The more people from elsewhere wash up here, the richer our food culture becomes. We have been able to appreciate the Italian, Greek and Chinese cuisine for some time now and the threshold of the Thai and Indian is no longer an insurmountable obstacle for many. Middle Eastern cuisine has also been hip in major cities for some time now. According to experts, this has to do with the popularity of cook Yotam Ottolenghi and especially with the fact that more and more refugees from Syria are behind our stove. Such as Ahmad and Madiha Mohamad from restaurant Damas from Ostend.
Our journalist is cheating… eating. For five weeks, Kurt Vandemaele has put his feet under the table in a West Flemish restaurant that serves dishes from distant countries.
They have never heard of Ottolenghi. In 2014, they fled the devastated Syrian capital of Aleppo. “My brother was already here in Ostend and he told us to come to Belgium as well,” says Madiha. All her relatives had already left Syria or died. “My mother died when the building where she lived collapsed. Five floors collapsed. She survived the disaster, but lost both legs. Two months later she was dead. My father had already died in a bombing raid. I have a sister in Turkey, another in Germany and two brothers in Belgium. One of them lives in Leuven. Not bad, but give me Ostend.”
Madiha was a cook in Syria in a hotel restaurant. Ahmad spent as much time in the kitchen as he did on the moon at that time. “I worked as a civil engineer in my home country and hoped to do the same here. I had experience in very large construction projects, but the companies here were not interested in my CV. I couldn’t get in without Dutch.”
Ahmad and Madiha may be able to express themselves, conjugating verbs is still not very good and their vocabulary does not extend beyond what you hear on the playground of a primary school. Learning a language takes time. And with such a responsible position, one cannot afford to be confused. But you can feel the frustration still gnawing at Ahmad. “I even offered to work for free for six months. In vain. My brother is also a civil engineer, lives in Germany and was able to start working there right away. You can learn by doing, I think. We also took language lessons and although we made rapid progress, it was still not enough. But in the end, of course, bread had to be put on the table.” Meanwhile, their children went to school here and they turned out to be gifted students. And so Ahmad and Madiha thought it would be a better idea to invest in the future of their offspring. “Because my wife was a cook in Syria, we decided to start a restaurant here. Initially I just did the paperwork and the purchases, but of course I have a good teacher in house. Nowadays I dare to call myself a cook without blushing,” says Ahmad.
He takes the menu and shows pictures of what he can do: baba ganoush, falafel, hummus, moutabal, kebbe, foul, fattoush, tabbouleh, it’s all part of his repertoire. And of course there are also meat dishes that come on skewers. And for those who don’t like Syrian food, there are also some Flemish dishes. Each photo is subtitled in Dutch, French and English. Not in Arabic. “Arabs recognize the images,” he laughs.
A little later, some guests trickle in and Ahmad can immediately demonstrate his skills. He also arrives with warm flatbread. “With all dishes you have bread in Syria. And most of those dips, such as hummus, are scooped out of your plate with some bread. With meat dishes you fill your bread with what is in your plate and bring it to your mouth.” The guests, music lovers who have come to Ostend for a concert, are certainly enthusiastic. “We’ll be here,” they say.
The hippest bird of the group turns out to be a connoisseur. “I often go to Middle Eastern restaurants,” he says. “Many of those dishes seem simple, but things often go wrong because people don’t know how to dose. This hummus, for example, has the right creaminess. You can taste that the chickpeas have been soaked long enough and cooked just long enough. And how everything is seasoned, really good. I taste some garlic here, some tahini there, some pomegranate syrup and sumac of course. NaphasI would say.”
Madiha beams and explains. “Naphas actually means breathBut it’s mostly a compliment. The term is used to say that there is cooking art, that you have a sense of proportions, dosages, that the flavors come into their own. Like a cook naphas then you know that you will get goodies on your plate.”
Although the shawarma is also popular here, as in all Arabic shops, a large part of the customers, Madiha says, visit Damas for vegetarian food. “80% of our customers are Belgians and 40% of them order vegetarian.” Syrians also often see them coming. “But actually all Arabs,” says Ahmad. “The tradition of Syrian cuisine goes back 3,000 years. There are influences from Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Which means that people from all over the Arab world are familiar with our food. Actually, a Syrian restaurant in our region is a bit like the Greek here.”
Those who are familiar with Syrian fare will mainly find classics on the menu. “I would like to be able to offer a wider variety,” says Madiha. “But it must be feasible. We cannot afford personnel. We do everything ourselves. At home I sometimes cook dishes such as ouzi, baklava and atajef. But these are often dishes that require a lot of work or time to be able to prepare them fresh every time. There are foods that I only prepare on special occasions. On New Year’s Eve I’ve been making kanafeh, a kind of cake with cheese, a sweet syrup and crumbled pistachios, for several years now, and then hand it out to the guests for free. People appreciate that.”
Julia, one of their children, has studied to be an assistant cook and occasionally lends a hand. The other three children are real brains. The eldest is also a successful vlogger. “Yes, Linda is well known in the Arab world,” says Madiha. “She has almost a million followers on YouTube. There is a video of her that has been viewed more than 3 million times. What she says? She just tells. In Arabic. And apparently you like it. She also has a few hundred thousand followers on Instagram. You should check it out: Linda Halab. People come in here now and then who know her.” In addition, Linda is a gifted student. She studies biomedical sciences in Leuven.
“And our Alain is in the second year of medicine”, Ahmad takes the floor again. “He had taken entrance exams for dentistry and medicine and was allowed to start in both directions.” He tells it with pride. “There are maybe 10,000 Syrians in Belgium and perhaps less than 1 percent of them have children who attend university here,” he says. “Lara, the youngest, is only 13 and is in second Latin. I think she will become a dentist.” Julia joins them and tells them that she wants to take over the restaurant later. But she doesn’t want to go on to become a chef. “No, I want to follow nursing soon,” she laughs. “I want to be a nurse where my brother is a doctor.” Ahmad bellows: “Maybe we should close the restaurant and start a private clinic. Linda will also be able to make herself useful there with her diploma.” It is striking that all children have European names, while they were born in Syria. “I always said that one day we would live in Europe. Without me making any plans”, Ahmad chuckles.
When they still had a carefree life in Syria, he had never heard of Ostend, he admits. “From Brussels, of course. And also from Bruges and Liège through football. Syria itself had no top clubs, but we did follow European top football. I had a favorite team in every country: PSV, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Club Brugge.” KV Oostende is now his favorite club, Club Brugge is now in second place. “I mainly follow football on TV. I don’t get out that easily because of the restaurant. I went to Ostend a few times and also once to Club. But there is no real time for hobbies.”
In the dead moments, when no one enters the restaurant for a while, he plays online chess games. He takes out his iPad and shows a game he has open on Lichess. “Once I was online and someone invited me to go to the local club. I made some friends, but unfortunately I can’t get there anymore due to lack of time.”
Aleppo or Damascus
Returning to Syria is no longer an option. “No,” says Madiha. “Everything we had there has been sold or lost. We now have a house and two cars here.” According to Ahmad, it will take a long time before life is livable again. “Now there is an upper layer of the super rich and the rest of the people are poverty-stricken. Nobody wants to stay there. When we still lived in Syria, you paid 75 Syrian pounds for a euro, now 5,000. The devaluation is a huge problem. You earn at most 70,000 or 80,000 pounds a month and that amount can’t even fill your gas tank. Because petrol costs £3,000 a litre. In every family there is one or two people who have fled to Europe. Every two or three months those people can send maybe 50, 70 or maybe even 100 euros to Syria. Those who do not have children or other relatives abroad are condemned to beggars. My father and mother still live there. Other than that, there are few people with whom I have contact there.”
But through their restaurant they of course maintain the connection with the homeland. You can bring back memories of better times with tastes and smells. “No”, Madiha shakes. “We don’t do it for that. The memories are here”, and she points to her head and her heart. “Be careful, we are not repressing the past either.” And she points to the many pictures against the wall. Photos of Palmyra, the city of a thousand columns, and of the Roman theater of Bosra, all historical gems that have been wiped off the map. The citadel of Aleppo has also been battered. “And look there, do you know it? That is the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus,” she says proudly. “I grew up in Damascus. That is why our business is also called Damas. My husband wanted to call the restaurant Aleppo,” she giggles. But Ahmad swallows defeat with style. Damascus is the capital of Syria. I have to admit, many more people know that name than Aleppo.”
• Address: Hertstraat 10, Ostend
• Operators: Ahmad and Madiha Mohamad
• Recommended: Mixed plate with kebba (with falafel, fattoush, hummus, moutabal and tabbouleh)