Older and less understood than other Arab cultures in South Paterson, the Syrians have an ancient story to tell. And much like the Road to Damascus there is an “ah hah” pay off at the end. It is Bible-speak for the mother of all epiphanies paved with the magnitude of St. Paul's transgressions, including his attempts to wipe out Christianity, in which all was forgiven. One just might need an epiphany to figure out who the Syrians are and why they’re here in the midst of Whitman’s “beaten up and tragic…industrial chaos”.
It begins with their history, which is, by all accounts, among the oldest in the area, stretching back to the early 20th century, as the first Arabs to arrive and set down roots here. What made them immigrate. What they eat. How they differ from other Arab cultures, will be eye-opening for the “Suburbanites”.
The real Damascus (Dimashq,commonly known as al-Shām also known as City of Jasmin) is the capital and largest city of Syria. It is perhaps the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world. Since the copper age from about 8,000 BCE with a population of about 1.6 million people. But a jaunt to the Damascus of South Paterson is easier and begins at Fattal's Syrian Market (975-977 Main Street (973) 742-7125 where the owner, Norman settled forty years ago. He is cautious and diplomatic. Formal, yet hospitable. And avoids the obvious Middle Eastern hot button topics. But I persuade him to talk about what’s in his store that is particularly Syrian and he says, diplomatically: everything and nothing. We are Arab, but “from all over the world” as he puts it.
According to www.cafe-syria.com “Syrians place a high degree on tradition and present themselves well both at home and abroad. It is normal to find Syrian families all over the world who still live their lives as if they were in the Old Country.” So, in keeping with tradition, he does and he doesn’t. His store is, and it isn’t, Syrian. This trait of cultural ubiquity has its roots in ancient Greater Syria, when encompassed parts of Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and parts of southern of Turkey including Alexandretta and the ancient city of Antioch, the pre-Islamic capital of Syria. To understand Syria is to understand much of the Middle East.
And so, there is a little bit of the bazaar in his market. Things for getting and spending. A travel agency. Display cases unabashedly brimming with eye-popping trays of 18 and 24K gold bling. Overall, despite the powerful influence of Islam in people's lives, some elements of folk religion persist. Particularly in rural areas, there is a strong belief in the evil eye as well as in jinn (spirits). And Fattal’s has an entire display case devoted to them.
Though Syria is not tribal like Saudi Arabia, it is stratified and the caste system is alive and well. Norman being fair, male, and of the merchant class, chances are he would’ve fared well no matter which country he chose. There are also things for cooking. Like Halal meats and the indispensable Seven Spices. Rice. Middle Eastern canned vegetables. Pita. Racks of honeyed sweets. And more than a dozen kinds of olives. For a quick take out or lunch there’s a sit down area to eat garden variety Arab dishes to savor. The food is good and honest. Try the hummus on Syrian bread (pita). Also try their lahim biajeen (pronounced LAH MAHZHEEN) which are meat pies on Syrian bread.
Though Syria is homogeneous, Sunni, and over ninety percent Muslim, there are a few ancient tribes. And one in particular speaks the language of Christ: Aramaic. And here just might be the epiphany. A culture that contains a language from a religion found everywhere on earth, and yet is extinct. Spoken in Mesopotamia about 14 centuries ago, it is now modern day Hebrew. Syrian culture is omnipresent and yet hard to pin down. A little like Norman. In addition to Fattal’s, the othergame in town is Nouri Brothers Syrain Bakery a block away at 999 Main St Paterson, NJ 07503 Phone: (973) 279-2388 which has been around for about twenty five years. Though it is smaller and mostly bakes breads, it is equally authentic.
Aleppo (named for Syria’s second largest city) is the Syrian watering hole. The restaurant for local Syrians (and Egyptians, Palestianians, you get the idea) at 960 Main Street Paterson, NJ 07503-2307 (973) 977-2244 or (973) 569-4545, open from 9:00am-10:00pm. It is owned by the charming and jovial Mohamed who also immigrated about 40 years ago, with a not too different immigrant story to tell about the need to get out from beneath the shadow of his great father and strike out on his own. The sign on the outside reads Al Safa, but that was the old restaurant. They haven’t gotten around to changing it, but it doesn’t matter because anyone who comes here knows what they’re looking for.
The quintessential Middle Eastern host he welcomes everyone from“the boys” to local families with babies in tow and serves up the home grown dishes. Halal, roasted or grilled chicken or lamb with side dishes of rice, chickpeas, yogurt, and vegetables. Mezzeh including hummus, a puree of chickpeas and tahini (ground sesame paste); baba ganouj, an eggplant puree; meat rissoles; stuffed grape leaves; tabouleh (a salad of cracked wheat and vegetables); falafel (deep-fried balls of mashed chickpeas); and pita bread. Olives, lemon, parsley, onion, and garlic are used for flavoring. Tea is as ubiquitous as the Hookah pipe flavors ranging from apple banana peach rose cherry and just about every other flavor in between. Weekend evenings you’ll find him orchestrating several dining rooms, glad handling, and shaking it with the belly dancers while seating new customers.
The Road to Damascus may be an ancient one, but along the way, embracing the deep connective roots of the Syrians to much of the world, is an epiphany we can all share.
Seven Spices: 2 tablespoons ground black pepper, 2 tablespoons paprika, 2 tablespoons of ground cumin, 1 tablespoon ground coriander, 1 tablespoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
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