A Syrian refugee couple who left Damascus and moved to Benoni hope to keep flavours of their country alive by introducing local South Africans to a Middle East cuisine.
Jasmine Syrian Restaurant – one would be tricked by its name to think this is an establishment in Damascus or Aleppo. No. This is a food sanctuary in, of all places, Benoni city in South Africa, more than 5,500 miles away from the war-beaten bricks and mortar streets of Damascus.
This is an uplifting food outlet run by Yaser and Safaa Jabri Al Rehawi, a refugee couple that left Damascus to preserve their lives.
“I named the restaurant after the famous flowers of Damascus,” Safaa tells The New Arab.
Fragrant coffees, cardamom pods, sweet flower tea – the family says their food enterprise is an emotional attempt to recreate the foods that mean the complete lives they abandoned in Syria.
“More than taste, we want the scents of those memories again. Even our fingers find solace in making such yearning-food.”
In the daily news roll, the majority of Syrian refugees are seen as heading to Turkey and many onward to Western Europe, while thousands more are resettled far off in Canada. So, Safaa’s family story and enterprise in South Africa is a surprise angle of the Syrian migration.
“We chose to come to South Africa because it is a lovely country where we could settle in peace straight away,” says Yaser.
In Benoni, a sleepy gold mining city, 22 miles east of Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital, Jasmine restaurant is housed in a row of vintage small houses that looks like they were part of the suburb.
The couple-partnership of Yaser and Safaa Jabri Al Rehawi pace leisurely with their welcoming coffee. Diners enjoy the privilege of the dark, toasty liquid squirted into shiny cups as a pre-dinner ritual.
“It’s our hello coffee,” smiles Safaa, “typical Syrian.”Did they run an eatery in Syria? She smiles and offers a firm no. She was a student in Damascus while her husband Yasir managed a sweets factory.
“We were forced to abandon our lives and run away with our two sons. We walked out with nothing from Syria,” Safaa says.
In South Africa, the family was granted asylum protection. The husband and wife couple now cook in their restaurant.
“It is named Jasmine because our former home city, Damascus is known colloquially as Jasmine City. This is the inspiration behind the name,” says Safaa.
Very few Syrian refugees come to South Africa. Of the millions who have left the country, just 40 Syrian refugees have applied for asylum in South Africa according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
This does not mean that South Africa and ordinary South Africans have not been active in trying to alleviate the immense suffering in Syria. For example, the Muslim Judicial Council of South routinely ships containers to ports in Turkey to distribute collected clothes, food, toys or school supplies for Syrian refugees.
Now the purpose of the food at Jasmine Restaurant is uniquely Syrian to introduce a diverse variety of local South Africans to a Middle East cuisine.
As an intrigue for diners, Kibbeh is not on menu books, but upon request, says Safaa. Muhammara is present; the sausage-shaped paste of roasted red peppers, walnuts and bulgar is usually a filling for kibbeh. Jasmine Restaurant’s version has hot chillies thrown in. “This is for our local Indian patrons,” says Safaa.
Popular Damascus dishes like a Syrian-spiced hummus and baba ganoush, (here made with creamy aubergine, garlic and fresh lemon juice) but with more Syrian spices and herbs and crushed walnuts.
The items not on the menu, but joyfully eaten are samboosik, a beautifully puffed crisp pastry containing halloumi and vine-leaf rolls, similar to dolmades but containing an almost smooth rice filling that’s deeply savoury with olives, tomato, onion, garlic and sour pomegranate. They are astonishingly good, first steamed over a stew pot until the leaves are utterly soft, then served at table with a dish of thick and lovely yoghurt.“We get many curious and diverse diners, Indian South Africans, tourists, schools, even public officers. It is a wonder to them when we explain traditional nascoffee cake is not the same things as Nescafe coffee commonly known in South Africa,” Yaser says.
“Syrian dishes are relatively unknown in this part of the world. But we also pay homage to our local South African diners and placate some of our Syrian dishes with local flavours,” he adds.
“For example, our falafels are rounded out like smallish doughnuts – paler, crispier and herbier than you might be used to in Damascus. The pickles on the side of both dishes include whole South African green chillies, which is a treat to our local diners.”
During the day, the Jasmine is elegantly refreshed and sleepy like the town of Benoni. When noisier, bevy of families begin to pitch up at dinner time, the place kicks into life.
A pale tangerine hookah is placed at the front door and there’s a well-kept wash stand set up at the back of the spacious, pale-tiled room, with jasmine décor and a wall of paper butterflies.
On walls and menu books there are pictures portraying mosques, like the famous Umayyad, and ancient ruins like the city of Palmyra, now even more battered by years of canon fire and bombings.
“If the memory of magnificent Syrian food can keep us alive in South Africa, then we have won,” concludes Safaa.