By Hannah Clarke
When I bake the bread, I first sift the flour like this, see? As my parents did and their parents did before them. Our ancestors harvested the wheat from the base of the Harasta hills, where the water runs clear and reflects a thousand suns. It carves life into the dry, hot earth. I pick up the flour between my hands and I feel God. Aysh Allah. You must learn how to make saj and I will teach you.
The further away from Syria we travelled, the worse the bread became. So we make our own. Your brother and sister learn new words every day – words that I do not understand. Where are you now son? Do you still eat the bread made in the souq, drizzled with honey? If you were here now, I would make sure you knew to add the right amount of water.
You make it as I do now. I add the yeast and salt to the flour, then dissolve sugar in hot water. It will make the bread sweet. Poured water meets flour and Allah provides. Soft dough starts to form. Gently son, gently. Slowly dribble the water and when it is enough you will know. You will feel in your fingers the right resistance. Allah will guide your touch.
Why did you leave us? You are a man now but I am your father. Come back to me. I know what is happening back home. Gun shells litter the streets and our homes are the graveyards of life before.
I pour oil over the dough and over my hands, cradling my creation. When I created you, I held you for hours, Ammar, my eldest son. And now the dough is smooth and coated.
In the night I dream of you, pulled to the depths of a bottomless ocean where the light can’t reach you. I never taught you how to swim.
I knead the dough hard. My hands ache and I feel calmer. The rhythm of pushing and pulling propels me forward. I can’t stop moving or I might stop forever.
Either way, you will find me or you will find God. He will protect you and so will I.
Don’t stop. You mustn’t stop, not until the dough is smooth and silky. Your arms will hurt but sometimes pain is good. It reminds us we are still living and breathing.
I take one of the little dough balls and smooth it flat. The dance begins. Gently at first, I pass the dough between my hands. It becomes warm and starts to expand outwards. The relaying motion forces it to grow and change before my eyes. My touch remains soft and coaxing, yet persistent.
Do you remember the time we sat by the river? Your mothers’ eyes were the colour of Topaz, like the water. I watched you skim stones, getting your trousers wet. She scolded you and I laughed at her anger. You have her eyes.
Pick up the pace. The movement of my hands follows a steady beat. Back and forth they sway, the dough embraced in each palm, absorbing the impact with each swing. My hands know what to do so I close my eyes and let instinct take over. The dough is ready to transform, Ammar. Look, it is thin and delicate, ready for the fire.
Beer bottles and plastic wrappers were cleared before we made the fire, our breaths rising in the icy night. The neighbours do not like our fires. Tomorrow, I will offer them saj. Everyone would love saj if they knew its flavour. But they are angry. We are angry. Do not underestimate the power of humble food, Ammar.
The smoke rises from the fire and is carried by the wind, up into the sky and I imagine that it travels across the sea, to you my son. I look up at the stars. Can you smell the saj, Ammar? I close my eyes and we are watching the smoke tendrils rise into Syrian skies. I will find you, we will return home and we will make bread together, inshallah.
I take it off the heat and let it cool. We taste it. The faces of your brother and sister don’t lie.
Your mother made it better.
Her bones have returned to the soil where the wheat grows. And yours will too. But not yet.
I am not from Syria. I am Syria. And so are you.
Aysh Allah. Alhamdulillah.
You are not dead and neither am I. We go on.
- Aysh Allah – Life itself.
- Alhamdulillah – Praise be to God.
- Souq – Syrian open market
- Inshallah – God willing
Notes from the author:
- Bread connects Syrian people to their religion and culture; Syrians think that bread – literally translated as 'life itself' - brings them closer to God. They eat it with every meal and, if they drop any bread on the floor, they pick it up to kiss it and offer an apology to Allah.
- In Damascus, the Government has hijacked agriculture because it fragments communities. They are limiting the supply of bread to the people, to weed them out. It is a strategy intended to degrade, humiliate and deny basic human rights and cultural identity.
- The Harasta foothills is where wheat is grown, to make the bread. The region supplies all bread to Damascus. People have risked their lives trying to get access to bread. It's an essential source of protein in their diet.
Ammar's father was separated from his son when the family fled Syria on foot, eventually seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. Since Ammar's father left his homeland, thousands of lives have been lost in armed conflict and more than half of the Syrian population have become displaced in their search for safety.
- An estimated 220,000 people have been killed and 12.8 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.
- More than 50 per cent of Syria’s population is currently displaced.
- More than 4.5 million refugees from Syria (95 per cent) are in just five countries Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
- At least 450,000 people in the five main host countries - or 10 per cent - are in need of resettlement according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.