Our guide and translator was a Syrian engineer I’ll call Abu Falafel. The first time I met him was at the house he’d been allocated by the ministry on the outer ring of Thessaloniki. It was on the ground floor of a unspectacular apartment building and he shared it with his youngest son, who is deaf.
Abu Falafel started, as all Syrians do, by ignoring our protestations that a second lunch would be unnecessary. He’d gone to so much trouble already, prepping ingredients, that we gladly acquiesced.
And so began the theatre of falafel that would give him his name.
Together we made not just falafel, those sizzling nuggets of protein, but also mutabbel, an aubergine foodstuff of a category that in English goes by the insufficient nomenclature of ‘dip’. We need new words: meze is better. Hummus, babaghanoush, mutabbel, muhammara – these deserve better than ‘dip’. They are the foundation of a meal, a far cry from the sauces that we use to flavour crisps, should we be so inclined.
Anyway, I digress heinously.
Abu Falafel, having filled the table with so many dishes that we had trouble squeezing ourselves in, defrosted sheaves of Syrian bread carted all the way from Athens. There are no bakers nearby that Abu Falafel can trust with the food Egyptians at least call ‘aysh – life.
We eat Arab style, from communal plates in the middle of the table, scooping up falafel, mutabbel and hummus with torn bread. One of our number remarks that it’s very different from the Western European style of demarcation and defence. My plate is my castle and, once I have been served, woe betide any diner who dips into my dinner.
Another reports a rumour that in certain high class German restaurants, guests will be requested never to return if they are seen sharing their food with their companions.
Abu Falafel tells us that everyone in Syria eats like this. Lunch at the oil company where he used to work was a sociable affair. Perhaps each might have their own bowl of fuul, if that was the dish, the sloppy nature of the beans making it somewhat difficult to convey in safety while reaching over a table – but in the main, there were a string of dishes in the centre and one shared equally with one’s friends and enemies.
The conversation reminded me of a Frenchman I met in Athens. He’d complained that, while he didn’t miss much about France, the one thing he did miss here was a convivial lunch. In Greece, he said, all his colleagues grabbed something on the go – here he paused to sneer at what passed for cuisine – and harried back to their desks to eat there, grateful to have a job at all.
It left no time for the small talk that builds friendships, he said.
Sharing food requires at the very least negotiation and a sense of equality. There’s not much room for greed on a shared table. Maybe that’s why we’ve drifted away from those habits in Western Europe.
But I digress obnoxiously.
When Abu Falafel had filled us to the point where doing anything other than lying supine for an hour would be medically irresponsible, we left the house for Diavata camp…