Tink-tink-tink. The joyous melody of glass clinking on metal rang out across the room. I swirled my tiny metal spoon in miniature circles as the sugar dissolved into my cup of tea. I leaned over the steaming cup and slowly inhaled the sweet smell of cardamom. Mmmm.
The place was Damascus, Syria in the middle of summer heat. It was one of many occasions in that summer of 2011 that I had been invited into a home to dine with an Arab family. This particular host was a frail and gray-haired Iraqi woman who was living in Syria as a refugee. She had insisted that I come to her home on that particular day, after a brief chat during which she had ascertained that I was dying to try a particular Iraqi dish of grilled fish called “samach mazgoof.”
As soon as I crossed her doorstep, I was enthusiastically greeted by several family members eagerly ushering me in to the living room. The apartment was simple to say the least. The walls were starkly bare, except for a lonely portrait of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. I wondered briefly if this family was pro-Assad, or if they were afraid and displayed his picture in order to keep out of any trouble. I decided not to probe any further.
I settled into the old and lovingly worn couch, as I was bombarded with questions from all sides about myself and my life in the US. My host presented me with a big bowl of fruit and offered me a long list of drink options: “Lime tea, black tea, soda, water, juice….?” At that time I had no idea what was coming, and munched away obliviously on a banana.
The woman looked satisfied as I began to sip my cup of warm tea. She then whisked herself away to the kitchen, and came back after several minutes with the main meal. My “plate” was an enormous shiny metal platter more than 2 feet in diameter. It was overflowing with piles of cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, lettuce, lemon wedges, pickled vegetables, radishes, peppers, fava beans, Iraqi bread, and, of course, two very large grilled fish. I timidly began to pick at the mountain of food sitting before me, wondering if I was really expected to finish all of this.
I suddenly realized that my every gesture was being monitored for signs of approval. My host must have decided that I needed a little help. She unabashedly ripped off a chunk of fish with her bare hands and proceeded to knead it vigorously between her thumb and forefinger in order to pick out the fine bones. She then plopped it inside a piece of bread, topped it with a small mountain of vegetables, rolled it into a wrap, and then offered it to me. In the back of mind, I wondered to myself how sanitary all of this really was. I smiled and said shukran, “Thank you.”
Thirty minutes later I was feeling I could eat no more. My host appeared astonished and exclaimed, “You hardly ate anything…eat, eat, have some more!” I explained several times that I really was full, and thank you. Several seconds later the platter was whisked away and I was confronted once again with the familiar bowl of fruit and four giant-sized slices of cake. And, of course, more tea.
The stern face of Bashar Al Assad stared down at me from the wall as if to say, “I dare you to eat some more!” I brushed his gaze off and dug in to my cake.
That day the realm of politics and protests seemed a world away. All that mattered was a little old lady and her bountiful tray of food, and her weathered hands offering a welcoming cup of hot tea.