The Folklore Project
Eating Their History
By Amanda Avutu
One week before they arrived, I wrote a letter to the Syrian refugee family who would be moving into my Atlanta neighborhood.
Because I could not write in Arabic and they could not read in English, I wrote to them in fava beans, pomegranate molasses, and tahini. Across their cupboard, I spelled out with containers of cumin and dried mint and sesame seeds the things I wanted them to know:
My grandma used to watch the weather when I was traveling to make sure I was OK, like she could will my safe passage. “Go carefully!” she would say (as if I could will my safe passage). I have been watching the weather first out of Jordan and then Miami, and now Atlanta, thinking “Go carefully!” I could not have known to watch the weather when you were crossing from Syria. But I would have.
This will feel strange, all of it. How can it not? The people will look strange, the noises will sound strange, the air will smell strange — eat these anchors of familiarity, maybe something like home will take root.
And also, I’m sorry.
But mostly, welcome.
I’d heard about the family through Facebook, where someone had posted to our neighborhood page that their church would be co-sponsoring a family of refugees. They needed help preparing the apartment. I needed to feel like I was doing something more useful to help with the “refugee crisis” than sending baby carriers and boxes of dollar-store distractions to children in refugee camps.
Although I had been invited to welcome the family upon their arrival, I had no idea if I’d ever see them again after that. Just because I’d bought them a few things didn’t mean they would want me hanging around. Kindness is given. Friendship is earned.
* * *
As a child who moved frequently, I’d left many notes under loose flaps of carpets, wedged between shelves, and once in a freezer, telling the new renters the things they needed to know: The tree near the street is the best for climbing, even if the one near the driveway seems better. Or, this closet is the best hiding spot when playing Sardines. Or, there’s a cat who sounds like she’s dying, but really, she’s lonely. Pet her, but not on her tail. She hates that.
Those were welcome notes, I suppose, but really they were goodbye notes, more to myself than anyone else. Proof that I’d been there even though my family kept moving me, shifting my existence. Through those letters, I wanted the people who would take our places to know the things they should appreciate. Through this letter, I simply wanted this family to know that they were appreciated. That even though I didn’t know them, could barely pronounce their names, I saw them, regardless of their shifting existence over the last five years. Even though they’d left everything they’d known behind, and it had been decimated. Even though they might not recognize themselves, swallowed as they had been by disaster. They existed.
* * *
On the coffee table in the living room the next day, they wrote their first letter back to me, in coffee. Ruwaida, the mother and wife, carried over a pink tray upon which delicate silver and grey espresso cups and saucers balanced. She must have had those in her suitcase. It was a miracle they hadn’t broken. On the stove, she boiled water in a small silver pot that had a long-necked handle. I watched as she added coffee, and stirred, until the pot grew creamy, thick, fragrant with cardamom. She placed a tall glass of cold water at the end of the tray on its own saucer, filled to its top. The glass sweated as she carefully poured an equal stream of caramel colored liquid into each cup with a measured flick of her wrist. On the kitchen counter, a donated Mister Coffee sat, its cord coiled tightly around its glass belly. The coffee this family would make would not be pre-programmed to brew automatically, artlessly. It would not be a matter of convenience. I took the first buttery sip, swallowed her intent:
There’s no reason to be sorry. Thank you. You are welcome in my home.
* * *
I toured them through Atlanta, but we bypassed the Aquarium and Botanical Garden for Kroger and Walmart. This, above all else, was what they wanted. We’d walk past the chicken and they’d ask, Halal? The lamb, Halal? The frozen pepperoni pizza, Halal? No, I told them, and they were incredulous. Here was everything, but also nothing.
They stopped to stare at an entire wall of potato chips, all different textures and flavors.
They puzzled over a display of pre-cut pineapple and watermelon. Containers layered with blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries.
I learned the Arabic word for “why,” which I added to a list I’d begun keeping in my phone. Did I have an answer? What were they learning about our culture? What was I learning about our culture?
Not too long after, we made our way to the specialty markets. Here, the family moved quickly, desperately. They were alternately giddy and melancholy. Many of the things they saw reminded them of home — their true home, the one that no longer existed. Rolls of digestive biscuits became artifact. Survivor. Time traveler.
One time their daughter, Zainab, found a special cheese she’d been wanting and hugged it. Another time, Ruwaida, looking for a special flour to make a dessert went from box to box, bag to bag, smelling, rattling, shaking her head, letting each package know just how profoundly it had disappointed her.
After the hours we spent at the grocery stores, I’d pull the car up in front of their apartment and they’d say to me, “café?” which meant that I was invited to come in and relax. Across the coffee table, they began writing me their history, stilted at first, with just a few plates.
Here is the bread; it is life. We don’t need the four forks or four plates that were on your resettlement list. We only need our hands, this bread, our mouths, each other. Here is the cheese we made in a pillowcase hanging over our sink. It is soft and creamy, with a tang. We have dimpled it with a spoon in the pattern of a flower, and filled those dimples with olive oil. And then we have sprinkled it with dried mint. It was nothing, a glass of milk. Do you understand?
They had nothing, I understood. They had everything. It was so delicious that I’m embarrassed to say I looked forward to those moments after the grocery store when I knew they would bring out what little they had to share with me. A simple canned tuna with fresh squeezed lemon became a delicacy. A scrambled egg with slivers of crisp garlic, I craved for days after. An olive, carrot, and pepper salad, so impossibly finely chopped, the oil, burnt red, coating my tongue and throat with something silken and deep. Fava beans, massive, brown, unceremoniously heaped on a plate between salt and cumin, my favorite of all. Dab, dab, bite. The skin gave way just as the salt and spice mixed, melding with the warm, mushy center.
My phone swelled with the words I was learning: harabuspah, foul, salad zeitoun. The table swelled with the plates, more each time, with the delicious pieces of their world they wanted me to see. Witness.
One day, Ruwaida brought out a plate heaping with tiny, pale, cream-colored mounds. They smelled of butter and sugar, something faintly floral. They could only be described as archaeological, followed by treasure. It didn’t seem possible that she could have baked them so much as she had unearthed them from the piles of rubble we’d seen on the television news they streamed constantly. One was bejeweled with what looked to be a sliver of jade but tasted of pistachio. One was etched with swirls, Paleozoic. Others were etched with sharp lines in geometric patterns — they told a more serious story. How far back in history were we going? Eat, she prodded. And I did. I bit into the treasures, which halved them, doubling their beauty. The swirled shell broke into a powdery soft cloud of coconut scented with orange-blossom water. The bejeweled mound encapsulated a compact universe of ground pistachio, dense, earthy — what was this if not the whole world collapsing in my mouth? An oblong mound, flatter than the others, yielded easily, into a chewy date center, a restrained sweetness spreading over my tongue. Eat, she commanded, and I ate all the way back to the beginning of their history, to the beginning of creation, and it was so delicious.
Amanda Avutu is one of five friends who are helping a Syrian refugee family start a cookie business in Atlanta. You can learn more about their delicious food on their Facebook page or Instagram @SweetSweetSyria.
Amanda Avutu’s nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, O, the Oprah Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, Brevity, and the New York Times’ Family Ties column. Her fiction has appeared in Fifth Wednesday, Green Mountains Review, and Story Magazine. She is currently working on a memoir.