Posted by Joshua on Sunday, August 24th, 2008
AFP PHOTO / HASSAN AMMAR: Syrian Ahed Joughili competes during the 105 kg category of the men's weightlifting at the 15th Asian Games in Doha, 06 December 2006 at which he won the gold medal in his class.
Eight Syrian athletes took part in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, competing in shooting, swimming, track and field, triathlon and weightlifting events. Politics overshadowed their sporting performances, however, when Syrian swimmer Bayan Jumah pulled out of her event after being scheduled to compete against an Israeli athlete.
Syria’s 2008 Olympic team included its largest swim team ever, represented by Jumah, Souhaib Kalala and Saleh Mohammad. Fadwa Albouza and Majed Aldin Gazal competed in track and field events, Oma Tayara in the triathlon, Ahed Joughili in weightlifting and Roger Dahi in shooting.
Juma, the swim team’s only female athlete, pulled out of the women’s 50m freestyle event after being scheduled to swim against an Israeli opponent in the first round. For the other team members, Kalala finished fourth in his first round heat of the men’s 100m backstroke, while Mohammad finished 19th in the men’s 10km marathon.
In track and field, Albouza finished eighth in her first round heat of the women’s 100m hurdles. Gazal finished 14th in the men’s high jump first round heat, while Oma Tayara finished 49th in the men’s triathlon.
Ahed Joughili finished 13th in the men’s 105 kg weightlifting event while Dahi finished 41st in the men’s skeet shooting event
Syria first competed in the summer Olympics in 1948. Its medal haul since that time includes one in each colour; gold, silver and bronze. Ghada Shouaa won Syria’s only gold medal the heptathlon in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. She remains one of only two women in the Arab world to claim Olympic gold and one of only three in the wider Middle East. She also represented Syria at an international level as a basketball player.
Joseph Atiyeh claimed silver for Syria in the freestyle wrestling 100kg division at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, while Naser al-Shami won bronze in heavyweight boxing at the 2004 Athens Games.
Photo: Ghada Shouaa (Arabic: غادة شعاع) won Syria's first and only Olympic gold Meal at the 1996 Summer Olympics winning the heptathlon.
If Syria is not a rising star at the Olympics, it is a comer in the world of cuisine. As QN reminds us, the old adage is "“The second best source of Arabic cuisine is the Lebanese restaurant. The best source is the Syrian kitchen.”
Matthew Teller from the Observer went on one of these culinary tours of Syria. His article is.. delicious!
The foodie road to Damascus Syria is known for its deserts and ancient ruins, but now its cuisine is starting to draw visitors too. Matthew Teller is a delighted convert.
After decades out in the cold, shunned by Western travellers and overshadowed by its faster-moving neighbours, Syria is – slowly – starting to gain the recognition it deserves as a vibrant, fascinating country. If you’ve never visited, whatever you’ve heard about the place is quite likely to be wrong. Political rhetoric notwithstanding, there’s a more tangible air of menace in Guildford.
And as the country opens up to outsiders, ways to explore it multiply. I had visited Damascus before, but this time I was going to experience it through the eyes of Anissa Helou, chef, broadcaster and writer on the cuisines of the Mediterranean. A Londoner for 20 years, Anissa grew up in Beirut but remembers idyllic childhood summers spent in the Syrian highlands. Now she has returned to launch small-group culinary tours, taking ingredients, cooking styles and methods of production as a starting point to explore and understand this much-misunderstood country.
Admiring Damascus’s historical monuments, or taking time to appreciate the architecture, was firmly off the agenda. Instead, we began by exploring the souks. I watched as Anissa strode through the crowded lanes, casting to left and right, stopping to watch an old man cooking omelettes, pausing to ask a passer-by how she prepares her vegetables, picking out oranges from a pile on a barrow. I followed her into the back lanes, where we discovered a half-hidden factory making sugared almonds: a single, bare room lined with great copper drums for turning the toasted nuts in syrup.
The manager, Qusay Sukkari (sukkar is the Arabic word for sugar so, delightfully, this was Mr Sugary the Sweetmaker), welcomed us and explained the process, but apologised for having none of the product to sample. No matter, we said, and nipped round the corner to buy qatayif – sweet pastries filled with cream, deep-fried to a crunch and drenched in treacle. Old-fashioned calories still matter in Syria.
We spent the day working our way through the different areas of the souk, buying zaatar – a fragrant blend of thyme, marjoram and sesame – in the Souk al-Bzouriya (the ’seeds market’), sampling boiled sweets and sipping fresh mulberry juice. Then we headed over to the Souk al-Tanabel (’lazybones market’), which sells only pre-prepared vegetables: the stalls are piled with bags of sliced carrots, cored squash and ready-chopped herbs – convenience food, Syrian-style.
Eating is, obviously, a major part of a culinary tour, and we ate in a succession of fabulous restaurants. Particularly memorable was Al-Khawali, housed in an eye-popping 14th-century palace in the heart of the Damascus souk, concealed from the street’s bustle by beautifully carved wooden doors. Inside, floors of patterned marble led to an airy internal courtyard, with tables laid around a central fountain dotted with jasmine and citrus trees. Anissa ordered a clutch of meze – small, sampler-style dishes that included alangi (stuffed vine leaves) and exquisite shanklish, a tangy sheep’s cheese dusted with pepper and thyme. We dipped and nibbled our way through about eight meze dishes, plus mains of tender grilled lamb: the food – formal, sophisticated, charming – suited the ambience perfectly.
Old Town, a rather unimaginatively named restaurant in Damascus’s Christian quarter, was another highlight, serving pungent, fiery muhammara – a spicy dip of chopped walnuts and red pepper – and succulent chicken kebabs.
The tour continued in Aleppo, some four hours north, where we met the vastly knowledgeable Hassan Khouja, a researcher from the Académie Syrienne de la Gastronomie (such a body does exist), for a meal at Bazar ash-Sharq, a restaurant hidden in vaulted cellars just outside the old city walls. Hassan claimed this was the best kitchen in Aleppo. Its kibbeh nayeh, raw lamb chopped with spices and bulgur wheat – one of the most difficult meze dishes to get right – was superb: soft, moist and earthily flavourful. As we tucked into Aleppan meatballs with quince, Hassan talked about Syria’s culinary roots, and how Aleppo’s location on the east-west Silk Road historically drew in both Persian and Turkish influences, most notably with the mixing of savoury and sweet in the city’s trademark spicy kebabs with sour cherries.
Damascus, on the other hand, far to the south and cut off from eastern influence by the desert, always looked more to Lebanese mountain cuisine, for subtler combinations of herbs, beans and vegetables in meze dishes and salads.
The difference was still tangible: the zaatar we bought in Aleppo was sharper and more peppery than that in Damascus, and while our Damascene sweet treats were candied apricots and local ice cream – egg-free and beaten by hand – in Aleppo we were offered elegantly crafted confections of spun sugar with Iranian pistachio nuts.
As well as opening world-class restaurants, Syria is also starting to take a leaf out of Morocco’s boutique-hotel book. The lanes of Damascus’s Bab Touma district shelter a number of upmarket conversions of 17th- and 18th-century courtyard town houses. At Beit al-Mamlouka – the first and still one of the most stylish – all eight bedrooms were taken when we visited, but the engaging owner, May Mamarbachi, nonetheless served us tea in the orange-scented courtyard and showed us around, pointing out original features and inviting us to return.
While I plumped for a simple room above the workshop of Syrian sculptor Mustafa Ali, Anissa stayed first at the Dar al-Yasmin, another heritage conversion featuring marble fountains and beautiful pointed arches, then moved to the Talisman, a small hotel converted from a wealthy merchant’s residence on a dusty lane in the old Jewish Quarter. The Talisman’s French owners have deliberately overlaid the traditional Syrian architecture with a ragbag of design elements: Indian trinkets hang beside Cairene lamps, while a Moroccan red wash covers the walls – gaudy rather than chic.
More endearing was the Mansouriya Palace, down a narrow alley near the medieval Bab Qinisreen gateway in Aleppo’s old quarter. Within another serene mansion of white marble, its courtyard shaded by Seville orange trees, lie nine suites, each over-themed to the point of kitsch. The Hittite Suite comes complete with stone lions flanking the bed and a bath and sink carved from single blocks of marble, while the Ottoman Suite is dominated by a four-poster bed decked in swags of heavy silk.
But the real discovery remained the food. Bypassing Syria’s famous ruins for an indulgent week of near-continuous eating and snacking in the company of Anissa, whose knowledge and enthusiasm are boundless, turned out to be a great way to get under the skin of this often hard-to-fathom country. Food is one field where Syria excels, and it deserves to be celebrated.
Photo: The ubiquitous yummy Kabab
This shot … well, a Syrian school girl.