The food is waiting for us. Colours and aromas of Syrian feasts in dishes of creamy humous, smokey aubergine, spicey beetroot, roasted carrot dips, all laid out in pretty bowls on a crowded table. Imad, our smiling host, invites us to sit.
How does he do it? Not just the warmth of the welcome but the sheer wizardry of the meal. A delicious three-course menu for more than forty diners a night whisked up on a simple four-ringed gas cooker in a small pop-up kitchen flourishing just above the Columbia Road Flower Market in East London.
Easily, it seems. Imad Alarnab was a celebrated restaurant owner in Damascus before the bombs obliterated normal life in his home country. More to the point, as a refugee he learned how to rustle up food for hungry people with nothing more than one ring, a bowl and a knife. Different skills are honed over a lifetime. But there’s special significance about that particular phase in Imad’s life. Sheltering with fellow asylum seekers on church steps in Calais he discovered something that resonates loudly in the chatter around our table.
“Food brings people together.” He had told the Guardian a few months earlier: “When we were in Calais, at first the neighbours of the church didn’t appreciate our presence there. And I can totally understand that, but we were 14 desperate Syrians with no other solution. In time we were cooking for all our neighbours.”
That article by Nadia Khomami in the Guardian is the reason we made our way here this Friday night, through sultry London streets, hot and sticky in the summer heat wave. Each meal costs £40 and of that £15 goes to the Hope Hospital, the only children’s hospital in the Aleppo region.
Travellers with baggage
For us it’s the fitting end to a holiday which – when we think of it – took us on a well-worn refugee trail through Spain and France. An ironic reminder that we humans carry a motley mix of baggage with us wherever we go. For this has been a holiday where, perhaps more than on any other trip, global complexities of migration, asylum and identity have worked their way into our meandering intermingled with wining, dining and the pleasure of watching the world go by.
Food is an essential part of that mix. One diner’s careless satisfaction is another’s fight to survive. The endlessly fascinating thing about being human is how we can hold so many conflicting thoughts and emotions at any one time.
So Ray and I have travelled as tourists on crowded planes and trains while populist politicians declare an immigration crisis (that doesn’t exist) throughout Europe. We watch deeply moving films of asylum seekers rescued on Spanish coasts yet keep an eye on the times of the museum café. We feel human compassion at the sight of desperate parents clinging to their children, we recoil with disgust at Trump’s latest cruelty, lying as he separates children from their parents. And then we sit on the bench outside a museum smiling as a grandfather negotiates ice-creams with a beguiling toddler under benign evening sunshine.
Welcome Refugees is the Basque language sign on yellow flags waving from many windows in and around Bilbao. Tourists Go Home is a (jokey?) message on a street not far from the city’s Guggenheim museum.
‘Right to nationality and freedom to change it’ is a text in the Human Rights exhibition on the top floor of the Peace Museum in Gernika. We wander through the town rebuilt by Franco, stopping at spectacular monuments to victims of the bombing that reduced the town to rubble on 26 April 1937.
We meet the statue of George Steer, The Times reporter who revealed the truth of the atrocity, exposing Franco’s lie that Reds had deliberately destroyed the Basque town to create division. Yet, even as we make chilling connection between the tactics of dictators then and now, we are cheered to hear that Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s new prime minister, sounds set on healing wounds that have festered since Franco’s death. We do not need to return to the 1930s.
Where and what is home?
Nationality, identity, belonging? Where is home? What does it mean to be human in 2018?
Imad gives an answer, greeting guests, introducing each new course beaming with pride at our enthusiasm. “We have a special Syrian desert,” he says almost confidentially. A delicate confection of pistachio ice-cream served with melting strands of candyfloss flavoured with rose water. Scents of Syria lovingly aroused in a crowded London pop-up echoing with the laughter of happy travellers and local people on a good night out.
“I love London,” he says as we thank him for a rare experience. When the pop-up finishes he hopes to open a permanent restaurant. “London is wonderful to me, it gives me hope and a new life.”
Peace is a difficult equilibrium between the various languages. The different cultures and outlooks, the different situations and the millions of hopes and desires in the minds of our civilisations here on planet Earth. Gernika Peace Museum
Our Father’s House by Eduardo Chillida commissioned by the Basque Government on the 50th anniversary of the Gernika bombing. At the centre a symbol of our roots as a proposal for peace, freedom and tolerance.