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Movable Feast: Syrians Set Up Shop In Turkey, Because Who Needs Europe?

  • Daniella Cheslow

ISTANBUL -- Mohamed Nizar Bitar is never far from his seven Syrian restaurants in Turkey. Even as he sat down to a lunch of fried falafel, fresh hummus, and lamb dumplings in warm yogurt at one of his Tarbush eateries in April, he monitored the other six restaurants via security cameras that stream live to his mobile phone.

Once he noticed a worker who had not put on his white hat, so he fined him. "He paid 100 lira," or around $36, Bitar said. "We must be clean. You must be careful about your customers."

Bitar, of Damascus, is one of hundreds of restaurant owners catering to the 2.7 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. He left Syria five years ago, abandoning three factories that made mosaics and stone, and reinvented himself as a restaurant mogul in Istanbul. Today his seven restaurants and two bakeries employ around 300 people, mainly Syrians, he said, and they have been anchors in the "Little Syria" of Istanbul, Aksaray. The business is named Tarbush -- Arabic for fez -- in a nod to the hat commonly worn during the Ottoman Empire's rule.

"We live in Turkey, not Damascus," he said. "We must respect this country."

Mohamad Nizar Bitar

Mohamad Nizar Bitar

Cook Amar Helwani, 23, worked on the front counter, spreading eggplant dip on plates and using a spoon to notch a circular pattern into the paste. He wore a black chef's jacket with two Turkish flags embroidered on the right arm, and said he brought his family out of Damascus to join him in Istanbul. Behind him, glossy brown fava beans boiled in a large pot.

"It's good here," he said. "We're all Arab. The atmosphere is Syrian, the food is Syrian, the customers are Syrian."

Aksaray neighborhood reflects the pull of Europe amid an increasing permanence for some 400,000 Syrians in Istanbul: Although many shops still sell life jackets and waterproof mobile-phone cases used on smugglers' boats to Europe, in early April these stores were interspersed with dozens of stands offering falafel and cardamom-laced Syrian coffee, all advertised in Arabic.

Syrians own about 7,500 companies in Turkey, according to Mohammed Hallak, head of the business organization the Syrian Friendship Association. Syrian firms compose one-quarter of all new businesses established annually in Turkey, outstripping German and Iranian new investment. They concentrate in restaurants, construction, trade, textile, real estate and travel, and they offer vital jobs to Syrian refugees who contend with a cap of 10 percent foreign workers in Turkish-owned concerns.

Neighbors With Different Cuisines

Dalia Mortada, a Syrian-American journalist who follows Syrian food in Turkey for Culinary Backstreets and GroundTruth, says the cuisine has billowed onto Istanbul's culinary scene since she moved there five years ago. The difference between Turkish and Syrian food is apparent, she said, even though the two countries share an 800-kilometer-plus border.

"They both use a lot of lamb, a lot of tomato, and a lot of eggplants," she said. "But when you look at the spices and the combination of ingredients, they are very different."

Syrians love hummus; Turks don't serve it, she said. The mulukhiyeh green that forms a base for Syrian stews is nowhere to be found in Turkey, she said. Turkish bread is lofty; Syrians use a flatbread called lavash that can be folded around a crisp fried falafel -- which is also uncommon on Turkish menus.

In the last two years, Syrian food has become prolific in Istanbul, especially in the Aksaray neighborhood where Bitar has most of his restaurants. There are stands selling spit-roasted shawarma meat; there are two branches of the Salloura restaurant, revered in Syria for its sweets; and several at-home cooks selling jars of labane yogurt cheese and pickled eggplants. The cosmopolitan effect is new in Turkey, Mortada said.

"Because Istanbul is this huge city, you would expect it to have many types of cuisines," she said. "And that really hasn't been the case. A lot of the minorities from the Ottoman Empire left or faded away -- like the Greeks and Armenians. The food scene is very Turkish, and if there is a foreign restaurant it has been Turkified, like a Thai restaurant run by Turks."

Diners at a Tarbush restaurant

Diners at a Tarbush restaurant

Bitar credited his success in part to Turkey's growing openness to foreign cuisine, and partly to the kindness of strangers. He first visited Turkey in the 1990s as an importer of stonecutting machinery to Syria, and learned Turkish. After the current Syrian war began in early 2011, Bitar left for good, he said. He sold his equipment and took $1,000 with him to Istanbul. He said he negotiated a two-month grace period on a basement in central Taksim Square, where he mashed chickpeas into hummus and eggplants into mattabal spread and sold the two to local restaurants. With his profits, he opened his first restaurant branch. He said he now has 27 business partners, from Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

"When I left Syria and come to here, I know, like many, many thousands of people...[who] succeed in Turkey, I am not [alone]," he said, "I am one from thousands."

Since he moved, Bitar said, Syrian spices have become easier to find in Istanbul; at first, he relied on friends to stash them in their luggage. He depends on his two bakeries to provide the soft lavash used for scooping bites of hummus, and said he is working on a corn-based variation.

At Tarbush in early April, most tables were filled with Arabic speakers from Syria and Iraq.

Luay Alkussaiyr, a redheaded photographer from Homs, sat with three friends for lunch. They ate identical bowls of fatet hummus, made by layering toasted pita chips, cumin-laced chickpeas, warm garlic-spiked yogurt, and pomegranate seeds in a deep bowl. The food was good and the price,7 liras -- or $2.50 for a full meal -- was right, he said.

"Life is expensive" in Turkey, Alukssaiyr said. "I am trying to get situated to bring my wife and children."

Hiyam Hamze Omar, a housewife from Iraq, sat at a table with her husband, her mother, and their three children. They picked at a salad while waiting for rotisserie chicken and hummus to arrive. Omar, 26, said she came from Kirkuk and hoped to carry on to Europe to give her children a good education.

"I come here every week," she said. "It's not exactly like Iraqi food, but it's good."

Bitar said he hopes to expand his restaurants to other cities in Turkey. He said he has no plans to leave for Europe.

"I like this country because it's helped me so much," he said. "I don't like lazy people who go to Europe. What do they do there?"

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