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Why Syrian Bakers Are Still Making Bread in Spite of the Civil War

Bakers are going to great lengths to preserve a little bit of normalcy

(Stuart Spivack via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

The ongoing Syrian civil war has disrupted life at nearly every level of society for Syrian people. Whether they have been forced to flee their homes and live as refugees in foreign countries or are struggling to survive amidst the constant fighting between government and rebel forces, the war has turned every aspect of normal life on its head. But despite all the troubles, Syrians are still clinging to one of the most basic facets of their culture: an uncompromising taste for good bread, Emma Beals reports for Munchies.

Bread is a cornerstone of diets for people from nearly all countries and cultures, and Syrians are no different. It’s cheap, easy to make, and is eaten with nearly every meal. However, the importance that bread holds at the heart of Syrian food culture also presents serious problems for aid groups trying to help refugees and people living under wartime alike.

Syrian bakers don’t use just any kind of wheat to make their flour: For centuries, they have used a unique blend of whole wheat that is packed with more protein than your typical white flour. They then bake their loaves to perfection in giant ovens that toast them in minutes using incredibly high heat, Beals reports. Early on in the conflict, humanitarian aid groups found that the Syrian taste for this special bread was so strong that many refugees simply wouldn’t eat the fluffy white bread most Turks prefer. As a result, several opened their own bakeries, trying their best to provide bread that tasted like home.

“The best thing about it is that it has the perfect combination between cheap wheat flour and awesome taste,” Raoul Halabi, a Syrian who now lives in Turkey, tells Beals. “We used to go and buy bread for 100 [Syrian Pounds] SYP, (US $2 at the time) and it’d last us for a week. This would usually happen alongside buying foul—stewed fava beans—on Fridays.”

This isn’t about being picky eaters, though. Syrian bread is central to their food culture, to the point where for years the government made a general practice out of subsidizing wheat to make sure that bread was affordable. While that made it easy for just about anyone to afford the bread eaten with nearly every meal, it’s since turned the staple into a weapon of war. Not only do many rebel-controlled parts of the country struggle to find basic food, Bashar al-Assad’s government forces appear to frequently target bakeries and people seeking out their daily bread, Roy Gutman and Paul Raymond reported for McClatchy DC in 2013.

"The number of reported attacks on bakeries and bread lines is extraordinarily high and, if verified on anything like this scale, it would suggest that this cannot be accidental,” Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, told Gutman and Raymond. “If such attacks are indeed proved to be systematic or widespread targeting of civilian populations, then they may amount to both crimes against humanity and war crimes. All parties must halt all such attacks.”

To combat this, in addition to bakeries popping up, some organizations like the Syria Bread Project 2016 and One Nation are working to provide Syrians in the country and outside with the ability to break bread. Still, Syrians in rebel-controlled territory continue to face severe food shortages and the struggle to find flour for their daily bread remains.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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