Berlin’s Little Syria

By opening restaurants in the new countries where they have settled, Syrian refugees have recreated familiar spaces for eating and socializing.  The popularity of Syrian restaurants outside of Syria might in some ways ease the pain of exile especially as they offer comfort food served the way it was back in Syria. I was recently in Berlin attending a conference when one of my fellow participants suggested that we go to a Syrian restaurant that was highly recommended as authentic. I was intrigued by what was considered authentic. Four of us made the trek via the U-Bahn to Sonnenallee the street where Syrians and other Arabs have transformed into a mini-version of a bustling business district found back in their hometowns.  As we emerged from the metro station and walked to the restaurant the neighborhood became a little less German and more Middle Eastern.  Increasingly more store signs were in Arabic and the restaurants and shops we passed were selling Middle Eastern foods and goods.  At one point, I thought I was back in Damascus after passing a home goods store with several rolls of plastic sheets—cut to order—displayed on the sidewalk.

Hookah bars and the smell of tobacco took me back to Damascus, Beirut, and even Amman.  There were several stores selling Middle Eastern sweets and candy.  Arabic was spoken in the streets and was heard from the restaurants with open fronts frying falafel or carving shawarma.  Specials advertised on storefronts were a jolt of reality: hookah and beer for 5 Euros.  We were in the heart of little Syria where many Syrians who found refuge in Berlin recreated their beloved homeland in Germany through hearty meals followed by dessert or a hookah.

Although we passed several restaurants full with people our destination was Aldimashqi, and when we eventually arrived it was teeming with diners that made the other places seem empty in comparison.  This was a good sign because if anything Syrians are very particular about food and where they eat out.  The food served at Aldimashqi was typical Syrian “fast food” grilled meats, salads, falafel, and of course shawarma both lamb and chicken—food you would not bother cooking at home but when eaten out is both filling and satisfying.  It is also the food Syrians socialize over with family and friends. In addition to the meat and falafel, it had a modest selection of fatteh, the thick hummus soup over bread with pine or pistachio nuts sprinkled on top.  It is well-known as  the comfort food in both Syria and Lebanon. Aldimashqi was designed like several of the restaurants I have seen in Damascus:  A man perched on a stool manning the cash register near the entrance where diners placed their food orders and paid.  Behind a glass partition the chefs and their assistants were busy manning the grills and filling orders.   The only thing missing was the meat and parsley hanging from hooks in the window but then there could be some ordinance against this in Berlin. The walls were adorned with black and white posters of tourist sites from around Syria probably meant to appeal more to the non-Syrian diners.

There was also a dessert station manned by the sweet maker Azzam making kanafeh the sweet cheesy dessert topped with fine noodles and soaked in syrup.  It was located towards the middle of the restaurant and where diners who were not sated by the food—portions at AlDimashqi were huge and all dishes came with French fries—could choose their dessert.  As in Syria coffee was offered at the end of the meal and served by older men carrying a tray with cups and pots moving from table to table.

The teams of servers also recalled Damascus.  All were young men dressed in black and with the store logo on their polo shirts.  They cleared and cleaned tables and brought orders to the seated diners. They were well-coiffed and groomed with gelled hair and trimmed beards in that unique Damascene style. They also wore latex gloves which I do not recall was something servers did in Syria.  One young man helped our group secure a table since we were not quick enough to grab one. The first thing a diner does when entering the restaurant is to find a table for their party. The system was very disorienting and confusing for first timers and the server probably sensed our being at a loss as to what to do but also our determination to dine at one of Berlin’s finest!

Similar to the system in Damascus the restaurant was divided into two sections; the front for dining parties composed of all men and the back separated by half a barrier for families.  However, the segregation of single men from women was not enforced—the restaurant was too crowded and the aim was to get a table before placing the food order. No one seemed offended by the lax segregation.

The restaurant was popular with visitors to Berlin as well.  One of my colleagues from the conference dined at Aldimashqi three times over the course of our five-day meeting and served as our guide to Little Syria. Two men standing in line behind us were not from Berlin, and it was their second time back to the restaurant. It was certainly popular with the local Syrian community as well.

Syrians seem to have transferred their Syrian life to Berlin successfully as they adjust to a new life under new laws and social codes. The food industry is very popular with Syrian investors and entrepreneurs. One Syrian entrepreneur opened Bab al-Hara to sell Damascene style ice cream in Berlin back in 2013.  The proliferation of Syrian sweets, ice cream and food businesses indicates the large number of Syrian refugees and other Arabs in Berlin.  Social media makes sure visitors to Berlin with a craving for Syrian comfort food find Aldimashqi and other restaurants.  These restaurants do not only sell food but also nostalgia for the homes and communities they left behind. Food is also one of the few things that Syrians regardless of their political orientation have in common, and it allows them to connect with the wider German community and other expatriates in Berlin.  Moreover, and only after five years since the official start of the civil war, Syrians are making their presence felt in Germany.

Faedah M. Totah is associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Cite as: Totah, Faedah M. 2017. “Berlin’s Little Syria.” Anthropology News website, November 24, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.706

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