You never know when you are going to need to be restart your life. The only thing that is predictable about life is that it’s unpredictable and although change can be traumatising, it can also bring many blessings. One moment I thought that my life was pretty much set and the next I’m on a flight back to Istanbul, alone, trying to figure out what next. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to meet my soul mate.
It was the first day of induction at the university before the start of the academic year and he was a colleague. I knew no one there and I hadn’t yet found a permanent place to live.
The fact that he is much better at teaching grammar than I am meant that I was always going to him for advice. It was completely professional until our conversations started to edge towards other topics and to continuations outdoors, in cafes or on long walks through the city.
Very slowly the distance between us started to collapse as we gained familiarity and trust. At the same time, there was this strange knowing that there were parts of him that would always remain foreign to me.
He had fled Syria two years after the war started, leaving behind both his mother and grandmother, not knowing that it would be the last time we would see them. He doesn’t have picture of either, nor any pictures of the place he grew up.
I found it strange and sad that I would never have the chance to meet his mother or visit the places he loves so much and remembers so vividly. As we fell in love, I wondered more and more about what it would feel like to go through what he did. Home has always been a place I could return to.
But what I learned from him is that home is not just tied to place but also to food. And Istanbul, with its vibrant Syrian community, had some really good Syrian restaurants, pastry shops and markets. And as he introduced me to different dishes and desserts, he would share with me the stories of home they evoked.
According to John S. Allen, author of The Omnivorous Mind, food is an effective trigger of deeper memories of feelings and emotions, the internal state of the mind and body that can be experienced simply by eating.
So as we shared plates of hummus, falafel, yebra, he would tell me about his grandmother who would always cook for him the food he loved. His favourite dish was ground beef, peas and rice along with others that have fancy names like Basha Wa-‘Asakro – A’s favourite kibbeh and minced meat stuffed dumplings in a warm yoghurt sauce – Shakriyeh – lamb in a yoghurt sauce served with rice – Mlukhyeh – a dish made from green jut leaves that have a distinct bitter taste. Then there was his grandmother’s famous bitter orange jam made from oranges picked from the citrus Aurantium tree which they would cool on the balcony of her enormous 460 square metre flat.
These memories on their own are hard to talk about.
What I learned from this experience is that a sense of home can be evoked by the food you place on the table, possibly more so than returning to a place you once knew. The memories are alive while the places have changed, especially those that have been ravaged by war.
As we begin our life as a newly married couple in the south of Italy, our home remains tied to what is served on the table. As A gets used to eating the local Italian specialities like fresh mozzarella, bread from Altamura, the variety of charcuterie and pasta, we also make Arabic bread. The plan is to recreate some of the recipes from his childhood and incorporate them into our own family traditions.
On a side note, but an important one – from our own experience we believe that it is the quality of the food you eat that adds to whether you feel rich or poor. Here in the south, living in the breadbasket of Italy, good quality food (the best I have ever eaten) is very affordable and full of flavour.
My mother thought I was nuts when I was raving about the taste of the local onions in season, known as Margherita di Savoia Cipolla until she arrived and agreed and couldn’t get enough of them. I joke with my friends that you haven’t eaten unless you have eaten in the south of Italy. My husband now knows this joke to be true.
Curious enough, the quality of the food here reminds him of home and also the old city, with its honey-coloured stone building and arches and its labyrinthine streets remind him of Old Damascus but without the war and the insecurity.