Margaret Obank reviews

Damascus – Taste of a City

by Marie Fadel as told to Rafik Schami

Translated from the German by Debra S Marmor & Herbert A Danner

Haus Publishing, London 2005

Armchair Traveller Series, ISBN 1-904950-30-2, hdk, 310 pp

An unusual walk through old Damascus

Haus Publishing is to be congratulated on its new series, Armchair Traveller. Each one is neatly sized to fit a large pocket and very satisfying to hold, with its heavy cream pages with ample margins and an easy-on-the-eye design. The jackets themselves, illustrated continuously from front to back, urge the reader to open up and get started on the tour. And soon as he/she opens there’s the first surprise – a double-page pull-out transparent map of the area or city being travelled.

This volume about Damascus is by Marie Fadel, as told to her famous novelist brother Rafik Schami. Having lived in Damascus until he was 25 years old, in all his years afterwards in Germany Rafik could never forget the tastes of his home city, while cooking became for him a passion and an art, “at once physical and practical”. . . an “essential challenge”.

As Rafik is far away in Germany, barred by “time and geography” from taking the culinary-cultural walk through the Old City himself, his sister Marie enthusiastically volunteers. The result is a thoroughly intriguing journey, nearly every step and turning there is somebody to visit, a particular dish to cook, or funny anecdote to tell. And then the next surprise: at the end of each visit or story a recipe, with the Arabic and English names of the dish at the top, and full instructions for preparation and cooking.

The Old City of Damascus has so many stories to tell, such a long and rich history that seems to slip seamlessly into modern life, just like Straight Street, called so “by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles”, which runs from east to west of the city. The first dish is tabbouleh, “that most famous of all Damascene salads”, which Marie’s Aunt Salime prepares most Sundays with a group of women friends. “It is always a feast for the palate, eyes, ears, laughter muscles and heart. Aunt Salime is the conductor, while we chop, crush and mix. She brings everything together into one mighty salad and then we sit for hours at her table, eating, laughing and talking.”

Marie, whose own favourite dish is stuffed vine leaves, introduces the reader to many of her friends and family, all of whom have their own specialities. There is Madhya “whose chicken dishes are among the best in Damascus”; the butcher Adnan, whose kebabs were “second to none”; Cousin Takla, whose “greatest culinary achievement is a classic lamb dish”; the old lady Ayshe, whose speciality was Tis’iyye, a spicy bread and chickpea soup; Hala, who excelled in making “green beans with garlic and aubergines”; Lamis, who “makes the best Makdus, specially spiced pickled aubergines”; Uncle Faris, who is “an expert on drinks of all kinds” and made his own schnapps and fragrant waters, and Aunt Malika, his wife, who “conjures up wonderful desserts” and reads coffee grounds; and there is Uncle Farid and his magnificent array of mezza, appetizers.

Through their stories and their dishes the Old City of Damascus comes to life, including Abbara Alley which was the home of Marie and Rafik’s family for 60 years, and is the same alley down which St Paul fled all those centuries ago. Damascus: Taste of a City is an enthralling book, in which the tales, the thirty-six dishes and the city are mixed into a delicious mezza that whets the reader’s appetite and offers the challenge to get cooking.

From Banipal 24 - Autumn 2005

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