By Moulham, Syria
In 2005, I was studying at the best private school in Damascus. Al Saade School, which in English means “the happiness school”, and I thought I was happy, when my biggest dream was to run my father’s jewellery shop and study cinema at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts.
As a result of the War in Iraq, a lot of Iraqi refugees were living in Damascus, one of them lived in our building. Nobody talked to him, because Syrians used to blame the Iraqis for most of the problems of that time, like how they raised the prices of everything, how they stay in the streets staring at women, and I felt that in my building we were blaming our neighbour for all of that.
His name was Artin, an Iraqi Armenian filmmaker, tall, handsome and a calm person. I met him on my way back from school, we spoke about my dream and he promised to help.
He made me read Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran and Dante. He prepared me to live my dream. And when my father knew about my project, he became angry. For the first time in my life I heard him use ugly words to describe people working in cinema, and he gave me a choice: stay at home or study cinema.
I was drowning in a sea of sorrow, with a beginning but without an end — though I was too young and should be full of energy and positivity.
However, I didn’t choose, he chose for me.
I collided with the surroundings of loneliness and anger.
I hit my head on every wall of the seven Gates of Damascus.
Sank in the big mirage, with the scent of death coming from it — called “future.”
Drinking was a poison.
Breathing was a poison.
Eating was a poison.
My neighbor, Artin, who prefers to be called Arto, was an international expert in Knafeh.
I mean, he knows all the Knafeh masters in Damascus — by name.
And the names of their children.
The workers are known by name.
The most important: all of them know him, by name.
When he enters one of their shops, they come to shake his hand (he was my age then) with “Ahla wa Sahla.”
He sits like a king, orders like a spoiled general.
And they were happy to serve him, because in the short day he passes by them four or five times.
One day, Arto saw me depressed more than usual. Without asking, he decided that there’s no more appropriate solution for my case than Knafeh — I told him that I know Knafeh but I don’t feel like eating.
But he wasn’t listening, he took me as a prisoner to his execution to the one and the only “Nabeel Nafiseh” King of Knafeh, undisputed.
At least, from his point of view and experience, and in my opinion, just after!
Nabeel Nafiseh didn’t make Knafeh.
Nabeel Nafiseh was writing poetry.
He was a musician.
He was painting the sky.
He inherited this handcraft from his father, and he runs this industry with his five brothers.
When we went to his place in the Old City of Damascus, in Bab Al-Jabieh, we were lucky because it was one of Nabeel’s brother’s wedding, so the Knafeh that day was made with joy, happiness and pride.
The Knafeh that day fell from heaven and its smell was capable of finishing any conversation, any war negotiations. It was a holy smell, gave you no chance but to respect, close your eyes for two seconds before eating like a child. As my friend was there, he had a big piece of heaven. And so did I.
Then my apprenticeship of the science and secrets of Knafeh with my mentor, godfather and friend started.
It was a great journey of knowledge . It expanded my horizons, my knowledge increased, and I knew and understood more.
Arto and I put together with time what became a formal catalog, the basic knowledge of modern Knafeh Information like where to go, which day of the week, what time, what to order, what to say, who you should trust, who you should keep an eye on while preparing, who puts more sugar, who puts more cheese, who makes it with their hands, who has a machine, who buys it frozen and who just heats it for you, and who has Syrians in his kitchen and who has Bengalis or Egyptians . Our bible of Knafeh.
We stayed like that till the war started near Damascus. My family sent me to Lebanon to complete my MBA studies near my Uncle, who works in diamonds with the Armenians in Beirut. This gave me the opportunity to try my first Knafeh outside of Damascus, and I didn’t regret trying it.
After that I received the visa for France to study cinema. I didn’t tell my father this time, he was happy that I’ll be far for a while.
That last day in Beirut I felt like I graduated from the Academy of Knafeh, under the supervision of my professor and friend Arto, with honors.
Armed with a vast amount of experience and information, and almost daily practice, I embarked on my journey with Knafeh.
My version of the pursuit of happiness made me homeless, from a Turkish restaurant to a Lebanese passing by Syrians, Greeks, Kurds and Israelis.
My new passion took me around Paris. I ran the five zones of Ile de France, including the suburbs. There is where all the treasures are hidden.
From north to south, and from east to west.
Wherever I go, whenever I go, my first question is “Where can I find a restaurant which sells Knafeh here?”
I invented a new type of tourism which I called “Knafeh Tourism” and that day I decided that one day I’ll launch a guide like the Michelin Guide and will name it the Moulham guide.
And for the Knafeh, and because of it, I visited Paris / Saint Michel / Creteil / Pantin/ Marais / Jewish district / Chatelet / rue Cler / Evry sur Seine /And another with no Seine .. and in all the neighborhoods of Paris — from its luxury 16eme to its ‘No Go Zone.’
I went to Italy/Genoa/Portofino/Milan/Spain/Madrid/Ibiza/Germany/Munich and its suburbs.
With “Knafeh” trips, I was accompanied by tourists, students, teachers, bourgeois, doctors, police, young men with gel on their hair, politicians from left and right, Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists
Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Ismailis, Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Persians.
I ate thousands of dishes.
Lived thousands of lives.
Laughed thousands of laughs.
I saw when eyes lighted, with the first bite of Knafeh, when the melted cheese was turning the body alive. When it was tired, a moment before.
The only good kept me happy.
The only coloured thing in my memory about Knafeh,
The only free spirit inside me,
The only divine thing,
In every country,
For all people,
Was that small plate of Knafeh.
The dish was the only one, without religion, without a confession, without an ethnicity.
Just a pleasure, with no politics, no America, no Russia, no Iran.
Something without borders, division, organization, Islamic emirate, militia and armies.
Something for the poor and rich.
For the believers and non-believers.
Knafeh is the only thing that reminds me of my homeland, a real homeland — different from the one we see on television and newspapers.
It was home.
It was my nationality in my spirit, my head, my face, my blood, and my memory of Antique.
That never dies.