After my cousin’s engagement and spending some time with our family who live in Beirut, my mother and I hired a driver to take us to Damascus. Damascus, the beloved homeland of my mother and father and the place that guards my heart and a bit of my soul. Damascus, who eternally smells of jasmine and diesel, at the same time. Where civilization after civilization grew and built and developed; was once the peak of culture and sophistication but now has been reduced to the 18th Century.
There are a thousand dishes I could write about with endless stories but today I want to focus on one very specific cultural practice—the coffee culture—because it catches your attention if you don’t know about it. In the U.S., next to turkey on Thanksgiving, there aren’t the rigid rules surrounding food and drink that you find in that region.
It is very common for people to visit with one another and honoring your guest is taken very seriously in Syria. One way of honoring your guests is to make them Arabic coffee which you always serve with something sweet. There are numerous facets to coffee culture, from symbolic meanings of drinking coffee in order to express agreement to something, to the simple making of coffee for a guest, and many in between.
Even when you go to the hair salon to get your hair done—which is a very common practice for Syrian ladies and very affordable—the hair stylists (who are all men) ask you how you take your coffee and bring you a demitasse of Turkish coffee alongside a cup of water. A note about this practice is that when you are served coffee, you will always get a glass of water with it and the glass of water will always be served on a saucer. You must drink the water first because custom says that if you drink the water after the coffee means you didn’t like it and you are trying to wash the taste of the coffee out of your mouth, consequently insulting your host.
There is an occasion called subheeyay (I’m sorry, I don’t know how to write this out phonetically for you but if you ever run into me (or my mom!) around town, we’ll be happy to pronounce it for you). A subheeyay is a morning visit and you always have coffee and a sweet at this morning visit. While we were in Damascus, my mom and I stayed at my uncle’s house because he is currently living in Beirut. Every morning, my aunt who lives down the street, would join the two of us for subheeyay where we would sit on the balcony and have a dallah (the stovetop coffee pot used in the Levant) alongside sweets—date stuffed cookies, spice cookies, and raha, the Syrian version of Turkish delight, chewy; sweet; and flavored with mastic (an aromatic resin from the bark of a Mediterranean tree belonging to the cashew family).
My whole life—and to this day—my mom and dad had a subheeyay before work. It’s their morning ritual to get the day started. This isn’t breakfast and it’s not a drive through coffee. It’s a slow start to the morning and an opportunity to touch base before the start of the day. They always have coffee and sweet goodies my mom has made, chocolate, or maybe it’s leftover birthday cake that they stretch out for a week or two. During the holidays it’s panettone. But it’s always the two of them, soft music—fitting for the morning and waking up, sweets, and coffee. When my mom was growing up and for decades, almost all radio stations in the Arab world started the morning off by playing songs by Fairuz, a Lebanese singer who sings soft, beautiful ballads in Arabic and is an icon of the region. When I was growing up, I would play garbage rap from a local radio station and get scolded by my father for listening to this nonsense at any time of the day but especially in the morning, when things ought to be soft and slow, and when the day should be welcomed. I eventually saw the light on one visit to Damascus years ago during a subheeyay where I curiously turned the radio on and heard the melodic voice of Fairuz and was captivated. My mom explained the significance and sat for a moment, reminiscing in her childhood.
Normally this coffee is not breakfast. It is the first thing you have to get the day started, a little bit of caffeine and something sweet. It is just enough to wake you up because most people can’t eat too much early in the morning and as soon as they’ve awoken. Meals usually depend on work and school schedules. When kids are involved, it’s important that kids get a nourishing meal before being sent off to school. Adults will later have breakfast either at home or even at work, after they have arrived at their place of work. Breakfasts vary, like anywhere, but usually consist of cheese, eggs, yogurt (plain, of course, this “fruit” flavored yogurt is a bastardization of yogurt), bread, olives, etc.
I hope you have a soft morning ritual to welcome the day as well. I hope the start of your day isn’t a blaring alarm and a hurried cup of coffee, taken as you curse traffic. I wish for you a peaceful subheeyay to welcome the day and prepare yourself for what may come.
**a shorter version of this story was originally published in my column Postcards from the Kitchen in the Cedar Street Times on 24 August 2018