In honor of our 10th anniversary we’re re-releasing three all-time favorite episodes, selected by listeners, each with a brand new update. "Searching For The Aleppo Sandwich" is a two part story. Make sure you listen to part one first. And you can read creator and host Dan Pashman's reflections on the past 10 years, and news about what's to come, here. On Saturday night, September 26 at 9pm Eastern / 6pm Pacific, join us for our 10th Anniversary Party on Instagram Live with special guests Carla Hall and Sohla El-Waylly. We're also raising money for Feeding America. Follow Dan on Instagram so you don’t miss the party.
Shadi Martini (top) was born and raised in Aleppo, Syria. He was forced to leave his home city in 2012, but he never forgot his favorite sandwich shop there.
"It's a magnificent sandwich," he says of that sandwich, which is made with sheep brain. But it's not just about the food. "It’s being [in Aleppo], eating it there, and talking to the people that makes it more delicious."
As we learned in part one, that shop in Aleppo that Shadi loves so much is called Serjieh. And it's famous for its delicious sandwiches in a city where there is no shortage of amazing food.
Shadi loved Serjieh partly because of the food and the people. But he also loved that restaurant because it played a role in his own transformation — from a wealthy businessman running a hospital to a guy risking his life to get medical care for demonstrators who’d been beaten by Syria's secret police.
"We established some secret facilities…gave them medical supplies," he recalls. "No one knew about it until 2012, when we were discovered."
But after Shadi fled Aleppo, he wasn't able to contact anyone there. So he doesn't know if Serjieh survived the war.
Today on The Sporkful we'll find out what happened to that beloved restaurant and its owners during the five years of intense fighting in Aleppo. And we'll learn how being forced to leave Aleppo — possibly forever — has changed Shadi's life and that of his family. "I lost everything," he says. "I lost the ability to go back to my home."
At the end of the episode, we have a brand new update about what's happened since we first aired this story in 2017.
Interstitial music in this episode from Black Label Music:
- "Minimaliminal" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Brain Wreck" by Bijou Basil
- "Private Detective" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Steady" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Feel Real Good" by Will Van De Crommert
- "Midnight Grind" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Narwhal" by Casey Hjelmberg
- "Can't Bring Me Down" by Jack Ventimiglia
Photos courtesy of Dalia Mortada and Shadi Martini.
Dan Pashman: Hey everyone, just a quick note that this episode is part two of a two-part series. If you haven’t heard part 1, please go back! You really have to listen in order. And stay tuned to the end of this episode for an all new update on this story, which we’re sharing as part of our 10th Anniversary Celebration. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Previously on The Sporkful...
CLIP (ADAM DAVIDSON): People are walking in and they see us. And they're like, "Ahh, you're here for the sandwich." This was a pilgrimage spot.
CLIP (JAN BANBURY): Clearly, that place is long gone. Who knows whether the owners are alive or dead.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Do you remember that sandwich?
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): Oh yeah Yeah. I remember every sandwich. It's being there, eating it there and talking to the people that makes it probably more delicious. We used to talk a lot and laugh a lot. All of a sudden people started being quiet. People started avoiding coming into hospitals. And that was when we started trying to help them. We had one doctor that was kidnapped and tortured. I interpreted that as a warning like, be careful what you're doing and stop doing it.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Let’s continue with the story of Shadi Martini. He has a special attachment to the sandwich shop we’re searching for, Serjieh. Shadi loved that place partly because of the food and the people, which made the shop really unique to Aleppo. But he also loved it because it played a role in his own transformation, from a wealthy businessman running a hospital to a guy who was risking his life to treat demonstrators who’d been beaten by the secret police.
Dan Pashman: When we left off, Shadi was getting increasingly worried that he’d be discovered. A doctor who was known to treat protestors was arrested and tortured. Shadi took it as a message, someone was telling him to stop. But he didn’t stop. Instead, he started doing a lot more.
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): So what we did is we established a secret network with friends of mine. And we actually financed this by our sources, you know, because we had money. We were very well off. And what we did is we established some secret facilities and helped people establish it, gave them equipment, gave them medical supplies.
Dan Pashman: Through this secret network, Shadi and a few friends smuggled medical supplies to people around the region. And he put his skills running businesses to use. He created a structure with a small core group, then there were supply chains in various directions. He made sure only the core group knew all the people involved, so if someone down the chain was arrested they wouldn’t have too much information to share.
Shadi Martini: We did a lot of these stuff under the radar and no one knew about it until 2012 when we discovered.
Dan Pashman: Did your family know what you were doing?
Shadi Martini: My family didn't. And I'm talking here about my family as my parents and my brothers but my wife knew.
Dan Pashman: What was that moment? What was the moment that you were discovered?
Shadi Martini: It was another two colleagues that were arrested. And at that time, I was outside the country because what I did in 2011 is I moved my family out of the country, my kids and wife. Because I was very afraid that something will happen to them because of my actions.
Dan Pashman: Shadi was able to get his wife and kids to America. They basically just got lucky, they won the green card lottery. They settled in the Detroit area. Shadi shuttled back and forth between there and Aleppo, he wanted to continue his secret work and stay near his parents. He was hoping to convince them to leave with him. Then, in the summer of 2012, Shadi was on his way back to Syria, after a trip to the U.S. At this point, he’d been doing his secret work for about a year. He was on a stopover in Europe. The fighting in Aleppo at that time was so bad that the airport there was closed. His flight back to Syria was canceled.
Shadi Martini: And during that time, when I was trying to find another airline or to go through another city, like Damascus, I was informed by a colleague of mine, who worked with me, "Don't come back, we are discovered. Our names are on each and every roadblock. So stay out." And actually if I would have made it on this flight that I was planning, probably I couldn't have made it out.
Shadi Martini: At that time, I always thought of my kid, who was three-years-old. I always imagined that my son would grow up and he would come to me and ask me about Syria, what happened at that time. And I will have to explain it. I always thought that the next question will be, "What did you do?" And I couldn't imagine myself telling him, "Well, I did nothing. I just took care of business and made us more rich."Actually after I left, the government put out a decree to confiscate everything I owned in Syria. So I lost everything. I lost the ability to go back to my home but really I don't regret anything. I sleep great at night seeing that I did what I should do.
Dan Pashman: Once you realized that you weren't going to be able to Aleppo, were you able to tell your parents?
Shadi Martini: Oh yeah, they knew. They knew that I couldn't come back. You know? They knew. It's tough for them. It's tough for me, probably, but they're still in Aleppo so they need to do what they have to do, survive.
Dan Pashman: When was the last time you spoke to them?
Shadi Martini: Hmm, several years now. One of the reasons I went back to Aleppo in 2008, and I had very good business in Europe, was to be next to them. You know, I thought, most of my life was...and I lived it without them. So, somehow, I thought that being close to them in these years would be a good thing. But, you know, change...events, you know, changed everything....Sorry about that. [sighs] I try not to think about it. You know? If you....and you know this is what the dilemma for a lot of us that we went through what we went through, is we try to block it. Most of us are so traumatized of what we went through, what we witnessed, that we try not to think about it.
Dan Pashman: As I listened to Shadi I kept thinking about how he had made this choice that had caused him so much pain, and yet he doesn’t regret it. I wondered if he wishes he hadn’t seen what he’s seen. Not that he would have made a different choice and supported the government, but does he just wish he could get rid of that pain?
Shadi Martini: No, never. Never. You know, it's tough but I'm happy that I went through this. It's not only about Aleppo. It's opened my eyes about a lot of things, you know, as a person, as a human being. How we are as human beings. I always looked at myself as myself only and the people surrounding me. Remember Darfur? We didn't care. Rwanda? We didn't care. And you have to understand that it could come to you. It could happen to you and one day you'll be suffering and you'll be looking and wondering why are others not so passionate. Why they don't have empathy toward me? Well, yeah, it's tough when others had these problems and you didn't care. So, no. No. No. I love that I've seen that. I love that I've turned to a different person because that's how people should be. Not the other way around. [sighs] Wow. This is emotional. [clear throat] I thought we were talking about sandwiches and now you surprised me with all these stuff and opened these floods of emotion that I wasn't prepared to.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yes, we were talking about sandwiches. Shadi gave us a really deep sense of the food and the atmosphere at Serjieh. I think, now, we understand why this place was so important to him. And why, as Adam put it, even for locals, Serjieh was a pilgrimage spot. But Shadi didn’t know for sure what happened to it. Like Issa, he’d heard the original one by the public garden might still be open but he couldn’t confirm it. Shadi had known a lot of the workers in the shop, but he didn’t really know the Serjieh family. And he can’t really reach out to people in Syria for info, because talking to Shadi could put those people in danger.
Dan Pashman: We needed to get to someone in Aleppo. But how do you reach someone in a mostly destroyed city in a police state? Well as it turns out, there’s an app for that.
CLIP (IMAD): [SPEAKING ARABIC]
Dan Pashman: Coming up...contact. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Now as I told you earlier, in honor of our 10th Anniversary, we’re re-airing three all time favorite episodes this week each with a new update. This one's the first one. Wednesday will be "Katie’s Year in Recovery", about one woman’s struggle with an eating disorder. Friday will be, "Notes From A Young Black Chef", featuring Kwame Onwuachi.
Dan Pashman: While you wait for those to come out, check out last week’s show with David Chang. A lot of you have already told me how powerful you thought this conversation was, Dave is incredibly honest discussing his longtime struggles with depression and extreme anger. He talks about considering suicide and explains how these struggles have influenced his career
CLIP (DAVID CHANG): Food became the source of how I fix my life. It gave me values. It gave me purpose. Things that I never though I care about, like cutting something properly, or writing something properly on a piece of tape, organizing. Things that were pretty trivial and meaningless, collectively gave me reason to live.
Dan Pashman: That episode with David Chang is up now. When you check it out please make sure you subscribe to our podcast in Apple Podcasts, If you listen in Spotify, follow. In Stitcher, favorite. Whatever the thing in your app is, please do that, so you don’t miss any of our special episodes. You can do it now, while you’re listening. Thanks. Now, back to the show…
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Mmm. Oh my God.
CLIP (FADIA): It's knafay..I mean, my daughter said...I said, I did a cake. She said, "What do you mean you did cake? Let's do something Syrian." I forgot completely about it.
Dan Pashman: This is Fadia. She’s born and raised in Aleppo. She came to the U.S. more than 30 years ago. On the day we went to her house in the New York suburbs, she served us her homemade knafay. It’s a middle eastern cheese pastry soaked in simple syrup. It’s topped with a layer of thin little crispy bits, sort of like the shreds you see on some baklava that look like a bird’s nest. Then on the inside it’s like a very sweet cheesecake filling, but softer and oozier, almost like pudding. It’s bonkers.
Fadia: This is my specialty, so....
Dan Pashman: This is so good.
Fadia: Yeah, I mean, whenever I go people say....I say, "What do you want me to bring?"..."Please can you bring us knafay?"
Dan Pashman: Fadia's been back to Aleppo a few times since moving to the U.S., but not since the war started. She remembers Serjieh well.
Fadia: It's a very simple restaurant. From outside, you figure out it's an ordinary place but....
Dan Pashman: Fadia knew the father, who opened the restaurant in the 70’s, and the sons who took over, after he passed away.
Fadia: I think why he is famous, because of his generosity. And maybe he cooked with a lot of love. He doesn't cook like...ahh I just wanted to have the money. No, he cooked from his heart. So he get really good quality.
Dan Pashman: Fadia still has family in Aleppo, so she asked that we not use her last name, because they could get in trouble if the government finds out she spoke with us. But her family there–they were our in. She was still in regular contact with them. So that’s how it happened that one of Fadia’s relatives walked in to Serjieh by the public garden in Aleppo and said, “There’s a radio show in New York that wants to talk to you.”
Fadia: Cause sometimes they get scared to answer the phone if they don't know the...
Dan Pashman: We were in Fadia’s living room. We called with her iPad, using an app called Viber, that the Syrian government has trouble monitoring.
[CONVERSATION CONTINUES IN ARABIC]
Dan Pashman: She says, "Is this Imad Serjieh?"
[CONVERSATION CONTINUES IN ARABIC]
Dan Pashman: After a long pause, he says, "Yes?" Fadia explains her family’s connection to his, she says remember that guy who came in and said there’s a radio show in New York that wants to talk to you? I’m here with them now. And, Fadia tells Imad, it’s just a show about food, nothing political. He says okay.
Fadia: What do you want to ask him first?
Dan Pashman: First is, how is he doing?
Dan Pashman: Getting a decent connection is a problem. Another issue, there are a lot of things we can’t ask without putting Imad in a tough position.
Fadia: No, we can't ask him this question about how they're doing or anything because....[answers the phone in Arabic] What do you want to ask him? About what?
Dan Pashman: How are things in his restaurant?
[FADIAS ASKS IN ARABIC]
Dan Pashman: Imad says the worst of the fighting has passed, things are better now. The restaurant’s open, more people are coming in. Then we get disconnected again.
Dan Pashman: Despite Imad saying things are okay, Fadia’s skeptical.
Fadia: They bomb all us and you could say ten percent is safe. But I know it's not but we can't talk of anything. You're a foreigner and he doesn't know you.
Dan Pashman: So you think even if things were bad there he would be afraid to say to us because he doesn't know who we are?
Fadia: No, he can't. He can't say to me. I mean, even I am Syrian but he won't.
Dan Pashman: We got Imad back on the line.
Dan Pashman: Ask him to describe the tongue sandwich in particular?
Fadia: Okay, can you...[CONTINUES IN ARABIC]
Dan Pashman: I don’t speak Arabic, later on I had this conversation translated. But I have to say, just to hear Imad’s voice coming out of the speaker in that moment, I found it very moving. Knowing this voice was coming from a place that the news had told me was destroyed.
Dan Pashman: Early in the conversation Imad was wary of us. But when he started talking about his food, you could hear his passion. He was a chef, excited to talk shop.
Fadia: Ohh, seven hours.
Dan Pashman: Seven hours what?
Fadia: Seven hours for the tongue to get cured. The acid vinegar...
Dan Pashman: It sounds like you're getting hungry just listening to this Fadia.
[FADIA CONTINUES ON THE PHONE]
Dan Pashman: Fadia tells Imad the joke I just made.
Dan Pashman: What about the brain, brain sandwich?
Fadia: The brain…
[CONTINUES IN ARABIC]
Dan Pashman: And from there we proceeded to nerd out on Serjieh’s recipes with Imad Serjieh. The mayo is homemade and it has garlic in it. The pickles vary depending on the season, sometimes cucumbers, pepper...If you ask for it, they’ll put a salad on your sandwich that’s made from olives, thyme, oregano and lemon juice. The brain is boiled with bay leaves, rosemary. If you boil it too long it turns to mush. It has to be just right, and you have to chill it to be able to slice it. Imad says, "We love our craft. We were raised doing it."
Fadia: He says that they love what they're doing. And we say in Arabic, it's really...I have to explain it. They said, when you cook with—they call it...[sniffs] You know, like meditation sentiment. Like with a lot of love. They love to cook and they love to eat. Their number one.
Dan Pashman: After that I had to ask another crucial question. We had heard from some contacts that an outpost of Serjieh had opened up in Istanbul. And it’s plausible. A lot of Syrian families famous for a restaurant or bakery have migrated to Istanbul, Egypt, Dubai, places where there are a lot of Syrian refugees. But there are also people opening up shops in those places and just ripping off the famous names, even though they have no connection to the original. So I wanted to hear it from Imad.
Dan Pashman: We heard that there's a Serjieh in Istanbul. Can you ask him if it's part of his family that's opened that restaurant?
Fadia: This is one of the workers, that he works for him. He went used his name but he's in a good relationship with him. He does everything that they do.
Dan Pashman: In other words, the Serjieh in Istanbul—it's legit.
Fadia: People from Toronto, his friends, they're asking him to come and open a place because his name very well. So they wanted his name to put on there and so he's very well known, I'm telling you.
Dan Pashman: Is he going to do that?
[FADIA ASKS IN ARABIC]
Fadia: If he can do it here, he would prefer to come her instead of going to Toronto.
[IMAD JOINS CONVERSATION]
Fadia: If you get him a visa he would love to come. He thanks and he wish you to come to Syria. You come to the....[RETURNS TO CALL]...inshallah.
Dan Pashman: Inshallah. In Syria, New York, or Toronto?
[FADIA AND IMAD TALK]
Fadia: You come to Syria and he welcomes you. They're very generous. They welcome everybody.
Dan Pashman: Thank you, thank you, very much.
[FADIA TRANSLATES CALL AND SAYS GOODBYE]
Dan Pashman: How does it make you feel to talk to him? To know that that place is still there?
Fadia: I feel very much happy. I mean I feel happy because at least people still have trust that this city is going to rebuild again. Because they keep saying that we are going to rebuild it again. We're coming back to rebuild. The people who are in Germany, they said we're coming back to rebuild this place. We will never leave Aleppo.
Dan Pashman: I met up with Adam and Jen, they’re the couple you heard at the start of part one, the ones who told me about Serjieh in the first place.
Dan Pashman: It took me a while to track Issa down, with your help Adam. He is living part of his time in Austria.
Jen Banbury: Wow.
Adam Davidson: Austria, okay.
Dan Pashman: But he's still been going back to Aleppo fairly regularly.
Adam Davidson: Really?
Dan Pashman: Yeah, his mother still lives there.
Jen Banbury: Wow.
Adam Davidson: Wow. And he's okay and she's okay?
Dan Pashman: So far.
Adam Davidson: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So far. The sandwich place is called Serjieh
Adam Davidson: Sergi...
Dan Pashman: Serjieh.
Jen Banbury: Serjieh.
Adam Davidson: Serjieh.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Jen Bannury: That is a familiar ring.
Dan Pashman: And that's the family name.
Jen Banbury: Uh-huh. Wait, so is it still...
Dan Pashman: It still exists.
Jen Banbury: It does?
Adam Davidson: Seriously?
Dan Pashman: It's still there.
Jen Banbury: Oh my god.
Adam Davidson: Wow.
Jen Banbury: That actually—I think I'm gonna tear up a little bit.
Adam Davidson: That's hard to believe.
Jen Banbury: That makes me so so happy to hear. Wow.
Dan Pashman: After that, there was one more person I had to report back to, Shadi. These days he works with a Syrian refugee organization in the U.S., which means he makes regular trips to Istanbul, where a lot of refugees have settled. And as you’ll recall, there’s now a Serjieh in Istanbul. Shadi can’t go back to Aleppo. But how close can the sandwich get him?
Dan Pashman: Shadi, next time you're in Istanbul, I want you to go to Serjieh. Send me the bill, I'm gonna buy you a sandwich. Alright?
Shadi Martini: Oh, don't worry about it.
Shadi Martini: Come on, just a sandwich? You'll pay for something more. When I come to New York, take me to dinner in New York. I'll pay for the sandwich.
Dan Pashman: See, you are a good businessman.
Shadi Martini: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: A counter offer.
Shadi Martini: Yes, that's...you know, you have to negotiate all of this.
Dan Pashman: Alright, it's a deal. You buy a sandwich at Serjieh in Istanbul. You report back to me. Next time you're in New York, dinner's on me.
Shadi Martini: That's a deal.
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): Oh yeah...wow. Yeah, yeah. No, I see it. So let's go and have some sandwiches.
Dan Pashman: A few months after that conversation, Shadi was in Istanbul. He met up with Dalia Mortada. She’s a Syrian-American food writer and reporter who was living in Istanbul at the time. When Shadi first came in to the restaurant, you could tell he was skeptical.
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): It's a little bit different.
CLIP (DALIA MORTADA): What's different?
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): They way everything is set up, the type of vegetables, the type of meats a little bit, is different. You will go there and you will see meats like the mortadella, these pastermas, they're all hanging and that's how it was in Aleppo. You will see stuff hanging. You will see stuff in the fridge with the window and you will see a lot of vegetables and a lot of stuff. So that's the difference.
Dan Pashman: So the meats weren’t displayed the same way. And there were some unfamiliar menu items.
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): No, they want more clients. As much as Syrians are here, they're are not that much. So this is why they have fried chicken, they have falafels, they have shwarma. Back home they won't need that.
Dan Pashman: Shadi placed his order…
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): [ORDERS IN ARABIC]
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): He assured me he's doing it like he's supposed to in Aleppo, no changes, no fancy stuff. Don't do the european stuff. I just want the old Allepian sandwich, that's it.
Dan Pashman: Soon it was time to eat…
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): Let me...
CLIP (DALIA MORTADA): So which one is this one?
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): This one is one's the brain. Mmmm. Perfect. Mmm, the lemon. Same taste, takes me back home. Just hits you. It tastes—just got flashbacks, you know? That's the problem that we're always all pacing, that we try to remember the good stuff. Then when you get something like this, you get everything back. You recognize that you're not coming back. You're not going back anymore there. That's it. That's how you're going to remember where you live. Mmm.
Dan Pashman: So that was our original episode from three years ago. Last month, we taped an update.
Dan Pashman: Shadi!
Shadi Martini: Hey. Hey Dan, how are you?
Dan Pashman: Good. How are you?
Shadi Martini: I'm fine.
Dan Pashman: I think the last time I saw you, when were at the Multifaith of Alliance, I came to one of your dinners and then—let the record reflect, that I did take you out for that meal.
Shadi Martini: Oh, yes. Yes. Oh yeah! It was during the...
Dan Pashman: The World Cup.
Shadi Martini: The World Cup. Yes.
Dan Pashman: I wanted to take you somewhere fancy and you were like, "No, Argentina's playing. I have to go watch soccer."
Shadi Martini: Argentina is playing. Yeah. I'm sorry about that. Argentina is my passion in soccer, so...
Dan Pashman: Shadi's now the executive director of the same nonprofit he was working for before, the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. It’s based in New York, but because of COVID Shadi’s working from home outside Detroit. The organization used to focus on helping Syrian refugees in the U.S. But since President Trump took office, fewer than 3,000 Syrian refugees have been allowed into the country. So there’s less resettlement work to be done. Shadi’s organization has pivoted to providing humanitarian aid to people in Syria.
Dan Pashman: Now when I tell you they’re providing aid, this is not the kind of organization that just sends money places. Shadi’s going on operations to the Middle East to deliver the aid himself. Things like getting medical supplies across the border, or setting up a state-of-the-art maternity ward.
Shadi Martini: You would see me off the radar for about two weeks, no one would know where I am. I would leave my phone because we’d have to go do these very dangerous missions.
Dan Pashman: Dangerous because Syrian Air Force Intelligence still has a warrant out for Shadi’s arrest. It’s been a couple years since he actually crossed into Syria, but he’s still finding ways to do the same kind of humanitarian work that got him in trouble in the first place. Hunger has been a huge problem throughout the conflict, so one of his missions was to open up a pita factory.
Shadi Martini: Yes, we did in the South. We transported a factory from Turkey, through Israel to inside Syria.
Dan Pashman: : You transported a factory, did you just say?
Shadi Martini: Yes. Yes. We did, yeah.
Dan Pashman: How do you do that?
Shadi Martini: Well, it took two 40-foot containers of shipping through a port in Turkey. We went to a port in Israel. We then trucked it all the way to the Golan Heights. Then we used huge cranes to put it on the other side of the border. For me, personally, as a Syrian who has been all his life has been taught not to like Israelis. For me before it was, that’s the enemy. All of them. I never thought that I would go to Israel and have to work through there to help Syrians. So that was really a very unique moment in my life.
Dan Pashman: How has that changed your perception of Israelis?
Shadi Martini: Oh wow. It's a lot. You know, you see nuances. Now, it's not black and white. It's like different. You see people, you talk to people. Different thoughts with different attitudes. There's a lot of difference now. I have friends now. I have a lot of friends that I really respect and like and they've done great deed. And that was an eye opener for me, personally.
Dan Pashman: When you were first setting up the factory, before you were able to rely on local farmers, I feel like you told me you were getting flour from the Mormon Church?
Shadi Martini: Yes, that’s the unique thing about the Multifaith Alliance. We...
Dan Pashman: Yeah, you’re keeping the multifaith in the Multifaith Alliance!
Shadi Martini: Exactly. Our name talks about our work. The Mormon Church in general is very generous in providing specifically food supplies. They’re very very very active in helping people who are having food shortages around the world, and one of them was Syria.
Dan Pashman: So let me just make sure I understand everything that’s happened. So you got flour coming from Utah.
Shadi Martini: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: A pita factory built in two pieces in Turkey.
Shadi Martini: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And then, you got them both into Syria by going through Israel.
Shadi Martini: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: This should be a movie, Shadi!
Shadi Martini: Yeah, probably someday we’re going to have a movie about this operation. I remember a movie about transporting an elephant, I think it was during the Vietnam War and something like that to a village.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Shadi Martini: Probably this is something like that. If you put all these people together, they really had nothing to do with each other, all working together to try to help this remote area in Syria. These people that wants to live, just to have bread. It was really a pleasant scene to see people in this area that they didn’t have access to hot bread, pita bread, getting bread distributed to them.
Dan Pashman: The armed conflict in Syria is mostly over at this point. The New York Times recently characterized the war as “winding down.” Syrian government forces, led by President Bashar al-Assad, are the so-called winners. But there’s no real plan for peace in the country, and because of sanctions, the economy is in shambles. The latest estimates are that 400,000 people have been killed during the war. Millions more have been displaced, some within the country, some having fled to other countries. With Assad and his oppressive regime remaining in power, Shadi’s still a wanted man and his family in Syria could be in danger because of his work.
Dan Pashman: Have you been able to have any contact with your parents over the last couple of years?
Shadi Martini: This is a very touchy subject. Well, actually since we had the interview my mom passed away, last year in January.
Dan Pashman: I’m sorry to hear that.
Shadi Martini: That’s uh yeah. I couldn’t say goodbye to her. I couldn't speak to her because of my work and my activity. It’s really tough because you have to choose sometimes very hard choices in your life. The pressure was always on them for me to stop what I’m doing, to stop what I’m talking about, and just go do something else. And that was a very hard choice. That was the biggest sorrows to my heart that I couldn’t say goodbye to my mom. My dad is still there, still in Syria. He's still well. Through different means trying to check that he is safe and good.
Dan Pashman: So you have ways to get updates on him but you can’t talk to him directly?
Shadi Martini: Yes, always, can get ways and updates. I have a lot of friends still in Aleppo and they tell me the biggest sadness they have is the community is not the same community. People have just went out, fled. You know at the end of the day the people makes the place. But they still love their food.
Dan Pashman: How old’s your daughter?
Shadi Martini: She's twenty-years-old.
Dan Pashman: And how old’s your son?
Shadi Martini: Eleven.
Dan Pashman: One of the things you said to me in our original episode that motivated you to put your life on the course that it’s been on now for a number of years, was that you thought someday your kids would come to you and they would ask you about Syria, and they would want to know what did you do. Since we last talked about this, have you had that kind of conversation with them?
Shadi Martini: Not typically but they know what I do. They came to some of the events that I spoke at and they were a little bit surprised. Because somehow I tried to keep them away from learning what I’m doing, because I don’t want to scare them. A lot of the things that I had to go through are very dangerous. But they are now really more aware of what I do. And actually, I think they are very proud. They think that it’s something that’s unique. And I told them, someday people are going to write about the work we have done, me and my colleagues and everyone. And at least we put some footnote in history about our work that we did something good.
Dan Pashman: And so when it's not COVID time you’re shuttling back and forth between Michigan and New York?
Shadi Martini: Yes, but hopefully it will be over someday and I”ll be back in New York again.
Dan Pashman: Well, when that happens Shadi, drop me a line.
Shadi Martini: Well, You can actually come to Michigan, here is the other Middle East of America. At least here we have a lot of very good Middle Eastern food around us.
Dan Pashman: Is there any place in Michigan that makes sandwiches that are anywhere close to the ones at Serjieh?
Shadi Martini: Actually, I don’t think so. I don’t know how much Michiganders would love brain sandwiches and tongue sandwiches. So that would be a challenge. I’m doubting that they will be enthusiastic but who knows!
Dan Pashman: Just like the Serjieh in Istanbul, you may have to add some Detroit pizza to the menu, add a coney dog! Brain sandwiches and coney dogs, come and get it Michigan!
Shadi Martini: That will probably get us running.
Dan Pashman: So that’s the update on Shadi. But what about Serjieh? Is it still there? For that I called Fadia, the woman in New York who helped get us in touch with Imad Serjeia before.
Dan Pashman: This might be the most important question of all, Fadia.
Dan Pashman: Are you still making knafay?
Fadia: Yes, yes.
Dan Pashman: Oh my God. Every time I see knafay anywhere, I think of you.
Fadia: Oh yeah, you know what? Anytime. You’re more than welcome.
Dan Pashman: Oh thank you. I have not had knafay since I had it at your house because every time I see it somewhere else or I see a recipe and think maybe I would try to make it, I’m always like, but if I do that it’s not going to be as good as Fadia’s and I’ll only be disappointed.
Fadia: No. No. It will be very good. I can walk you through all the details.
Dan Pashman: Fadia was just in Aleppo last year. She immediately began telling me about everything she ate.
Fadia: You eat a tomato, it's just like so juicy. You eat their olives, it's just great. Some sort of sweet that they do with semolina, they fill it with pistachio and they add on the top of it marshmallows. Ohh.
Dan Pashman: Fadia, you're reminding me once again that Aleppians love food.
Faida: There are big bellies everywhere.
Dan Pashman: That's right. I mean, man. It's all coming back to me now, working on this episode a few years ago. Everytime I talk to an Aleppian, they were like, "Oh you gotta go to this...all the olives! Ohh, the lemon juice. Ohh, the brain." Just like the passion is infectious.
Fadia: The food has to be really—if I am cooking, it has to be good.
Dan Pashman: To get to Aleppo, Fadia had to fly to Turkey, then to Lebanon. Then she took a taxi to Aleppo. It's about an 8-hour ride. It was her first time back in 15 years.
Fadia: I mean to be honest with you, where we lived, it didn’t change that much. It’s clean. It’s nice. People are like really back to normal. But when they took me to the places where it got destroyed, your heart will get broken. It’s just so much destroyed.
Dan Pashman: During the conflict, the areas of Aleppo controlled by the opposition were bombed heavily. Those are the places that still lack basic infrastructure today. The areas that remained under government control suffered less physical damage, but there are still severe shortages of many basic commodities now. Life there looks fairly normal but with terrible inflation and a frozen real estate market.
Dan Pashman: While Fadia was in Aleppo, she asked her nephew to go pick up some sandwiches from Serjieh. Yeah, both locations of the shop are still open. Fadia remembers the sandwiches being huge when she used to go there but now she says they’re much smaller, even though they’re the same price. That’s because of rampant inflation and the high cost of ingredients.
Dan Pashman: So the sandwiches were smaller than you remember, but do they still have the same taste?
Fadia: Same taste, it was like yesterday. Same taste, never changed. I had what they call sijjeh. Sijjeh is like sausage.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Fadia: But they add spices into it. They make their own mayonnaise, but they add to the mayonnaise like grated lemon.
Dan Pashman: Oh, like lemon zest.
Fadia: Lemon zest.
Dan Pashman: And how did it feel taking that first bite in 15 years?
Fadia: It’s just...it's just heaven. You feel like 15 years younger and you eat it and you don’t want to be finished.
Fadia: Oh, now it’s ringing. Hold on. Let’s hope…
Dan Pashman: Of course there was one more person we had to try to get back in touch with.
[FADIA SPEAKING ARABIC]
Dan Pashman: It’s 6 p.m. on Saturday in New York, meaning it’s 1am in Aleppo. Imad Serjeia had just closed up shop for the night.
Fadia: He was so much happy that people heard him from New York. So it's good.
Okay, what do you want to ask him Dan?
Dan Pashman: How are you?
[FADIA CONTINUES CALL IN ARABIC]
Fadia: He says he’s doing well and thank God, everything is okay.
Dan Pashman: And I want to know what kind of pickles he’s making this year.
Imad: [ANSWERS IN ARABIC]
Fadia: He said he’s doing cucumber pickles. We have a long green pepper, it’s hot, and it tastes very very good. So they do it for the winter.
Dan Pashman: Tell Imad that everyone I’ve spoken to says the sandwiches are as good as they ever were.
[FADIA CONTINUES IN ARABIC]
Dan Pashman: We start chatting. Imad tells me there are some new items on the menu now. There’s a sandwich called Mexicano, which is chicken breast stuffed with peppers, corn, and spices, topped with ketchup and broiled. He serves Turkish shawarma now, too. And Serjieh remains a popular late night hang out spot.
Fadia: The young people, young generation always goes and tries to buy sandwiches from them. And he opened two branches. One in Furqan, he just opened it. And one is a place in Mogambo. They are very crowded.
Dan Pashman: So this is big news, Imad is expanding Serjieh. He has four shops now. The new locations are both in Aleppo, in different neighborhoods. The one in the Furqan neighborhood had its grand opening just last week. Imad says there are still seven or eight family members involved in the business, including his brothers and son. This year they’re celebrating 60 years since the original Serjieh first opened its doors. And in the midst of civil war, a brutal dictatorship, and coronavirus, they’re not just surviving they’re growing.
Dan Pashman: Well Imad, thank you thank you thank you so much.
Imad: Thank you…
Fadia: He says thank you.
Dan Pashman: And good luck with all the new restaurants
[FADIA TRANSLATES IN ARABIC]
Dan Pashman: Fadia and Imad say their goodbyes and hang up.
[FADIA AND IMAD SAY GOODBYE IN ARABIC]
Fadia: It’s not easy, being there and everything is so expensive. I mean, I don’t know how he’s coping with a lot of stuff. So many people they could have been outside. Probably, he has money go outside but he decided to stay. People are attached so much to their land and their property and they don’t want to leave. But you know he’s hoping that one day it’s going to get changed.
Dan Pashman: It’s a very positive sign to me that he’s opening two new restaurants.
Fadia: You’re telling me about the Aleppino. Aleppino people are just all like this. You crush their head, and they stand up and they say, "Tomorrow is going to be better."
Dan Pashman: My thanks to Fadia and to Shadi Martini, executive director of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. To volunteer or donate go to MultifaithAlliance.org. And very special thanks to Imad Serjieh, who shared a photo of himself outside one of his restaurants, along with pics of the food inside. I’ll post those on Instagram.
Dan Pashman: Speaking of Instagram, if you liked this story, I hope you’ll share it on social media. Tell your friends to check it out. And remember to mark your calendar for our Instagram Live 10th Anniversary Party, featuring Carla Hall and Sohla El-Waylly. That’s this Saturday night, September 26th at 9 p.m. eastern. Follow me on Instagram to get an alert. I am @TheSporkful. One more request while you’re doing stuff with your phone, please subscribe to our podcast in Apple Podcasts, or follow us in Spotify. That way you’ll be sure to get the other special episodes coming out this week for our 10th anniversary. Thanks.