Published June 19, 2013
AMMAN, Jordan – For Syrians, no visit to Damascus' Old City is complete without a stop at a more than century-old ice cream parlor in its main souq where you can watch them make their distinctive desert by pounding it into shape with giant wooden mallets, then enjoy a bowl of it sprinkled with pistachios.
Now those who fled their country's bloody civil war can savor a nostalgic taste from back home. Damascus' most famed ice cream shop, Bakdash, has opened a branch in the Jordanian capital, and both Jordanians and Syrians living here are flocking to it.
With its mix of milk, gum Arabic and sahlab — a flour made from orchids — Bakdash ice cream is distinct from American brands like Ben & Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs, which also typically ignite a craze when they open outlets in the Middle East. The traditional Syrian ice cream has a more elastic texture and slightly more perfumed flavor than the Western versions.
The Damascus landmark's appearance in Jordan is a bittersweet sign of one of the civil war's tragic repercussions: The dispersal of Syria's population and culture. Jordan alone is home to more than half a million Syrians, out of nearly 2 million who have fled into neighboring countries with no immediate prospects of return. The number is rising by the thousands daily, as life in Syria becomes more tenuous.
Things are not easy even in Damascus, the core of President Bashar Assad's regime, with prices mounting and the currency draining value.
Bakdash's owners — the third generation of the Bakdash family — still keep the Damascus parlor running. But they have set up shop in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, hoping the new businesses will help keep the store at home afloat. The stores abroad could also be insurance for the future as the war, now in its third year, batters Syria's economy and annihilates all traces of tourism.
In Damascus before the war, a visit to the Bakdash parlor topped the to-do lists for Syrians, tourists and other visitors exploring the winding alleys of the capital's fabled Old City. Since 1895, the shop has been a fixture in the Souq al-Hamidiya, the Old City's main traditional market.
For Basima, a housewife who fled Syria seven months ago to Jordan, running across the branch in Amman was a cherished touch of home.
"We were walking outside along the street and saw Bakdash. It reminded us of when we would walk in the Souq al-Hamidiya," she said as she spooned into a creamy bowl at the parlor this week. She asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her family still in Syria.
"Any name from Syria sounds wonderful to us," said the 45-year-old woman, wearing a traditional headscarf. "My heart beats faster whenever I see Syrians ... When I meet other Syrians here in the parlor, I feel my spirit lift."
A Sunni Muslim — the community that makes up the majority of the rebellion — she fled her Damascus neighborhood after violence hit the capital. "There were clashes near where we lived. It wasn't safe anymore. There was no safe place to go there," she recalled.
About half of the customers are Syrians, said the Amman branch's assistant manager, Yarob Ababneh, whose father is Bakdash's Jordanian partner. The Amman parlor opened last month.
"Once or twice I saw people cry" he said. "Bakdash has been in Syria since 1895, so those who grew up there know the place and have been there many times."
Getting to the Jordanian branch is a far cry from a charming meander through Old Damascus — it's located on a popular but traffic-clogged shopping thoroughfare. But once inside, a visitor is transported to the ambience of the Syrian original.
Waiters rush about carrying large trays with glasses brimming with "booza," the traditional Arab ice cream. Black basalt and ochre-colored natural stones line the walls while customers sit at metal tables.
In front of the customers, Syrian ice cream makers — traditionally, a man's job — pound the booza with large wooden mallets inside metal containers to get it into shape. Sometimes, the pounding sound resembles the fierce drumbeat of a belly-dancing rhythm, to the customers' delight.
It's then scooped and topped with finely chopped green pistachios — and the taste, some say, can touch heartstrings.
The ice cream base arrives in refrigerated trucks overland from Syria, sometimes at great risk crossing the volatile border, Ababneh said.
"We deal with a shipping company. They make their calls to ensure that the road is safe before the truck travels. We stay in contact with the drivers hour by hour," he said. "It is dangerous, but what can we do? The drivers take the risk and we pay them for that."
Hamza Hashish, 20, is one of Bakdash's best "pounders." He started working at the Damascus shop when he was just 12, so short he had to "stand on a box" just to reach the ice cream, he said.
As fierce fighting between Syrian rebels and Assad's troops made it increasingly difficult for Hashish and other employees to get to work, he decided to try his chances in Jordan. "Some of the workers were killed on the way, others joined the rebels," he said.
Even the safety of being out of Syria can't keep him from longing for home. In between pounding at the Bakdash branch in Amman, Hashish reminisces with other Syrians.
Jordanians familiar with the ice cream also cram the Amman store.
Amman taxi driver Raad Abdel-Majid said whenever he and his family used to visit Damascus, one of the first things they would do once they got there was "rush over to Bakdash for ice cream."
"While we really hope the crisis will soon end, I am ecstatic that Bakdash has opened its doors here," said Abdel-Majid.
Follow AP photographers and photo editors on Twitter: http://apne.ws/15Oo6jo