Cooking with Alex and Nazeer: Building Community and Connections in the Kitchen
In 2007, I was hitchhiking from Istanbul to Cairo as a way to satisfy my curiosities about the Middle East and to discover what made this region so alluring. Having studied Arabic and the history of the Middle East at university and despite having spent extended periods in both Yemen and Morocco, I felt that I hadn’t connected with the culture and language I had spent so long studying. This was my chance to discover what was at the heart of the Arab world.
I had initially allotted three days of my month-long trip to Aleppo, but after a kind invitation to teach English and to live with a Syrian family, I spent twelve months there. Not only did I learn the local dialect, but I was welcomed in typical Arab tradition into people’s homes and lives. I ate more food in that year than I did in the previous two – even a simple outing to the shop to get a bottle of water would result in an invitation to dinner. This kindness and social ritual around food has shaped the way I live and understand the world.
The other important aspect that I learned was that not only was eating an event that brought people together, but the making of the food, too. Making Syrian ravioli (seesh barak) or stuffed vine leaves (yabra’) brought all the neighbours together for coffee and gossip while they worked together on the various repetitive tasks. For displaced families from different cities, sometimes this sense of community or skills are easily lost and at the same time a whole wealth of opportunities to create new ones.
One of the ways I contribute to SPI: Cooking with Nazeer
One fateful Sunday afternoon, we had a social event for all the volunteers associated with SPI for which we were encouraged to bring food. Wanting to keep things simple, I made a New York cheesecake. As the plate went around the room, it suddenly became apparent that many of the Syrian volunteers had never tasted it before and even the Turkish volunteers were used to the yoghurt-style ones available here. Something so readily available in the center of Istanbul and a stable in European cafes was a marvel. I was a little dumbstruck and determined to share some non-Middle Eastern cuisine with the people who come to the center.
I took my friend Nazeer aside – a talented Syrian cook – and asked him to be my partner in crime. Within a week, we had our first class organised for the kids – we would teach them how to bake gingerbread men. Our initial expectation was for ten kids. We ended up with 18. A little under-prepared and space-constrained, we did our best. We somehow managed to share the resources we had between the kids and came out with something close to what you would call gingerbread cookies! We also had a lot of fun (read mess) decorating them with raisins and icing. Despite the initial sense of being overwhelmed and stress of trying to keep the kids from burning themselves and getting dough on each other, we managed it.
From then on, it became a weekly staple and something that we all look forward to doing. Nowadays, we regularly have 25-30 children attend the class. It is always a challenge to keep the kids organised and entertained at the same time. Nazeer and I, as well as the other volunteers, have learned a lot about what we are able to achieve in an hour and a half. Giving the kids the ability to use their imagination is the key. While they enjoy rolling out the dough or adding various ingredients, it is in the decoration and their ability to express their creativity that they find the most satisfaction.
Although I don’t think any of us quite had the foresight to fully guage the impact of this activity, for kids and volunteers alike, the reactions and energy have been touching to say the least. Old friendships are strengthened and new ones created as we share tools and ingredients with each other (as well as compete to best decorate the baked goods, of course!). And, on a very personal note, I get a deep sense of satisfaction that I am able to give back to the new generation of Syrians after I was so warmly welcomed there ten years ago.