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 yesterday's episode, 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."
Listen in to the full episode to hear the conclusion of our two-part quest to find out whether this beloved restaurant in Aleppo survived the Syrian Civil War.
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: Dalia Mortada and courtesy of Shadi Martini
Dan Pashman: Previously on The Sporkful:
CLIP (ADAM DAVIDSON): People are walking in and they see us. And they're like, "Ahhh, you're here for the sandwich." This was a pilgrimage spot.
CLIP (JEN 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, I remember everything. 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 the warning, like be careful of 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, Syrjeia. 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. When we left off, Shadi was getting increasingly worried that he’d be discovered. A doctor who was known to treat protestors had been 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
Shadi Martini: So what we did is we established a secret network with friends of mine. And we actually financed our own resources because we had money. We were very well off. And what we did was we established some secret facilities and help people establish it and 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 and 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: So we did a lot of these stuff under the radar and no one knew about it until 2012, when we were discovered.
Dan Pashman: Did your family know what you were doing?
Shadi Martini: My family didn't. 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 you were discovered.
Shadi Martini: It was another two colleagues that were arrested. And at that time I was outside the country but 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 close to 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 US. 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 was closed. His flight back to Syria was canceled.
Shadi Martini: And during that time, when I was trying to find another airline 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 planned, probably I would have—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. And I always thought 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 own. So I lost everything. I lost the ability to go back 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 realize that you weren't going to be able to go back to Aleppo, were you able to tell your parents?
Shadi Martini: Oh, yeah. They knew. They knew that I couldn't come back. It stuck for them. It stuck for me too, 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: Mm several years ago. 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 I thought that being close to them in these years would be a good thing but..you know, change of events changed everything....sorry about that. Try not to think about it, you know? If you—this is what's the dilemma for a lot of us that 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. It's tough but I'm happy that I went this. It's not only about Aleppo. It's opened my eyes about a lot of things, as a person, as human beings. 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 loved that I've seen that. I loved that I turned to a different person because that's how people should be. Not the other way around. [sighs] Wow, this emotional. I thought we were talking about sandwiches and then you surprised me with all these stuff and opened these floods of emotion that I wasn't prepared to.
Dan Pashman: Yes, we were talking about sandwiches. Shadi gave us a really deep sense of the food and the atmosphere at Syrjeia. I think now we understand why this place was so important to him, and why, as Adam put it, even for locals, Syrjeia 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 Syrjeia family. And he can’t really reach out to people in Syria for info, because talking to Shadi could put those people in danger. 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 SYRJEIA): Hello? Imad Syrjeia in Aleppo.
Dan Pashman: Coming up—contact. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. After talking to Shadi, we knew the only way to find out for sure what happened to Syrjeia was to talk to someone in Aleppo. We went back to our contacts, put out another call. We’re looking for people from Aleppo who know the sandwich shop Syrjeia.
Person 1: Mmm, oh my god.
Fadia: 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.
Dan Pashman: This is Fadia. She’s born and raised in Aleppo. She came to the US 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 a lot softer and oozier, almost like pudding. It’s bonkers.
Fadia: This is my specialty, so...
Dan Pashman: This is so good.
Fadia: I mean, whenever I go, I say, what do you want me to bring? They say, "please can you bring us knafay?"
Dan Pashman: Fadia's been back to Aleppo a few times since moving to the US, but not since the war started. She remembers Syrjeia well.
Fadia: It's a very simple restaurant. From outside, you figure out it's an ordinary place but when you go in…
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, 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's still in regular contact with them. So that’s how it happened that one of Fadia’s relatives walked in to Syrjeia by the public garden in Aleppo and said, “There’s a radio show in New York that wants to talk to you.”
[phone dial tone]
Fadia: I hope that they answer. 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 Syrjeia.
[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 OK.
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: We can't ask him this question about how they are doing or anything...what do you want to ask him? About what?
Dan Pashman: How are things in his restaurant?
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 OK, Fadia’s skeptical.
Fadia: They bomb all us and now you could say 10% is safe, but I know it's not. But we can't talk. 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 it to usb because he doesn't know who we are.
Fadia: He can't, no. He can't say it to me. 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 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. Early in the conversation Imad was wary of us. But when he started talking about his food, you could hear his passion. He sounded like a chef, excited to talk shop.
[phone call continues]
Fadia: Ohhh seven hours.
Dan Pashman: Seven hours what?
Fadia: Seven hours for the tongue to get cured. They add vinegar...
Dan Pashman: It sounds like you're getting hungry just listening to this, Fadia.
[phone call continues]
Dan Pashman: Fadia tells Imad the joke I just made.
Dan Pashman: What about the brain.
Fadia: The brain...[goes back to the phone conversation]
Dan Pashman: And from there we proceeded to nerd out on Syrjeia’s recipes with Imad Syrjeia. The mayo is homemade, and it has garlic in it. The pickles vary depending on the season, sometimes cucumbers, peppers, radishes, turnips. 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 said 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 Knafas, you know like meditation, sentiment, 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 Syrjeia 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 had to hear it from Imad.
Dan Pashman: We heard that there's a Syrjeia in Istanbul. Can you ask him if it's part of his family that opened that restaurant?
[Fadia asks Imad in Arabic]
Fadia: This is one of the workers that he works for him. He went used his name but he's ina good relationship with him. He does everything that they do.
Dan Pashman: In other words, the Syrjeia 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 Imad in Arabic]
Fadia: If he can do it here, he would prefer to come her instead of going to Toronto.
[Imad jumps into the 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....[goes back to the phone call]...inshallah.
Dan Pashman: Inshallah. In Syria, New York, or Toronto?
[Fadia and Imad talk]
Fadia: You come to Syria and he welcome you. They're very generous. They will come everybody.
Dan Pashman: Thank you, thank you very much.
[Fadia translates to Imad and call ends]
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 that you heard at the start of part one. The ones that told me about Syrjeia 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 Syrjeia
Adam Davidson: Sergi…
Dan Pashman: Syrjeia.
Jen Banbury: Syrjeia.
Adam Davidson: Syrjeia.
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 US, which means he makes regular trips to Istanbul, where a lot of refugees have settled. And as you’ll recall, there’s now a Syrjeia 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 Syrjeia. 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 Syrjeia 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 into 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 vegetable, 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): 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. Mmmm.
Dan Pashman: Shadi Martini is Director of Humanitarian Relief for the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. To support his work by volunteering or advocating or making a donation, go to MultifaithAlliance.org. Dalia Mortada was our reporter in Istanbul, she connects people to Syria and Syrians through food, with her amazing project Savoring Syria. Check out those stories at SavoringSyria.com.
Dan Pashman: If you liked this story, I hope you’ll consider sharing it on social media, tell your friends to check it out. And please subscribe to this podcast in Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or however you listen. Finally, if you want to support our work and make it possible for us to do more ambitious stories like this one, please sign up for Stitcher Premium. You’ll get access to our back catalog, plus new episodes commercial free, and you’ll be helping our show in the process. Go to StitcherPremium.com/Sporkful. And thanks.