“He who kills the ovenbird or breaks his house draws the storm upon himself.”1
—Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, translated by Cedric Belfrage
Damascus, 1949—Announcement #4
“We were obliged to temporarily cede the reins of power.”
The first Syrian revolutionary coup d’état was announced by back-to-back radio bulletins, starting with the basics: an introduction emphasized how reluctant the leaders of the coup were to rule the country. Apparently they had simply been obliged to take over, despite their reticence, knowing their rule was in the public interest. (This tone was to be replicated in the declarations announcing every military coup to come.) Next, the leaders requested that Syrians be “calm and serene,” warned them not to take up arms, and imposed a curfew. After that came the fourth announcement: the bread announcement. This was a warning not to monopolize the sale of bread or manipulate its prices, and a promise of severe punishment for anyone who violated this rule.
Coups d’état had not yet become a frequent Syrian ritual; people passing by the military personnel massing in the streets of the capital would stop them and ask them the meaning of the word “coup.” Three months later, the coup’s impulsive leader, Husni al-Za’im, so very fond of ostentatious displays of military prestige, was sent for execution by firing squad along with the leader of his government. After that, people grew accustomed to hoarding bundles of bread in their homes whenever a new coup or incident was announced. And in the years of slaughter to come, rounds of flatbread would be baptized with blood in the rebel areas, where bread ovens were targeted by airstrikes at the busiest time of day.
Moscow, 1990—The Black Loaf, Pride of the Peasants
“That’s what we get for supporting Communism: standing in line for this black loaf.”
Our Arab neighbor in Russia, the person making this complaint, was obviously not the biggest fan of that black bread—but to be fair to the woman and to understand her vexed mood, the year 1990 was certainly not the most delightful of periods in Moscow’s history. Just as slices of that loaf were an essential element for setting a table, good manners were a duty in the presence of your hosts: saying grace over the bitter black oatmeal bread before eating had nothing to do with thanking God. The hand that put the bread on the table was real and tangible, not some paranormal concept—that same hand that was to be seen again and again in the dismal Ba’athist murals across Damascus, the “worker’s hand” dubbed by the Ba’ath state “the loftiest hand of all.” Peace and prayers be upon the bitterness of the black oat loaf, pride of the peasants, who break this bread as a sign of friendship every time they meet someone new. Peace and prayers be upon Leningrad during its years of siege, keeping starvation at bay with this bread; and peace be upon the vagrants who break it on their vodka glasses, cursing Gorbachev’s economic reforms.
The slices of bitter bread land on the dining table along with a pat of butter and the weight of the tension in the air. Words and phrases everyone repeats hysterically: collapse, perestroika, Chechen gangs stirring up trouble in Moscow. Of course at seven years old I wasn’t able to fully understand what a decisive moment this was for the country. I was absorbed in learning Russian from books about the adventures of children called Valodia and Pyotr and Nadia, and amusing myself by watching the Soviet version of Tom and Jerry (nuu boughoudi, “Just you wait!”) and training my growing teeth to tackle the rock-hard Alenka chocolate bars. I was preparing myself for greater chewing challenges alongside my Communist and Socialist peers, their teeth so solid they ripped right through reactionary projects. On the nights my father was away from home, my mother would listen anxiously for any footsteps on the stairs of our building. She wasn’t comfortable with the constant questions from our Russian neighbors about whether we were from Grozny. It wasn’t clear whether our reply in the negative, and our insistence that we were Arabs, qualified as a correct answer: their faces didn’t show a whole lot of relief on hearing it.
I asked my mother about perestroika, that word everyone was repeating. What did it mean? She made the shape of a ball in the air with her hands: “Demolition,” she said, moving her hands away from each other, “and rebuilding,” as her hands came back together to form the phantom ball again.
The turtle extended her head from the round goldfish bowl on the kitchen table at the dramatic tone of my mother’s lesson, then went back to being bored underwater.
Latakia, 1998—Diabetic Bread (1)
After a stint in the country’s prisons during the collapse of the union with Egypt, my grandfather vowed never to set foot in Syria ever again. He emigrated to West Germany and carried out his threat: he stayed in Bonn until he died, having been robbed by Alzheimer’s of his memories of his homeland, as well as his rage at it. He did break his promise once, returning for a final visit to Syria as an elderly man, accompanied by his German wife. The former boxer and soldier’s body had grown old by then, and the ardent dream of an Arab union had gone up in smoke, so the visit was reduced to family flattery and fierce competition between the grandchildren over speaking appalling English to the poor German guest. Rummaging around (while he was distracted) in the bag he had brought with him from Germany, in search of something to eat, I found nothing but wheaten-colored discs neatly packaged in transparent plastic.
I was severely reprimanded afterward for plundering my grandfather’s provisions for his visit, which turned out to be diabetic bread.
Twenty years later and my hand was running over Beirut store shelves in search of my grandfather’s bread: oat cakes and rice cakes. Those discs that my grandfather had resorted to for his diabetes, without reaping any real benefit, were also a source of illusory help in Beirut in my fight against the weight gain guaranteed to the grieving person binging on crime series—avoiding news bulletins and any video clips marked “leaked”—for hours on end.
Berlin, 2014—Minimizing Carbs
Despite my considerable appreciation for any source of endorphin-stimulating carbohydrates, I found the idea of the increasing contemporary animosity between bread and the sons of Adam extremely palatable—no matter if this new hostility was provoked by calorie-counting or by gluten intolerance. I was enthusiastic about the sacred loaf getting divorced from the holy tables blessed with the output of organic farming and environmental activism. There was no real reason for these feelings of mine, apart from that pure and unfathomable delight some of us feel when a fight breaks out in front of us or when established structures fall apart.
When I arrived in Germany, it was hard to avoid thinking in trite comparisons: “I have followed in my grandfather’s footsteps—he left because of the Father, and I left because of the Son, and we both fetched up at the same spot.” I tried searching for his wife online, as it didn’t seem like it would be hard to track down a woman with a German first name and an Arab surname in a city like Bonn. I found a website bearing her name and displaying handmade homeware, with a postal address. I considered writing her a letter, and then I thought of the media frenzy about us here, our being the topic of a constant slew of talk, us, I mean the hundreds of thousands among whom I arrived, our causes and our problems and our success stories, whether we intend to go back or are able to integrate, and I thought that we had better leave this woman in peace with her handmade products.
Good manners are a duty in the presence of your hosts: saying grace over our daily bread has nothing to do with thanking the Lord here and now, and that’s all for the best given that as a people we have become obsessed with anything that reminds us of the Father and the Son. I removed any source of gluten from the table out of respect for the guests’ wishes. Endorphin-stimulators are widely available concentrated into small, elegant discs that you can find in parks and nightclubs, so there’s really no need for any carbs, and no need for the delusion that a search for substitute family warmth warrants inconveniencing some elderly lady.
Rukn al-Din, Damascus, Some Point in the Mid-Nineties—Ibn Amid’s Automatic Reserve Oven
In the crowded lines in front of Ibn Amid’s automatic reserve oven, one of the most famous bread stores in Damascus, it was easy for the slogans about the blessed loaf that had been around since the early years of our childhood to be demolished by the jostling, the misery, the gray winter mornings, and the bakery’s three separate serving hatches: military, men, and women. The waiting lines were similar to those that had so irritated our neighbor in Moscow. It wasn’t easy to work out whether these dismal cities were a punishment imposed by Communism, as the woman had suggested, or represented the destruction of the ovenbird’s home, something I suppose we have done over and over again.
Damascus, 2012—Diabetic Bread (2)
The checkpoints were dismembering the city, and my mother had found her way to a nearby baker who specialized in diabetic bread. With obvious sorrow she would repeat, during our walk to the bread oven, how easily one grew accustomed to the taste of this bread over time. Then she would resume talking about her plants, withering on the balcony no matter how much she took care of them. “They are withering because of the smell of death in the air.” That was my take on the subject, and as I said it I thought I want to leave the city, not witness the death of my mother’s plants and her hopeless struggle against the illness that defeated her father. Relief work had become widespread in this period, and urgent, and was usually punishingly difficult, with families who had lost their homes scattered through the ocean of the city, setting up camp in schools or public parks. Useful instructions for preparing a relief package were available online. While I browsed, a suggestion appeared before me: “How to make homemade bread in emergency conditions.” I ignored the suggestion, and thought once again about leaving the city.
1. A bird that builds a domed nest on the ground in the shape of a traditional bread oven.↩
© Rasha Abbas. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.