By Rasha Arous
‘’At the Grainmill, find me
People, please don’t blame me!
I’m going to have a drink
Even if they say I’m crazy”
This piece of rhyming poetry is written at the entrance of the Tahuna restaurant (Grain-mill restaurant) situated in the village of al-Bayda near Masyaf. The original site of the restaurant was adjacent to the old Burghul Mill on a bridge over the village river. A group of mountain water springs feed the flow of this river.
The restaurant kept its old name after moving to the current location for decades (the adjacent crossroads was called ‘’the grain-mill crossroads’’ after it). This crossroad is not an ordinary one, it is the place where the ascending road coming from Homs and the neighbouring villages ends before turning towards the entrance of Masyaf. It is a natural junction, characterized with a sharp change in the heights between the plains, which one leaves before reaching the first foot of the high mountains. Here, it seems that the road will stop for a moment to sigh from carrying the mountain chains and the clouds, which are ready to fall behind them.
Grain-mills similar to that of al-Bayda were found in other villages in the area and in Masyaf itself. They were powered by streams of water sloping from the mountains, where the impetus after the rainy season is enough to rotate the wheels, millstones and tales. Local people call these grain-mills according to the names of their springs. Today, they grind with their silences, grinded words about the seasons, by the quern of nostalgia and memories. They appear as signs in the adverts of nearby restaurants and crossroads, they bless with their dilapidated architecture the rivers and fields which spread around them. These grain-mills have been transformed from vital economic installations to archaeological remains that differ in value by those who love the acquisition, the nostalgic people, the local pioneers and the modernization allegers. They leave a human heritage and innate wisdom. As the popular proverb says: ‘’the imported water doesn’t run the wheels of the mill’’. Running of mills requires a flow and abundance that may not be achieved by recruitment. So, any original work and progress requires local abundance, not a poor import.
In my grandfather’s house, in the eastern part of the town, we heard a frequent fanfare when my grandmother hosted us for sleeping during the holidays. The source of this noise was the Shubasi grain-mill, situated behind the wall of the bedroom. This diesel-powered grain-mill has served the residents of the town and neighbouring villages for decades, from the time after the waterworks mill had been gradually removed. The Shubasi grain-mill has also been dispensed-with and so now only the most recent grain-mills win the wheat crop. The noise of the Shubasi grain-mill was like a hypnotic music for me on Mondays and Thursdays when the machine was running. My grandmother says that she used to hear the grain-mill every day, during the season of the invasion of large bowls of boiled wheat (sliqa) over town street bonfires. She received her dose of hypnosis every day. As the season of burghul production is at the end of summer, it affects many dreams and sleeping on that voice helps the unconscious mind to go to a fictional paradise where hunger has no empty stomach.
My mother’s aunt kept living-in her old house adjacent to my grandfather’s house amidst traditional household objects and furnishings: The millstone in the courtyard was operated by hand, the wheat was ground to become burghul by using this quern (grindstone). The production of burghul is stored in the ‘anbar (a tin container with two openings, one for the fine burghul and another of the coarse burghul), while the Kibba, a dish made from burghul dough mostly in the form of dumplings, was beaten in a special stone basin.
As for the family meetings, their stories were sharpened by a bowl of “tomato kibba” (a vegetable kibba made from fine burghul, tomatoes, butter and parsley). All these ingredients were beaten in the stone basin with eggplant pickles filled with garlic and pepper paste. The food was flavoured with the adrenaline of hyenas’ stories, the adventures of my grandmother’s mother in her forced migration from Juwita (a beautiful village near Qadmus), and the distribution of her family between Masyaf and Salamiyya. The space stories and the possibility of the existence of cosmic creatures played a role in the family meetings, as well as the cities and villages competing for the taste of food and the original values, especially the generosity. All these speeches come with the voice of an old black radio that combined its worn parts together by a white rubber-band, which has been repaired several times.
“The glory is for rice, but the burghul hanged itself” said a guest in one of those gatherings. She was excited by the view of the burghul, diffused to be dried in the courtyard, giving a wink with anger because of her belonging to the generation of struggling women who are stuck with daily hard work. Some women release themselves from this work in calling for urbanization, which is a feature of the development of towns situated between the countryside and the city. They do that because urbanization imposes different patterns of consumption and ensures a reduction in labour efforts on such industries by providing ready-made alternatives. Is this not the meaning of urban?
The production of burghul needs too intensive work. Spreading the burghul to be dried is the last stage of the process, before it will be stocked as a food during the hunger of a hard winter. The satiation is all that is required after this effort from the lovers of burghul and its many food recipes. The spread burghul was arranged as a geometric decoration, its quantity corresponded with its thickness (coarse burghul, fine burghul, al-Frayfira and the burghul flour). The Frayfira and the burghul flour (softer than the fine burghul) are used for two types of foods: a kind of salad called Frayfira and the burghul flour to cover local dried figs ‘’tin habbul”.
During the period of burghul drying, people are concerned by the weather conditions. The view of the rainy clouds coming from the west behind the mountains, could provoke an uprising among the family members. Fast as lightning they hurry up in order to gather the burghul which is spread under the sky.
If the rain humidified the burghul, it will lose its original flavour and quality. This will make the knees lose their screws in resisting the cold, because the burghul is a vital material indispensable. ‘’Screws of knees”? Do not ask how…
Published by Rasha Arous: Rasha Arous is a Syrian researcher and practitioner in the fields of urban planning, displacement, culture and development. She has a particular interest in local heritage and embodied cultural identities.