From Syria, with Love

A refugee dreams of starting a bakery.

© David Naugle, R&D Studios, Inc.

When I arrive at the apartment, they look like they are packed for a weekend trip instead of a photo shoot. Through the kindness of friends, we’ve connected with a professional photographer who has offered to do a cookie photo shoot pro bono. I’ve tried to impress upon K & R how generous this is, how important it is to be on time, how we must have everything we need at the ready. I was nervous. Connecting with this photographer was a big ask. So I’m relieved to see that they are packed and nearly ready to go, well in advance of our 9 am appointment.

K and I watch the news while R finishes up in the bedroom. Women in full burqas march down a street holding machine guns. A young girl, uncovered, brandishes a rifle. K shakes his head, “Yemen.” Then his cell phone makes the bubble popping sound that means someone has sent him a message and he’s looking at What’s App while I stare at the television, understanding nothing but what the editing underscores: A wedding band. Delicate fingers. A girl. A woman. So many women. So many women holding guns.

And then R is ready. The tv is switched off, just as the camera holds the gaze of the youngest girl. I can’t help feeling like she is still staring at me, hating. Just like the Syrian boy who was on their screen the other day, sitting atop a pile of rubble while a dog sniffed for survivors — hoping. Just like the man, covered in blood who was on their screen last week, stunned, white dust covering his empty hands — despairing.

When we walk into my house, there is a whirring sound. As we unload the packages, K spots my Roomba and stalks it. R pulls item after item from of an IKEA bag. My table is quickly filled, as is the counter. I worry, for a moment, that I have oversold the importance of the shoot. R has made every sweet I’ve tasted in her repertoire. There are three kinds of Ma’amoul, there are two kinds of sandwich cookies she calls Bette For, which might actually be Petit For, but which I regard as Betty Fords. There is Simismee. There is Bespuse. There is Mouhalabieh. There is something insanely delicious, whose name I forget, and simply refer to as log (because of it’s shape before it is sliced into marbled leaves). She has raw cookie dough. She has her cookie press. She has her intricate wood carved cookie molds. She has also packed every ingredient: the dates (phonetically written in my notes as ashuay), the coconut (joeshenned), the sesame seeds (simsoom), the orange blossom water. She has even brought with her sticks of Kroger butter and a bag of White Lily flour. She has packed her coffee tray, coffee china, and coffee.

She is not messing around.

K trails the vacuum robot, looks at me, puzzled. I find myself wishing I hadn’t turned it on before I drove the kids to school. I’d assumed it would help me save face by picking up the copious amounts of crumbs I didn’t have the time to sweep. R and K’s home is always spotless. Instead, the machine has missed nearly every discernible bit of food and is broadcasting “privilege” and “laziness” with every whirr and beep. The first time I took K & R to the grocery store, they stood in front of a refrigerator display filled with cut fruit until I offered an explanation: convenience. They found this hilarious (especially after they noted the prices). While K looks at the Roomba, befuddled but bemused, I have an overwhelming urge to break down a pineapple or a watermelon. A pineapple AND a watermelon!

By the time David, the photographer, arrives, K has pumped music into the air — something more upbeat than R’s usual trance baking soundtrack. Something that says, “Regional,” and I wonder if he is so savvy he’s setting a mood or simply pulling a track he enjoys. Either way, I’m grateful. I ask K, R, and David if they want “café,” and K offers to make some from their own stash. Soon my house smells of cardamom and coffee and there is an espresso-sized porcelain cup and saucer for each of us. David abandons his paper carry out cup, sips appreciatively, then pops open his umbrella and lights. He pulls out a camera that is definitely not a cell phone and in no time is isolating cookie after cookie on a white doily. R and K watch, dubious. Then the images materialize in a white square on his laptop screen, like Mike TV in Willy Wonka. Their faces blossom with happiness and admiration. Their eyes do that twinkle thing that makes them so magnetic. They are pleased. This guy is the real deal. If the cookies can materialize, looking so good, maybe this dream of entrepreneurship can, too.

The other day, when we were discussing our plans, I asked if K would be coming with us and his look implied, of course I’m coming with you! You have a strange man coming to your home to photograph my wife and her cookies! I jokingly puffed out my chest and stood protectively in front of R, which made them both laugh even harder than when they tried to get me to say the word for “stuffed” in Arabic and I slumped in my chair, rubbed my distended belly, proclaiming, “schbett!” This is one of the things I love about them. Their humor transcends language barriers. It transcends cultural differences. They can laugh at me, and boy, do they ever! But they can also laugh at themselves.

As the shoot goes, on, K finds a place on the couch. He switches the music to rap. R bounces to the beat, smiling at me as the flash goes off. K retreats into his phone while R encourages David to sample the treats whose beauty he has just captured. I watch him take the first, rapturous bites. He nods and nods and nods and smiles and shakes his head in disbelief at how good they taste. Then we’re on to action shots. K dips a cookie in jam, then into a pile of pistachio dust. David preens the cookie. R picks up a stray pistachio bit. Both perfectionists satisfied, he snaps the photo. K blasts a pop song I do not know. We move from the kitchen to the table, where R prepares cookies in slow motion while David stands on his travel case, snapping shot after shot.

It’s hard to remember that R has never worked outside the home before. In the beginning, I worried that we had thrust this role upon her, which she graciously accepted. Because what else do you do when the people who are helping you resettle tell you you can become a baker? You become what they see in you so as not to seem ungrateful; hope to see it yourself. Her hands roll the dough. Her hands reveal a ball. Her hands flatten the ball. Her fingers pick up a pinch of pureed dates. Her hand rolls the date into the dough. Her hands put the ball into her cookie mold. Her hand bangs the mold on the table. Click. Click. Click. Somehow she knows just what to do. Just how slowly to do it. The gold bangles jingle on her wrist, accenting the gold buckles on her hijab. K looks up once, notes the camera is still focused on R’s hands only, then looks back down. He’s back to pop music, this time in Arabic.

Watching R sample recipes and walk through this photo shoot like a pro, I have realized how fiercely she wants this. Whether “this” is being able to share the sweetness of her traditions despite the fact any day now it could be her milk-headed niece staring at me from the tv in her living room–imploring. I have realized that she genuinely wants this. Whether “this” might be the ability to help provide for her family here, and eventually there. Whether “this” is adding a new facet to her identity of mother and wife.

We are near the end of the photo shoot when she holds in her outstretched palm a perfectly patterned Ma’amoul. The camera clicks appreciatively, and I have no doubt in my mind now that whatever “this” is, she owns it.

This story is part of a work in progress about falling in love with a Syrian refugee family.

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