“If death is my fate, I will die even in Copenhagen. Gaza is relatively safe and a more simple place to live,” says Aleppo chef Anas Qatarji, who fled war-torn Syria for the besieged Gaza Strip and moved his destroyed restaurant with him.
In the bustling market of the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, which is packed with customers until 11:00 pm, dozens line up to enter the newly inaugurated Syrian Jar Al Qala’a (neighbor of the castle) restaurant to experience the atmosphere Qataji successfully transferred from his besieged city.
The small restaurant is an attempt to revive his original restaurant, which was adjacent to Aleppo’s historic castle erected during the reign of one of the commanders of Alexander the Great. His original restaurant was bombed during the fighting the city.
This 29-year-old chef, who is often concerned about who is still alive from his family in Aleppo, describes himself as “a gambler.”
“I remember a dialogue with a friend during a night of explosions by fire shells in 2013 in the Aziziyah neighborhood east of the city. I said I would escape to anywhere in the world, even to Gaza. He accused me of madness, saying: Escaping a war into another?!” Qatarji told Mondoweiss.
“In Gaza, I don’t feel any alienation, I feel like I just moved from Aleppo to Damascus. We Syrians love Palestine since our childhood.” Qatarji added.
Qatarji says he buried 15 bodies himself with rescue teams in Aleppo during the fighting. When he decided to escape from his city dozens of refugee camps near the ‘Bab Salama’ crossing with Turkey were not in welcoming additional refugees so he decided to travel to Cairo instead. “But the instability and exploitation posed to Syrians in Egypt prompted me to escape to Gaza, and today I feel comfortable here,” he says.
Recently Gaza has been home to about 55 Syrian families, but some of those left on ships trying to enter the European Union.
“I have lived the war experience in Syria, and escaped from death to face another in Gaza, but at least the fighting here [in 2014] ended in 51 days, unlike the ongoing war for five years in Aleppo,” said the chef.
Back in the 24-square-meter restaurant, lovers of new flavors also enjoy some rare artifacts Qatarji brought from Syria with him.
The ancient artifacts survived the destruction of his original restaurant and were successfully smuggled from Aleppo to southern Jordan then brought through the Sinai and then passed through a tunnel to Gaza, in a trip that cost Qatarji more than $3,500.
The chef displays pottery and copper dating back 400 years, a rusty dagger allegedly used during the revolution against the French presence in Syria, and a 16-inch Sanyo TV from the 1960s.
To recreate the Syrian feel the chef even persuaded his waiters to lengthen their mustaches with rounded edges. “People here are fond to experience any Syrian stuff,” Qatarji said. Palestinians were often prevented from traveling to Syria and only experienced it on TV drama series. Hearing the Syrian accent of the chef, which is unlike other Arabic dialects, passer-bys laugh as they try to imitate it.
Sisters Fatima and Amira Abu Mandil easily booked a dining table to taste Syrian Fatteh (white boiled rice over toasted flat bread with layers of toasted almonds with shawarma slices) served with sour yogurt, for only $5.
“This restaurant serves delicious oriental flavors and spices, we love tasting Syrian food. Most of Gaza’s restaurants do not serve specific cultural dishes,” Amira, 30, told Mondoweiss.
Qatarji was keen to transfer all the features of his old restaurant to Gaza. Lyrics by Fairuz, the Lebanese singer icon, are engraved on a wooden panel on the entrance, saying:
‘Hey you who are going to Aleppo, my love went with you
Hey you who are carrying grapes and apples
Everyone is with their beloved and my beloved has gone
Oh lord, may the breeze bring my lover back to me’.
The chef says his success is a result of learning the Levant cuisine industry early in family-owned tourist restaurants. He also believes that his “passion for Gaza boosted my success of the project in a small area that has seen three wars in eight years.”
He says many Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem residents have contacted him to encourage opening a Syrian restaurant there as well.