“If it were up to me, I would cross the border and continue straight to Damascus,” Sigi Mantel tells Saffa Ibrahim, who nods her head in full agreement. Neither of the two women – the former the third generation of a Jewish family from Damascus that came to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s; the latter the second generation of a Druze family whose birthplace changed hands in the 1960s, moving from Syrian to Israeli control in the wake of the Six-Day War – has ever visited the Syrian capital. But the perceived self-identity of both of them, nourished by fragments of memories and legends about earlier generations, contains a wondrous imagined city for which each has longed since childhood.
The present Israel-Syria border lies one kilometer, as the crow flies, from the Ibrahim family’s apple and cherry grove, one of the sites the two women visited together earlier this month. And even if in recent years the Damascus dream has grown more remote due to regional and global developments, in the imagination of the two women, who only met not long ago, it’s real, almost palpable. “One day we’ll just keep going,” Ibrahim says to her friend, “and our first destination will be the booths of the Old City [of Damascus].
The attitude of most Israeli Jews toward the Druze of the northern Golan Heights – who by choice are permanent residents of Israel, not citizens – is complex and tangled. But in the small vehicle that’s traveling on dirt roads against a background of snow-covered mountain peaks and a blue lake, a feeling of understanding prevails that transcends verbalization.
“This is what we belong to, and we won’t forgo it,” Ibrahim says simply. “Every person has a sense of belonging, and ours is in part Syrian.” To which Mantel responds, “I’m with you, I also belong a little to Syria.”
In 2018, Mantel, who was born 52 years ago and lives in Gedera, in northern Israel, published a Hebrew cookbook that documents the Jewish-Damascene culinary heritage that was bequeathed to her by her grandmother. Ibrahim, who was born in 1976 in the village of Masadeh in the Golan Heights, came across photographs of the dishes Mantel has been preparing in recent years, a period during which she has devoted much of her time to studying and documenting Jewish-Syrian cuisine.
“I don’t remember any longer when I saw her name for the first time,” Ibrahim notes. “But I started to follow her out of curiosity: Why was a Jewish woman cooking Syrian food? Not only for reasons of politics or religion. The only thing is that our kitchen and our food is lots of work – and hard work, too.”
“She sent me a message on Instagram, introduced herself as a Syrian cook and said that she didn’t know any Jewish women who cook Syrian food,” Mantel says. “And I have such great love for Syrian cuisine and its sources, that if it were up to me I really would cross the border in order to visit a market there. I promised her to come and bring the book. Last December – as a birthday present I gave myself – I went with my four children and a copy of the book to the home of Saffa and Ra’id.”
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Ibrahim married at the age of 19 and has three children; in her own childhood she took no special interest in the art of cooking.
“I was the spoiled child of the house, my older sister took on most of the work by herself,” says this gentle but determined woman, who sometimes still blushes with embarrassment when she speaks to strangers. “But I love to eat, I love to cook and I love to make food for people. When I got married, the first dish I cooked was for the whole neighborhood. I learn a lot from my mother, who was the village cook for weddings, and from my husband’s mother and his family – they are supportive and teach me traditional dishes. I wanted to go to university, but my father said at the time, ‘Either marriage or studies,’ and I chose to raise a family.”
Three years ago, Ibrahim decided to open her own business after working for six years as a cook in a restaurant in her native village. “One day I said to myself: Why should I work for others? I have the strength and I have the hands.” The modest beginnings consisted of a small catering operation for the village, and particularly for its working women. “I didn’t get compliments. The beginning was difficult. Because most of the women still cook at home, some were suspicious at first of businesses that offer home-cooked food. There was no awareness of it. But I think people started to like the fact that it’s important for me to serve food that is not only tasty but also looks fine.”
When Ibrahim talks about “fine-looking” food – we were conversing in Hebrew but I wish I could speak Arabic in order to more faithfully convey her words in her native tongue – it’s an understatement. Her dishes are among the loveliest and most complex that I have seen either amateur or professionals cooks produce in the kitchen, not just in terms of flavor but aesthetically as well.
Ibrahim’s two older daughters are studying art (“Things are changing gradually – today it’s more accepted for women to study even if they choose to be religiously pious”), while the mother, from whom they certainly acquired certain skills and propensities, is transforming plates of food into gorgeous ornamental creations.
A year and a half ago, not long before the outbreak of the pandemic and its attendant economic crisis, Ibrahim began hosting small groups in her living room or in the yard of her house, by prior arrangement. “I cook for many working women, or for groups of 10 to 15 women who meet together and don’t want to cook for themselves, and gradually small groups of people from outside the village who were on outings also started to show up. That too initially aroused suspicion, because in our society it’s not accepted to bring guests into the house, but I didn’t listen to anyone other than the supportive family. I didn’t do advertising, except on Instagram and Facebook, but people come, like it, come back and tell others.”
In the past year, however, her work came to an almost complete standstill because of the emergency regulations. “There are no tourists, and all the women are also at home, cooking,” Ibrahim notes. But as a person for whom cooking and baking have become both therapy and a source of strength, she isn’t letting up.
Mantel, who is also incapable of just sitting around when she could be in the kitchen cooking, identifies fully with this. “By now, my children laugh at me when they see me in the kitchen. They say, ‘The refrigerator is full, what are you still cooking for?’ But I love it, it’s meditative, and food is a convenient means by which to understand what identity and belonging mean in a complicated world that it’s not simple to live in.”
When I first met Mantel, more than two years ago, she offered me what she calls the “perfect bite” for her, which evokes memories of her childhood – medias begibni, namely: slices of fried eggplant with hard sheep milk cheese, served on slices of plain brown bread with yogurt spiced with dried mint.
When I first met Ibrahim, she explained to me how to scoop up her “madeleine cakes” – makdous, or tiny, pickled eggplants stuffed with walnuts – using manakish, a handmade flat bread, covered with a puree of sweet dried peppers and onions, or a thin saj pita (“That’s the perfect accompaniment for makdous – scooping up labaneh with olive oil using the za’atar [wild hyssop] manakish”).
Most Israeli Jews are familiar with the thin saj pita – commonly called “Druze pita,” because it was easier to identify with the Druze minority than with the Arab minority, for example. (“There is no such thing as Druze cuisine in its own right,” Ibrahim asserts definitively. “It’s the cuisine of the Greater Syria region.”) We’re also familiar with makdous eggplants, which in our time are miraculously stuffed into plastic bottles that formerly held soft drinks. (Another paradox of modern life: empty plastic bottles, of all things, have become a standard receptacle for traditional foods that are prepared by hand with much labor). But it was only when I tasted Ibrahim’s classic makdous that I truly understood its greatness and depth of flavor.
The common denominator that has helped to forge the sincere friendship between Mantel and Ibrahim is not only the joint Syrian connection or the toil in the kitchen. Food, which according to the cliché is supposed to bring people closer together, is often a divisive element (exemplified by the rise of national cuisines, and by the eternal debate over the origin and appropriation of foods like hummus and falafel). In the modern age it does more than divide: It also translates into capital and power.
For both of these women, the kitchen is a window through which to look at the world with curiosity and affection (but also a place where they prefer to work, if possible, in splendid isolation, in order to achieve perfection and full control, in a space that becomes a small kingdom where less proficient people only make a mess). It enables meticulous adherence to creating traditional flavors and to the use of fresh, raw ingredients of the highest quality. And the “perfect bite” is taken not only to satisfy the passion for good food, but also to fill the hole created by the absence of beloved places and people.
A few weeks ago, Ibrahim, who has gone back to work following the easing of the coronavirus restrictions, made us an unforgettable meal that included, among other dishes, kibbe nayeh with hosi (raw meat mixed with bulgur, topped with a serving of fatty meat fried in olive oil); sambusak, a baked delicacy stuffed with cheese and fresh za’atar; saj pita stuffed with chicken fried in thin rolls; fateh – thin pita wedges used as a base for crushed chickpeas with tahini, samna (distilled butter) and hot yogurt; and her version of mansaf – a mushroom-and-rice dish with lamb broth and fried kibbe.
The fascinating dialogue between Ibrahim and Mantel – which also included a precise comparison of flavors, raw materials and names of dishes that changed from place to place and community to community – elicits the history of the regional cuisine in the past hundreds of years.
Little Kitchen, Masadeh village, by appointment only; tel. 050-4488279; “May Your Hands Be Blessed” (Hebrew cookbook): sigimantel.com
The ancient fellahin market of Brekhat Ram (Lake Ram), in the northeastern Golan Heights, recently moved from the area adjacent to the Tomb of Nabi Ya’afuri to a more isolated spot a few hundred meters away. According to local residents, this was done in the wake of problems that arose because of the popular market’s proximity to a site that is holy to Druze believers.
I like this authentic farmers market, even though it has only a few stalls, and even though raw materials from other parts of the country have also been sold there for the past few years, as well as imported items. In the captivating display of the small stands, traditionally owned by families from the three Syrian-Druze villages in the Golan Heights, you can still hear rare testimony of how the culinary traditions of the Greater Syria region and the Golan Heights in particular were preserved – even during periods of distress, war and isolation.
Among the materials we bought there this month from women and men who still sell items produced by grandmothers and mothers, were: candied pumpkin (only on the Turkish-Syrian border have I encountered such a high-quality version of this confection, which in its authentic form has a crunchy exterior that contrasts sharply with the soft inside); exceptional fig and quince jams; apple vinegar; spring and summer honey from Mount Hermon flowers; and kishk (also called jameed), which is dried yogurt with bulgur.
In another six weeks or so the cherry groves in the region will be in blossom. But the diverse groves of deciduous fruits that were once synonymous with the splendid landscape of Ya’afuri Valley are disappearing in favor of the B&Bs, restaurants and bars that have sprung up in the past year on the shore of Brekhat Ram. It’s hard to blame the farmers who have been forced to uproot the apple and cherry groves in favor of tourism sites: It’s almost impossible to make a living from agriculture these days, and the farm produce that used to be sold to Syria is no longer bringing in revenues that make fruit tree farming worthwhile.
The valley and market landscape may well morph in unrecognizable directions in the years ahead, so this is one of the last opportunities to enjoy them in their full splendor. Most Israeli Jews simply drive through the main road of the village on the way to the Mount Hermon site, but it’s definitely worth taking in the market and trying to get to know the village residents.