Business beyond the Camps

Bakdash Employees prepare Arabic-style ice cream by beating it vigorously with enormous wooden mallets to crush any ice and remove any air at a franchise of the Syrian ice cream shop Bakdash in Jordan's capital, Amman, on May 29, 2013. (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

Employees prepare Arabic-style ice cream by beating it vigorously with enormous wooden mallets to crush any ice and remove any air at a franchise of the Syrian ice cream shop Bakdash in Jordan's capital, Amman, on May 29, 2013. (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

A convoy of trucks in close formation is making its way south from Damascus. Ahead, scouts check the roads, relaying back frequent updates on the security situation. Today the aerial bombardment is severe, and the drivers are forced to take an alternative route. It will set them back a few extra hours, and so a journey that in peacetime would take only two or three hours is now stretching long into the night. Concerns for the precious cargo are rising, and one driver keeps a watchful eye on the temperature gauge at the front of his cabin. It can’t rise above minus one degree Fahrenheit.

This truck is not full of refugees, weapons, explosives or other vestiges of the civil war in Syria. It is laden down with three tons of ice cream from Damascus’ age-old institution, Bakdash, headed to replenish the stocks of the ice cream shop’s new branch in Amman. In May this year, the Damascene family business drew considerable attention throughout the Middle East when it opened its doors in Jordan’s capital.

Following the opening of the new Amman branch, the excitement among Syrians and Jordanians alike saw ice cream consumed during the summer months at such a rate that the Syrian driver transporting it from Damascus could not keep up with demand (matters were, of course, not improved by the frequent delays due to the worsening security situation in areas south of the Syrian capital). “We ran out of the arabi flavor, so everyone had to have pineapple, strawberry or chocolate. But then they ran out too, and we had to close for a week until more arrived from Syria,” explains Yarob, the manager of Bakdash Amman. But after the summer rush, Yarob and his team perfected their ordering methods. With newly fitted freezers installed above the shop, they can now keep up to three weeks supply at once, ensuring that delays due to security conditions do not force the shop to close.

But why not produce the ice cream here in Amman? “This is what is special about Bakdash. It has to be exactly right. The family in Damascus only agreed to our opening a branch if we agreed to keep to exactly the same quality as would be served in Damascus. So that means we can only sell that which has been made and approved from Syria. We’re talking with them about alternative methods, but right now? No, we will continue to transport it from them. This way, it is exactly as everyone remembers.”

But what about safety? What about the dangers of travelling through a war zone? “The driver is willing to do it,” Yarob explains. A man just behind him starts preparing a new batch of ice cream to serve by beating it vigorously with enormous wooden mallets to crush any ice and remove any air, giving the treat a striking gummy texture and making it slightly harder to hear. “The risks involved and the length of the journey mean that it pays well. He needs to provide for his family, so it’s a risk he is willing to take. He brings the ice cream here, has a few days in Jordan, then returns with his lorry full of fruit, vegetables or anything else they need in Syria.”

Catering to a market on the move

It must be understood that Bakdash Amman is not a fleeing business but a franchise operation. Despite claims to the contrary, the parent branch in Damascus is still very much in operation. Of course, it is not what it was. “Some of the men who worked there have been killed, others are in the army, others have fled the country,” comments Yarob, “and the business’ operating hours have shrunk considerably. It’s just too dangerous to be out at night.” But it is surviving. The influx of refugees into the city from elsewhere in the country has ensured that a customer base still just about exists, and Syrians still seek out the ice cream as a temporary escape from the grueling conflict around them.

Yarob, of Jordanian origin, decided to set up the new branch as a result of, and for the benefit of, the many Syrians who are now living as refugees in Jordan. With Western news sources tending to focus upon the expanding purpose-built camps such as Za’atari, the majority of Syrians who have managed to independently relocate to Jordanian cities such as Amman, Zarqa, Mafraq and Irbid are often overlooked. Their numbers are substantial, and their presence is leading to growing tensions with Jordanians, but their presence is also creating new business opportunities.

The Bakdash franchise is not the only one to have sprung up in reaction to the dispersion of Syrians throughout the Levant and Turkey. So extensive are the population shifts that the relocation or expansion of Syrian businesses is common in many of the new host countries. In 2012, 388 Syrian businesses—including Syria’s giant food brand Durra, which moved its headquarters and production plant to Irbid—registered to operate within Jordan, while a recent BBC report referred to the Turkish town of Gaziantep as “Aleppo in exile,” so extensive is the presence of new Syrian businesses there.

Meanwhile, in one of Istanbul’s more conservative districts to the side of the Fatih Mosque, the well-respected Damascene restaurant, Bab Al-Hara (literally meaning “gate of the neighborhood” and named after a popular Syrian TV show), has set up shop. It serves aromatic kebabs, fatier (a form of Arabic pizza served with meat, cheese or spinach and referred to in Turkey as “pide”), fatoush drizzled with pomegranate molasses, and hummus served with a flourish, swirled around chopped tomatoes and spices. Most of its customers are Syrian, a few Turkish, and the restaurant front is covered in a mix of Turkish and Arabic. Though rather more fast-food-style than its original incarnation, it has garnered itself quite a reputation in Istanbul’s culinary circles and seems to be thriving. By only employing Syrians, it is also doing its small part in addressing the employment difficulties faced by refugees in Istanbul.

The numbers of refugees are indeed large. According to the UN, over 560,000 Syrian refugees are currently registered in Jordan. Of course, many more remain unregistered, either living illegally within the country, or still awaiting confirmation of registration. Word on the street in Amman speaks of 1.5 million Syrians. Whichever figure one takes, for Jordan, a country with a population of just 6 million, Syrians now make up a significant proportion of the population. It is a testament to their numbers within Jordanian towns and cities that Bakdash Amman is not the only new offshoot of the Damascene family business. Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, branches have also opened in Zarqa, a city on the outskirts of Amman, and in Irbid, a city so close to the Syrian border that some nights, one can hear the aerial bombing of Dera’a. At the Irbid branch, interior decoration fuses Jordanian and Syrian culture. The walls sport large photographs of both Souq Al-Hamidiyah and the iconic front of the treasury at Petra. But most important still is the sense of home. The spoons are engraved with “M. H. Bakdash—Est. 1895: Damascus Syria” and the paper napkins bear the original shop’s branding. Both are transported to Irbid from Damascus.

Recreating home

Situated in among a host of brightly lit shops on the busy Al-Medina Al-Munawarah street, Amman’s Bakdash is a far cry from the original in Damascus’ cavernous Souq Al-Hamidiyah, with its mismatched pictures hanging from the walls, customers weaving through the crowds to place their orders and find a seat to perch on, and huge mounds of the white dessert piling up in the windows. In Amman, cars zip past on the busy highway with some stopping to find a space amid the triple-parked cars already stationed outside. Customers dash in, picking up desert to take home for their families, or take their time, peering into fridges to examine Bakdash Amman’s other culinary offerings such as the creamy Araz Al-Halib, a rice-pudding-like dessert covered with pistachios.

Of course, the Jordanian managers have worked hard to recreate a sense of Syria within the new branch. The walls are covered in alternating layers of yellow and black marble—an attempt to recreate the Damascene style of black and white architecture (albeit slightly limited by the lack of resources in Amman), and a concerted effort has been made to hire Syrians, precisely so that any Syrian visiting will immediately be greeted by their own local dialect rather than the slightly harsher Jordanian version. Indeed, maintaining continuity with the original shop in Damascus is key to the new enterprise. On setting up the new branch in Amman, the original Bakdash sent two of its staff to work in the new location—one responsible for pummeling the ice cream, the other tasked with serving it—to ensure that it was both made and presented in the correct age-old way. After all, the Bakdash look, flavor and method of production has stayed the same since the family business began in 1895.

Yarob and his team’s efforts are clearly paying off. Many Syrians frequent the new branch, sitting in groups around the large wooden tables, nostalgically enjoying the dessert and fondly remembering their life back home. “I have even seen two elderly women cry when they came here,” comments Yarob. “They were completely overcome with emotion. It was as if they had temporarily been transported back home, to a place now built on memories.”

It is so easy and pleasurable to write about food (particularly ice cream) that it is tempting to go too far in framing these franchises as buffers against the conflict that inspired them. Despite efforts towards the employment of Syrians, they cannot tangibly alter the disastrous effects of the civil war on those displaced, nor the strains on the countries supporting the refugee population. Yet on a smaller scale, there is a place for optimism. It lies in the value of preserved culture in the face of threat. Bakdash continues to serve its customers in Damascus, even in the center of a country at war with itself. The Amman branch has brought the taste of home through a war zone to those who have been forced to flee it, and has placed the preservation of one original culinary idea at the heart of its business ethos. The Syrian war continues unabated, but such spaces as Bakdash Amman and Bab Al-Hara are providing a way to remember home through the taste buds—refuges from refugee life.

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