from her beloved home except a single room.
“Look at our houses. They’re all destroyed. Who has the money to rebuild?” the mother-of-eight cried out.
“From an entire house, I’ve got nothing except one room. I fixed it and put in a door, and now that’s where we live.”
“We pay 1,000 Syrian pounds (about $2) for a single ampere of electricity. We can’t live in darkness,” said Faraj.
Near the Old City’s ancient Rafiqah wall, Mohammad Omar has lined up rows of gas canisters and plastic jugs of diesel.
“If you have money, you buy diesel. If you don’t have money, you burn wood. If you don’t have wood, you burn sponge mattresses or furniture,” said Omar, 25.
And just a few meters away, Ismail Omar gazed at his ravaged home.
“We’re the biggest losers in this war. We’ve got nothing left but destruction, mines, hunger, and poverty,” the 45-year-old said.
“What’s gone isn’t coming back.”


Boris Becker’s diplomatic passport is ‘fake’, says Central African Republic

Former German tennis player Boris Becker. (AFP)
Updated 47 min 56 sec ago
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Boris Becker’s diplomatic passport is ‘fake’, says Central African Republic

  • Becker, responding through a German magazine, insisted that he held genuine diplomatic status
  • The document’s serial number corresponded to one of a batch of “new passports that were stolen in 2014

BANGUI: The Central African Republic (CAR) said on Tuesday that a diplomatic passport that tennis star Boris Becker claims entitles him to immunity in bankruptcy proceedings in Britain “is a fake.”
“The diplomatic passport that he has is a fake,” foreign ministry chief of staff Cherubin Mologbama told AFP.
The document’s serial number corresponded to one of a batch of “new passports that were stolen in 2014,” he said.
In addition, the passport — a copy of which has been seen by AFP, and bears the date of March 19, 2018 — does not carry the signature or the stamp of the foreign minister, Charles Armel Doubane, Mologbama said.
Becker, responding through a German magazine, insisted that he held genuine diplomatic status.
“It’s the truth. It is a fact that I am, today, a diplomat” of the CAR, he said in a filmed interview with Top Magazin Frankfurt.
On Friday, lawyers for Germany’s three-time Wimbledon champion lodged a claim in the High Court in Britain saying that he had been appointed a sports attache for the CAR to the European Union (EU) in April.
This, they argued, granted him immunity under the 1961 Vienna Diplomatic Convention on Diplomatic Relations from bankruptcy proceedings over failure to pay a long-standing debt.
“Becker’s job profile does not exist” in the CAR’s records, Mologbama said.
Furthermore, the passport says that Becker’s diplomatic function is “financial charge de mission,” a role that “has nothing to do with sporting questions,” he noted.
In April, the 50-year-old former tennis star had tweeted a picture of himself shaking hands with CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera at a meeting in Brussels.
Becker shook up the tennis world at Wimbledon in 1985 when, as an unseeded player, he became the then youngest-ever male Grand Slam champion at the age of 17, defending the trophy the following year.
The German went on to enjoy a glittering career and amassed more than $25 million (21.65 million euros) in prize money.

The CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking at the very bottom of the 188 nations in the UN Development Programme’s 2016 Human Development Index.
Landlocked, rich in gold, diamonds, oil and uranium, the country of 4.6 million people has been chronically unstable since it gained independence from France in 1960.
Presidents have traditionally been surrounded by “sleazy courtesans” and “dodgy counsellors who talk loud,” French writer Jean-Pierre Tuquoi wrote in a book published last year.
Its modern history has been studded with coups, foreign mercenaries, assassination attempts, shadowy business deals and improbable figures, he says.
They include Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a former army corporal and fan of Napoleon who became president, then president for life — and finally declared himself emperor before being ousted by France in 1979 after a massacre of school children.
One of his successors, Francois Bozize, was named in a law suit filed in France in 2015 by the CAR government, which said that during his tenure, “numerous advisers and relatives... benefitted from passports of convenience” in exchange for money.
These including a Kazakh opposition figure, Mukhtar Abiazov, a female adviser to former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and an Israeli businessman, according to the suit filed by the CAR’s attorney, William Bourdon.
Bozize was overthrown in 2013 by a mainly Muslim rebel alliance, the Seleka. His elected successor, Faustin-Archange Touadera, has effective rule over only a fraction of the country as most of it is in the hands of militias.
Poor governance and a tradition of graft make for a toxic mixture, says Thierry Vircoulon, a CAR specialist at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI).
“Given the authorities’ extreme weakness and corruptibility, crooks and conmen of every stripe always find a way to gain access to the president and make money,” he says. “This country is perfect for business pirates.”