Bakdash: Sweet taste of home for Syrian refugees

SCRIPT:

This is Bakdash - billed as one of the oldest shops in the world selling Arabic ice cream.

Opened right here in Al-Hamidiyeh bazaar in Damascus, it's still going strong despite the civil war in Syria that has killed more than 94,000 people.

And now the ice cream is making mouths water in neighbouring Jordan.

A Bakdash branch opened in Amman in early May - a delight for Syrians who have fled the conflict and are nostalgic for a taste of home.

SOUNDBITE 1 - Sleiman Muhanna (man), Syrian architecture professor (Arabic, 12 sec):

"Most of my thoughts are with my country, Damascus and my neighbourhood because it's only natural for a person to miss his roots, so when I saw the store it grabbed my attention."

Made with boiled milk, vanilla, Arabic gum and pistachios - it's a uniquely Middle Eastern type of ice cream that is elastic in texture.

The final touches are done in Amman, but the product itself is still made in Damascus.

Refrigerated trucks travel 170 kilometres through the Syrian cities of Suweida and Daraa before bringing the ice cream across the border - facing many risks along the way.

SOUNDBITE 2 - Janoub (man), Amman shop manager (Arabic, 16 sec):

"Sometimes it's the Free Syrian Army, sometimes the regime's army and sometimes criminal gangs, theft, armed robberies, so the containers are loaded and they leave in a convoy of 20 or 30 for their safety."

60-70 percent of the customers are Syrian, many of them among the nearly half a million who have sought refuge in Jordan.

Mohammed came here to work from the main shop just a few weeks ago.

SOUNDBITE 3 - Mohammed (man), Amman shop employee (Arabic, 10 sec):

"The situation in Syria is pretty bad. Bakdash will always be from Damascus. We came here to keep Syria prosperous."

As well as Bakdash, other Syrian shops and restaurants have opened up here - turning the area into a sort of little Damascus.

As customers dig in to their ice cream, on the walls lie another glimpse of home.

SHOTLIST:

DAMASCUS, SYRIA, NOVEMBER 8, 2012, SOURCE: AFPTV/M. GHANDOUR

- VAR of Bakdash in Al-Hamidiyeh bazaar

AMMAN, JORDAN, MAY 21, 2013, SOURCE: AFPTV/F. BRUERE

- VAR of Bakdash on Madina Munawwara Street

- SOUNDBITE 1

- VAR of employees preparing ice cream

- VAR of Janoub working at the cash register

- SOUNDBITE 2

- VAR of customers

- VAR of Mohammed pounding ice cream

- SOUNDBITE 3

- VAR of customers

- VAR of painting on the wall of Old Damascus

///

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AFP TEXT STORY:

Lifestyle-Syria-conflict-Jordan-food-company-Bakdash

Ice cream nostalgia brings tears to Syria refugee eyes

Amman (Jordan) / May 2013 / AFP (Rana EL MOUSSAOUI)

An enticing aroma of boiled milk, vanilla, gum Arabic and pistachios; the rhythmic pounding of wooden mallets deep into stainless steel vats, the clink of spoons on glass accompanying cheerful conversation.

These are the sights, sounds and smells of Bakdash, billed as one of the oldest shops in the world selling Arabic ice cream, and located in Al-Hamidiyeh bazaar in the world's oldest capital, war-rattled Damascus.

These sensual delights are now making people's mouths water in Jordan's capital, Amman, but memories of them are also bringing tears to the eyes of Syrians who have fled the conflict in their country and are nostalgic for a taste of home.

What they are missing is Bakdash's "booza," a uniquely Middle Eastern type of ice cream that is elastic in texture, like taffee. Adding to its distinct flavour and texture is salep, a flour made from the tubers of the mascula orchid.

In 1895, Mohammad Hamdi Bakdash opened his shop in Al-Hamidiyeh, and it is still going strong there despite the civil war that has killed more than 94,000 people and is increasingly threatening the capital.

Earlier this month, a Bakdash franchise opened in Amman on Madina Munawwara Street. The decor is identical to the fast-food ambience of Bakdash itself, with its glaring neon lights, large mirrors, long rows of tables and waiters squeezing past customers ordering cones to take away.

"I am so moved," said Sleiman Muhanna, a Syrian architecture professor who teaches in both the Syrian and Jordanian capitals. "They have recreated the spirit of Damascus."

Janoub, the 25-year-old Jordanian who runs the Amman shop, said 60-70 percent of his customers are Syrian, many of them among the nearly half a million of their countrymen who have fled home and are now living in Jordan.

He also speaks of the emotional impact of the place.

"I have seen elderly ladies weep" when they come in.

Janoub speaks as two young men, white bandanas wrapped around their heads, pound the booza with long wooden clubs that look giant pestles to soften it and make it more elastic. What is pulled out of the containers could look to the untrained eye like pizza dough or, yes, even chewing gum.

As he works, 24-year-old Mohammed tells of how he came here to work from the mother store just a few weeks ago.

Damascus "is not like it was before. The situation is getting steadily worse. Here it's like being at home, but it's not really Damascus."

"They say the perfume of Damascus is here, but they all long to go home."

The pounding is done in Amman, and the final product mixed with pistachios and other delicacies for serving, but the ice cream itself is still made in Damascus to "preserve the true cachet of Syria," Janoub said.

But getting it to Amman, 170 kilometres (105 miles) to the south, is fraught with risks.

"The ice cream is made in Al-Hamidiyeh and transported each day in refrigerated trucks," Janoub explained.

The trucks head south through Suweida, then across to Daraa before crossing the border," all the time skirting bombed out areas and potential obstacles along the way.

"Sometimes it's the FSA (rebel Free Syrian Army), sometimes the (national) army and sometimes criminal gangs."

While two of his employees came from Bakdash in Damascus, Janoub said the others are either refugees or fled to avoid being forced into military service, which is compulsory at the age of 19.

One of them is Karim, whose timid face rarely breaks into a smile.

He is from the central western city of Homs and declined to give his real name. "My parents are still there, and I saw three of my cousins killed before my eyes."

He said he left in July when he turned 19 "because I didn't want to fight in the army.

As customers dig in to their booza, he relates a bitter tale similar to that of so many other young men his age.

"My brother, who is 24, said one of us would go off and join the fight against the regime. He went, and I am here."

For now, Madina Munawwara Street has become a sort of Little Syria, full of shops and restaurants that speak of home.

But the thoughts in so many hearts are the same: "As soon as the regime falls, I'm going back to Syria."

ram/al