Several times, now, I have joined groups of friends on tours of Syria, providing a bit of cultural backdrop to their sightseeing. I love adding a human dimension to piles of ancient ruins, but I’ve learned I need to avoid the official tour guides and tourist-trap activities. Otherwise, I just grow cantankerous. This story was written while on a tour with a group of 20 student volunteers.
He’s a Part of the Ruins, Homs, Syria, 8 July 2008
I spent an afternoon sitting with a restaurant owner. His restaurant is perfectly located for attracting a steady clientele: it is the only establishment that sits right outside the entrance to one of the country’s top tourist destinations: Crac des Chevaliers, an enormous Crusader castle situated impressively on top of a hill which can be seen for miles and miles and miles.
A friend, the bus driver and I spent the afternoon in this man’s restaurant while the rest of our group wandered around the castle. When the group finished their tour, they all raved about the view from the top. It is indeed an impressive view, but the view from the restaurant was nothing to shy away from: the entire valley below, pocketed with villages and farmland, could be seen through a frame of pomegranate and apricot trees. It was all the more inspiring to think that the produce from those trees was a part of our lunch.
When we walked in, we were greeted warmly by the entire staff, and even more warmly by the owner. Our visit being off-season and late in the day, the restaurant was empty, so we sat down right next to the window, and the owner joined us for a chat before the meal, and then for a good long visit after the meal.
He was a jovial man with crew-cut white hair. His teeth were stained and his skin sunburnt, and he was a bit short and round, but he sat comfortably in his chair and energetically talked about the reason that he doesn’t serve a lot of lamb in his restaurant: very few cuts of a lamb are actually good to eat and he only wants to serve the best – and he doesn’t want to let the rest go to waste. He explained that to make kibbe naie (a delicious raw meat dish) it can only be fresh, as in the meat can never have been refrigerated. He talked a bit about his plants and his trees and about the flavours he uses. This discourse took place to the backdrop of our tummies growling during the brief wait for our food to arrive. He must know his food well, because each dish was special, uniquely flavoured, and absolutely delicious.
He let us eat in silence, but as soon as we were done, he came back. He sang for us, a song about each one. His Arabic was eloquent and poetic, which means I didn’t understand much of it. And I’m afraid I’ve now forgotten the little bit that I that I did understand of the proverbs and poems he recited for us, but I really wish I could have taken out a notebook and written down every word he said. His wisdom and his poise demonstrated a strong education, and a deep pride in his heritage as an Arab from one of the seats of local history.
I asked my friend how long he’d been here, working this restaurant. She looked at the driver and he shrugged. They both nodded their heads broadly and my friend said, “Wow. I think he’s been around about as long as these ruins have!”