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The sheep academician sandwich at Syrjeia, a allegorical sandwich boutique in Aleppo. Served with tomatoes, Syrian pickles and auto abstract with garlic, it was the actuality of fable and anxious for locals and visitors alike. But did it – and Syrjeia — survive the Syrian civilian war? Dalia Mortada/Courtesy of Sporkful adumbrate explanation

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The sheep academician sandwich at Syrjeia, a allegorical sandwich boutique in Aleppo. Served with tomatoes, Syrian pickles and auto abstract with garlic, it was the actuality of fable and anxious for locals and visitors alike. But did it – and Syrjeia — survive the Syrian civilian war?

In 2003, Adam Davidson and Jen Banbury were active in Baghdad, animate as reporters accoutrement the Iraq War. And they were falling in love.

They went on vacation to Aleppo. This was afore the burghal became the attribute of the confusion of the Syrian civilian war, aback aback you ability absolutely go there on vacation.

A acquaintance put them in blow with a bounded columnist alleged Issa Touma. And Issa said, “While you’re here, you accept to go to this sandwich shop.”

“People are walking in and they see us and they’re like, ‘Ah, you’re actuality for the sandwich!’ ” Adam recalls. “There’s an excitement. This was a crusade spot.”

Meats and vegetables were displayed in a case. Jen remembers the sheep brains, bankrupt and ample abaft the bottle as if in a adornment store. They ordered craven and tongue. Jen was absolute abroad by the amore of the meat and the affection of the sandwich baguette.

“I bethink us both aloof staring at the guy who fabricated it in shock,” says Adam.

“Now I aloof ambition we had somehow accurate it,” Jen says, “because acutely that abode is continued gone. Who knows whether the owners are animate or dead?”

But what if the abode is still there? Well, as I learned, aback you’re talking about a boutique in a burghal that’s abundantly cut off from the blow of the world, that’s a adamantine catechism to answer.

So this anniversary on The Sporkful podcast, we’re activity on a quest. What fabricated this sandwich boutique special? What absolutely was in those sandwiches? Is the abode continued gone, as Jen assumes? Are the owners animate or dead? And what can the fate of this boutique acquaint us about the fate of Aleppo?

It’s a appearance that’s been two years in the making. We booty you from Aleppo to Austria, from Detroit to New York to Istanbul — all in chase of a sandwich.

Adam put me in blow with Issa, the artisan who took him and Jen to the sandwich boutique years ago. Issa is still in Aleppo abundant of the time, but he additionally lives for stretches in Europe, giving talks about Syria. He’s managed to accession acquaintance afterwards angering the government.

During the affliction of the Syrian civilian war, aback Aleppo was beneath annoy and the government wouldn’t acquiesce aliment or anesthetic in, Issa and his ancestors survived by acquirements how to baker aged aliment into a bowl they could eat.

Issa hadn’t been to the sandwich boutique in years. He said at its aiguille there were three locations. He’d heard two were destroyed, but he wasn’t abiding about the aboriginal location, by the accessible garden.

Beyond that he couldn’t acquaint us much. He did allotment one acute allotment of advice — the shop’s name, which is additionally the name of the ancestors that owns it: Syrjeia.

We looked online, but all we could acquisition was a Facebook folio for an Afghani restaurant in Turkey. We had a Syrian-American acquaintance who speaks Arabic attending online, too — nothing.

Even if we were able to get a buzz cardinal for Syrjeia, the Syrian government monitors peoples’ calls. The association in Syrjeia would be understandably alert of a alarm from a drifter allurement a agglomeration of questions, alike if it was from an Arabic speaker. That affectionate of call, advancing from alfresco the country, could get them in trouble.

We bare some affectionate of aback approach connection.

Shadi Martini in an undated photo taken in Aleppo, Syria, afore he was affected to abscond the city. “I bethink every sandwich,” he jokes, “not alone at Syrjeia. Because I adulation these sandwiches.” Courtesy of Shadi Martini adumbrate explanation

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So we casting a advanced net in the U.S. We accomplished out to organizations that assignment with Syrian refugees, accompany in immigrant aliment communities, accompany of accompany whose parents came to the U.S. from Syria decades ago. We put out the call: We’re attractive for bodies from Aleppo who apperceive the sandwich boutique Syrjeia.

And that’s how we begin Shadi Martini.

“I bethink every sandwich,” he jokes, “not alone at Syrjeia. Because I adulation these sandwiches.”

Shadi (rhymes with “Paddy”) was built-in and aloft in Aleppo. Afterwards activity to academy in Lebanon, he ran businesses in Europe. Then in 2009, aback he was 38, he came aback to Aleppo to run the hospital his ancestors owned.

“Growing up in Aleppo, I was bedfast to a association that was upscale, a association that was exclusive,” Shadi recalls. “But aback I started active the hospital, I met all segments of society. I went out of my abundance breadth and went to accommodated my advisers at their homes. I alternate in weddings and funerals, I met their families. Somehow I saw the absolute Syria.”

And generally Shadi affirmed with his advisers over a meal at Syrjeia. He says alike admitting Aleppo was a big city, it acquainted added like a baby town. Anybody knew everyone, and the guys at Syrjeia generally knew his adjustment afore he absolved in the door.

“Food is an capital affair in the activity of Aleppians,” Shadi says. “It’s actual sophisticated; aback we’re accepting a bite, we appetite it to be perfect.”

The sheep academician sandwich at Syrjeia was one of Shadi’s favorites. “It’s a arresting sandwich. They cut [the brain] like you cut a tomato, put it in the bun and acknowledgment it. Then they put tomatoes, Syrian pickles and auto abstract with garlic.”

The rich, blubbery academician contrasts with the crisis and back-bite of the pickles, auto and garlic.

“It aloof melts,” Shadi says. “When you eat it, it’s over actual quick.”

Shadi additionally added baharat, sometimes accepted as seven spices. It’s a mix begin beyond the Middle East, and while it varies a bit by region, it usually has cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, cloves, paprika and atramentous pepper. (Aleppo was already a hub of the all-around aroma trade. Its bazaar was congenital during the Ottoman Empire, in the 1400s and 1500s, and stood for centuries. In 2012, in the bosom of the war, the bazaar was destroyed.)

So the sandwiches at Syrjeia included abounding archetypal Middle Eastern touches. Then there were the aspects that were abnormally Syrian.

“Syria is a capital country, so throughout history you had a lot of religions, a lot of cultures bond together,” Shadi explains. “So that’s allotment of the character of the food.”

Remember the amazing sandwich baguette at Syrjeia that Jen described? Well, France active Syria for decades afterwards Apple War I. Hence, French bread.

Shadi says some of Syrjeia’s sandwiches use ambrosial red pepper, which comes from a able Armenian influence. During the Armenian genocide, refugees caked into Syria. In fact, abounding Armenian recipes alarm for Aleppo pepper.

To be clear, Syrjeia wasn’t the alone abode in Aleppo that fabricated these kinds of sandwiches. They aloof did it better, like the best barbecue abode in Houston or the best burrito abode in San Francisco.

But while the sandwiches weren’t altered to Syrjeia, Syrjeia was altered to Aleppo. And that’s why it’s so important to Shadi.

Then there’s addition reason, maybe alike a bigger reason. Because Shadi’s adventures at Syrjeia weren’t aloof about the food, or the atmosphere. As he said, he grew up privileged, in an absolute community. Sharing commons with his hospital advisers at Syrjeia helped him affix with what he alleged “the absolute Syria.”

“I didn’t apperceive the adversity of added Syrians,” he says. “I aloof anticipation that anybody lived like me. If addition complained, [I’d say,] ‘Why is he complaining? It’s a acceptable life.’ Well, it’s a acceptable activity for me, not for him.”

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Shadi’s activation led him to accomplish a accommodation that would change his activity forever.

In the aboriginal canicule of the Syrian conflict, the abstruse badge would exhausted protesters in the streets, and those protesters would appear to Shadi’s hospital for help.

The badge ordered Shadi to about-face over any demonstrators for questioning, which he knew meant they’d acceptable be tortured, possibly killed. Instead, Shadi abandoned the order. He began alleviative protestors and cheating them out the aback of the hospital.

Then, alike as he became anxious he’d be arrested, he went a footfall further, basic a arrangement to bootleg medical aliment to cities beneath siege.

Eventually though, in 2012, he was discovered. He fabricated it out of Syria, but he can never go back.

Today, Shadi lives in the Detroit breadth with his family. (They about won the blooming agenda lottery.) Aliment is one of the few agency he can affix with the home he larboard behind. But often, something’s missing. The capacity aren’t absolutely right. The atmosphere’s different.

Which brings us aback to our hunt. Shadi gave us a abysmal faculty of what fabricated Syrjeia special. Like Issa, he had heard the aboriginal Syrjeia by the accessible garden was still there, but he couldn’t acquaint us for sure. And he can’t ability out to bodies in Aleppo to ask, because he’s a capital man. Talking with him could get them in trouble.

A account shows amercement acquired by angry amid Syrian rebels and government armament in the old burghal of Aleppo, September 2012. Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images adumbrate explanation

A account shows amercement acquired by angry amid Syrian rebels and government armament in the old burghal of Aleppo, September 2012.

Every photo I’ve apparent from Aleppo over the accomplished bristles years has been a account of burst barrio and bits as far as the eye could see. The abstraction that Syrjeia was still there aloof seemed impossible. But if we were anytime activity to acquisition out for sure, we bare addition in Aleppo.

So already again, we put out the alarm to Syrian contacts about the U.S. And we begin a woman alleged Fadia. She was built-in and aloft in Aleppo and came to the U.S. added than 30 years ago. She and her bedmate aloft their accouchement here. She asked that we not use her aftermost name because she still has ancestors in Aleppo and doesn’t appetite them to get in agitation if the amiss actuality hears of her accord in this story.

But her ancestors — they were our in.

So that’s how it happened that one of Fadia’s ancestors absolved in to Syrjeia by the accessible garden and said, “There’s a radio appearance in New York that wants to allocution to you.”

A few weeks later, I was in Fadia’s active allowance in the New York suburbs calling Imad Syrjeia on an app alleged Viber that the Syrian government can’t track. Imad’s ancestor opened the restaurant in the 1970s and has aback anesthetized away.

At first, Imad was wary. Fadia explained her family’s affiliation to his and reminded him of the actuality who had appear into his abundance talking about a radio appearance in New York. She said it’s aloof a appearance about aliment — annihilation political. He said OK.

When I asked how he and the restaurant were doing, Imad insisted aggregate was great. But Fadia said he would never cartel say otherwise, in case the amiss actuality is listening.

“He doesn’t apperceive you,” she explains. “He can’t alike say it to me. I’m Syrian but he won’t.”

I don’t allege Arabic. (Later on I had the recording of this chat translated.) But aloof audition Imad’s articulation advancing out of the apostle in that moment was acutely moving. Knowing his articulation was advancing from a abode that the account had told me was destroyed.

“We try to bethink the acceptable stuff. Then aback you get article like this, you get aggregate back. You admit that you’re not activity aback anymore. That’s it. That’s how you’re activity to bethink area you lived.”

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When the affair angry to food, Imad became beneath wary. You could apprehend his passion. He articulate like a chef, aflame to allocution shop.

The mayo is homemade, and it has garlic in it. The pickles alter depending on the season, sometimes cucumbers, sometimes peppers. If you ask for it, they’ll put a bloom on your sandwich that’s fabricated from olives, thyme, oregano and auto juice. The academician is above with bay leaves, rosemary. If you abscess it too continued it turns to mush. It has to be aloof right, and you accept to arctic it to be able to allotment it.

Imad says, “We adulation our craft. We were aloft accomplishing it.”

After that I had to ask addition acute question. We had heard from some contacts that an beginning of Syrjeia had opened up in Istanbul. A lot of Syrian families acclaimed for a restaurant or bakery accept migrated to Istanbul, Egypt, Dubai and added areas area there are a lot of Syrian refugees. But there are additionally bodies aperture up shops in those places and aloof ripping off the acclaimed names, alike admitting they accept no affiliation to the original.

Imad accepted that the Syrjeia in Istanbul had been opened by one of his above employees, with Imad’s blessing. It’s the absolute deal.

Imad himself is aggravating to get to Toronto or New York. He has offers to accessible up a restaurant. He aloof needs a visa.

As Fadia and I said goodbye to him, he arrive me to Syria.

“He will acceptable you,” said Fadia enthusiastically. “They’re actual generous. They acceptable everybody!”

From there, I appear aback to Shadi. These canicule he works with the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, which agency he campaign consistently to Istanbul, area abounding refugees accept settled. I told Shadi abutting time he’s in Istanbul, I capital him to go to Syrjeia. The sandwich would be my treat.

“That’s it? Aloof a sandwich?” he responded with apish incredulity. “When I appear to New York, booty me to banquet in New York. I’ll pay for the sandwich!”

Shadi absolutely is a acceptable businessman. We had a deal.

A few months later, he was walking in the aperture of Syrjeia in Istanbul, accompanied by Syrian-American aliment biographer Dalia Mortada, who was active in the burghal at the time.

At first, Shadi was skeptical. The abode looked different, and there were some alien card items. But the sheep academician sandwich was there. Pretty soon, it was time to eat.

“Perfect,” Shadi said with a aperture abounding of food. “Same taste. Takes you aback home. It aloof hits you.”

But now, afterwards aggregate he’s been through, actuality transported to Aleppo is bittersweet.

“We try to bethink the acceptable stuff. Then aback you get article like this, you get aggregate back. You admit that you’re not activity aback anymore. That’s it. That’s how you’re activity to bethink area you lived.”

Dan Pashman hosts the James Beard Award-nominated aliment podcast The Sporkful, which is accessible in Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen.

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