Last July, a caravan of Porsches, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis roared into a small shopping plaza off of Westheimer Road in Houston, Texas. By the time the sun started to go down, the party had spilled into the parking lot, with dancers performing choreographed sword fights for the cheering crowd. More than 300 people came from all over the state, as well as farther-flung cities in California, New York, and Oklahoma. All of them had come for one reason: chocolate.
While all that fanfare might seem like overkill for a candy shop, ChocolatZeina’s grand reopening was the culmination of years of struggle that warranted a raucous celebration. The business’s roots and reputation trace back to Damascus, Syria, where Bashar Slik worked as a chocolatier for decades. In 2014, the United States was bombing Raqqa and Bashar al-Assad’s regime was enlisting all men over the age of 18 to fight in the Syrian Army. Attempts to dodge the draft resulted in forced conscription or imprisonment. Fearing what was to come, Bashar boarded a one-way flight to the U.S. with his son Mohammed and wife Raida, seeking asylum.
“A lot of my friends were drafted. I’m the only boy in my family, so my parents wanted to run away,” Mohammed, who is now nearly 26, remembers. They chose to settle down in Houston, where a few friends and relatives were already living. “We came to find a safe, new life and this is the only thing we know: making chocolate.”
Since Syria’s civil war flared up in 2011, media coverage of the country has been a grim onslaught of reports of extraordinary cruelty, civilian casualties, and the plight of more than 4.8 million displaced refugees seeking sanctuary. Hellish descriptions of violence have a way of eclipsing all that came before them. It’s easy to forget with all the headlines that Damascus was once a place of spectacular beauty, known for 2,500-year-old streets and souks full of fragrant rose petals, black walnuts, apricots, persimmons, figs, and apples the size of a baby’s fist.
Among the many things that have been lost or overshadowed was a long, proud history of confectionery. Back in 2005, The New York Times wrote, “Even in a region known for its devotion to sweet foods, Damascene confectioners are unrivaled, and to arrive somewhere without a supply of traditional sweets would constitute a crime against hospitality.” Syrian sweets were once so beloved throughout the world that exports in 2010 totaled more than $60 million. During the month surrounding Ramadan, the average Syrian family consumed 13 pounds of treats like syrupy knafeh and flaky bitlawa.
In the intervening years, a number of the country’s revered master confectioners have continued their work in exile in different corners of the world. Assam Hadhad founded Peace for Chocolate in Nova Scotia and the late chocolatier Bassam Ghraoui moved his namesake business to Budapest. The Sliks hoped to continue that tradition Texas.
They may be still building a name for themselves in their new home, but the family has been in the chocolate business since 1892, when Naseeb Slik first began conching cocoa solids. After his younger brother, Jawdat, opened Slik Chocolate in 1918, the family business expanded steadily. Under the management of Jawdwat’s four sons, it grew to include seven branches in Syria and another two in Jordan. Their two-story factory was renowned for high-end confections ranging from dark chocolate truffles filled with emerald pistachio paste to chocolate-dipped Medjool dates stuffed with toasted almonds.
Bashar was just seven years old when he first started learning the trade from his father. He knows many of the family recipes by heart, although he has added a few of his own creations over the years, like a riff on the traditional Turkish Delight served with sweetened cheese and powdered sugar. Mohammed, who was managing one of the shops by himself by age 15, remembers customers coming by specifically for the delicacy, which was too fragile to ship.
Today, Slik Chocolate still survives in Syria, but business is tough there.
“My father’s brothers are still there, but their kids are out of town. Only old people are left,” Mohammed says. “They cannot leave it because not everyone has a visa to leave the country. It’s too hard.” Recently, matters improved enough that Bashar’s brothers were able to reopen their factory, which produces many of confections sold here in the states.
Almost no one who enters Houston’s ChocolatZeina leaves without sampling something, a fact I quickly discover as I find myself munching on dark chocolate studded with espresso beans. Raida mixes crepe batter from scratch daily and Mohammed insists that I try one. He ladles out dark, milk, and white chocolate from the three fountains on display at the shop’s entrance, then spends several minutes painstakingly arranging the squiggles into a design with a toothpick before handing it over.
“With him, everything has to be perfect,” says Mary, a blonde Texan native with pink-rimmed glasses and a warm smile. She and Mohammed recently tied the knot and she’s proud to help out with the family business. In her spare time, she’s been studying Arabic and the pair hopes to take a vacation in Lebanon someday soon. They would love to visit Syria, but the situation remains too unstable.
In the meantime, Houston’s immigrant community continues to be a source of support to the family. Although numbers have dropped under the current administration, for years the city’s affordable cost of living and high number of employment options made it one of the primary refugee resettlement locations in the U.S. As a result, there’s a sizeable Syrian diaspora, as well as a welcoming Houstonian population. More than a dozen regulars, many of them local Arab students, come by on a daily basis to sip lattes and log into the Wi-Fi.
“They use us like Starbucks,” Mohammed says.
It’s easy to imagine how one might while away an afternoon in in the turquoise-and-coffee-colored interior. Mohammed’s niece and nephew come by regularly after school to lend a hand and the mingling sounds of English and Arabic often fill the air. The whole place smells faintly of cacao, of sugared apricots and candied nuts and every sort of Turkish Delight—bitter and sweet and reminiscent of a distant homeland.