The Night the Free Syrian Army Made Me Dinner
Reporting from the Jordanian-Syrian border has some obvious advantages, the main one being that you basically can’t move for things to write about. The downside, at this time of year, is that the group of journalists I was with ended up doing what we termed “reporters' Ramadan”—roaming around the desert all day unable to drink water or eat anything other than rusks during the Muslim holy month. A week of this had us feeling dangerously close to contracting scurvy, so when a group of interviewees asked us to join them for Iftar (the meal that Muslims use to break their fast in the evening), we happily agreed. That the same group of interviewees happened to be an apartment full of Free Syrian Army fighters looking to return to Syria was, frankly, just an added bonus.
I sat down next to Mohammed, a teacher back home in Dara’a but also now the commander of a hundred FSA soldiers. He explained how he currently gives his orders via Skype as he’s come to Jordan to recover from an injury, although he plans to return to the frontlines. Emilie, a journalist with Radio France, chuckled and boldly asked him what his orders to his troops had been that day. “If you catch anyone, anyone at all, Mukhabarat or otherwise, who supports the regime: Kill them. But slit their throat, because bullets are expensive,” was the reply.
He also dared us to try fasting, so that we could have a genuine Iftar experience. Being weak-willed people who can’t go without liquids when it’s 100-plus degrees outside, we failed miserably. I didn’t want to be the first to admit this though, because Mohammed has a face that looks like it’s designed to put the fear of God into you.
Forget the stereotypical videos that Arab militants put on YouTube, though: I couldn't imagine any of these guys clad in ski mask triumphantly holding the severed head of some unfortunate enemy. In truth, they were more Dad’s Army. Most of them wanted to return to Syria to fight, and we discussed how the Jordanians were helping them smuggle themselves back across the border. Although eight of them live in the apartment, there were around 12 men having Iftar with us, dressed in a mixture of traditional Middle Eastern jilbab’s and worn-out sportswear. Several could pass for 45 years old, but were in fact barely 30.
We started by breaking our non-fast with sweet drinks–they gave us an ominous-looking brown syrup called “suss” and then grinned as we tried to supress our gag-faces at its odd medicinal (acquired) taste. As a reward for trying, we were given homemade date juice, which tasted like what I always imagined unicorn tears taste like. We watched as plates of food were ferried past us and laid on a plastic sheet in the centre of the next room, then leant round the door frame to shamelessly Instagram the feast for posterity, as a couple of our fellow diners looked on, slightly confused as to why we thought pictures of plates of hummus were worth a photo.
Abil, who wants to return and fight in Damascus, strolled in to change the TV channel from a news station showing shots of the battle for Aleppo to a personal favorite of mine and Emilie’s; a channel that shows a round-the-clock direct link to Mecca—watching people circling the Kaaba is oddly hypnotic. This station also handily broadcasts a prayer that tells you what time to break your fast, and if we learned anything about being in the Middle East during Ramadan, it’s that Iftar is the one thing guaranteed to be on time.
Everyone shuffled into the room and arranged themselves around the feast. The apartment might have had a slightly Syrian-Men-Behaving-Badly-vibe to it, but they served us some incredible cuisine. There was hummus, baba ghanoush, several things involving potatoes, salad, two kinds of bread, foul (pronounced “fool”, a kind of garlicky bean dip) and an enormous platter of chicken and rice. For several minutes, the only sounds in the room were that of the fan whirring in the corner and some contented munching.
After a while, Mohammed jabbed his finger in the direction of the chicken lying near me. “Eat the chicken, it’s good!” he told me. Having been a vegan for almost nine years, I’m quite used to politely passing up nearby animal carcass, but in the Middle East, this is liable to make people think you are mentally ill. Still, it’s a bit difficult to tell someone who you know can wield an AK-47 that you won’t be eating the food they cooked. So, like the brave person I’m not, I got my friend and sometime translator Saeed to do it, mostly by making a desperate, saucer-eyed face at him and mumbling “Saeed, fix it, fix it now.” The upshot was this man may spend his days telling militants to slit people’s throats via Skype, but he definitely thinks I’m nuts for not eating chicken.
After everyone had finished and the plates were cleared, we sat in the living room drinking coffee, smoking smack-you-in-the-face-with-cancer cigarettes and the conversation naturally shifted to the situation inside Syria, although not always on topics you’d expect. For example: Syria doesn’t have McDonalds, but KFC is everywhere (we didn’t touch on whether this could change post-Assad, but I assume it’s a hot-button issue) and we discussed the use of Googlemaps as a tool of the uprising.
Finally, after eating some of the sweets we’d brought (because it’s not a meal in the Middle East unless you’ve coated your mouth in sugar), it was time for us to put our shoes on and leave. Being excellent hosts, the FSA invited us to come back the next evening; I think it was only the prospect of having to lie about fasting again that stopped us.
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