From the windows left ajar, one can hear guns firing, mortars exploding. The frontline is just 300 meters away. The children don’t flinch; by now they are used to this. On the contrary, they enjoy recognizing and imitating the sounds of the weapons. The kalashnikov, the mortar, the dushka, the rpg, the antiaircraft artillery, the Mig, the Grad. As if it were all a game, some sort of “Old Mac Donald had a farm” in time of war.
Italian journalist Gabriele Del Grande visits a clandestine classroom for his dispatch The Illusions of Aleppo, now on Roads & Kingdoms.
Damascus has long told itself that it is where all journeys, all religions and all civilizations begin and end. We who live there now also know that Damascus will be where the final battle for control of Syria will be fought.
Rebel forces are gathered just a few kilometers from the stone walls of the Old City, and inside the walls for almost a year now we have lived with the terrifying sounds of war, the scream of fighter jets, gun battles raging and shells flying overhead. War on our doorstep.
For me the only journeys I ever take these days are around the souks and alleyways of my neighborhood. On these walks I am not only trying to get a sense of the situation, but also a bit of the reassurance that comes from seeing the market busy with shoppers and children heading off to school. I drop in on friends and get updates on the crisis. Often it’s only gossip and rumor, but there are few other reliable sources of information. I check to see what food is in the market and at what price, as there have been days when fresh food and bread have been scarce. Those are the things on my mind as I slam the heavy metal door of my house and head out into the warren of passageways tucked in a corner of the Old City between the ancient gates of Bab Touma and Bab Salam.
Dish #4 of 11 from the Year in Food
Central market, Sukhum, Abkhazia
Oliver Bullough, one of the great chroniclers of the Caucasus, set off our fiercest food fight of the year when he offered up his ode to adjika, a chili-garlic sauce claimed by both Georgia and Abkhazia, contentious neighbors with a deep, patriotic love for this fiery condiment. After angry commenters cried foul, Bullough trekked across the border to try the Georgian version of adjika in a follow-up report, but it was his time in Abkhazia, including a condiment-heavy conversation with President Alexander Ankvab, that won us over.
The market was a chaotic noisy place full of vegetables and bread and furniture and clothes and hustlers. I smiled at the thought of Chirikba, careful and precise in his beautiful suit, walking through here.
But he was right: everyone knew Seda, who was pleasingly nonchalant about having her produce recommended by the country’s top foreign policy official.
“Of course, mine is the best,” she said, pulling out a jar from under a counter covered in vegetables. “It is the purest so it is the best.”
She opened the jar and offered me a spoonful to try. More coriander in this one, I thought, as I waited for the garlic and chilli explosion at the back of my mouth. And something else in there too: dill seeds? Cumin? It was indeed wonderful.
She just smiled at my questions though: “I will not tell anyone anything about what’s in here”.
A bald man, 40 years old or so, was listening to our conversation and chipped in to support Seda’s boast. When he heard I was writing about the national sauce, he insisted on his viewpoint being recorded as well.
“Write that Adjika is Abkhaz, not Georgian. They say it is theirs, but they lie. They always lie,” he said, before stumping off, a string bag of vegetables in each hand.
The Georgians, of course, have their own thoughts on this. But since the word Adjika comes from the Abkhaz word for salt, I am a believer in Abkhaz claims to the invention of it.
Seda dipped the jar in spices to seal it, screwed on the lid, and handed it over.
“Everyone knows me,” she said. “Seda, Seda, Seda, in America, in Israel, auntie Seda, they call me. Auntie Seda.com for adjika. Ha!”
There is, alas, no website. I checked.
With the jar safe in my bag, plus one from her blonde neighbour too, I headed off to see President Alexander Ankvab. We did cover the issues I wanted to discuss—American opposition to Abkhazian independence, Russian support, the return of Georgian refugees. But it was perhaps inevitable we would spend some of our time talking about a particular spicy condiment.
“Adjika is number one,” he said with finality, when I asked him to rank it in the world top 10 of sauces. “I can remember, when I was a schoolboy, when we went to the village, the old women would grind the adjika on a stone like this.”
I looked on in amazement. I had somehow provoked the president of a war-torn semi-recognised country into miming the action of grinding spices on a stone. He had a glint in his eye too.
“There were so many herbs in it, starting with garlic and ending God knows where, but the taste was heavenly. The most tasty kind was done like this, with a stone.”
The Middle East smolders, China gathers like a storm, and there are precious few countries that appreciate America’s moral guidance on any topic. That’s why Obama can’t afford to make these mistakes on Burma.
Obama in Burma: Why it’s a Bad Idea. A special report from the Kachin War zone, on Roads and Kingdoms today.
The Other Burma. St. Paul’s Refugee Camp, Picture 1 of 29. Kachin refugees fleeing the fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar central government are living in makeshift housing on the grounds of St. Paul’s church outside of Mytikyina in Kachin State. The camp, which is already overcapacity, is seeing more refugees even as peace talks between the KIA and Nay Pyi Daw continue. Credit: Nathan Thornburgh/Roads and Kingdoms