‘Little Syria’ takes root in Jordan, bringing both joy and worry
Amman - The heart of Jordan’s capital has turned into a vintage Syrian atmosphere, with its businesses opening shops and some refugees and locals welcoming new stores and products. Others, however, are wary of the competition.
Known for tasty confectionaries, luscious desserts and other dishes, Syrians operate ice cream parlours, sweets shops, restaurants and convenience stores in Amman and outlying towns in Jordan.
Of the new Syrian investments in Jordan one of the most popular is Bakdash, an ice cream parlour that also operates in Hamidiyah marketplace in the old quarter of Damascus. “It brings memories of the old Damascus and its ancient streets, where we used to walk through Hamidiyah Souk and go to Bakdash for a traditional Arabian ice cream,” said Fadi Homsi, 37, a Syrian refugee in Jordan.
“We thank Bakdash for making us feel at home. This place is invoking feelings of deep personal attachment to Syria,” Homsi said. “I have seen people crying while eating ice cream and talking about the good old days.”
Bakdash has a unique method of making ice cream that dates to 1895, when it opened its first shop in Syria.
Bakdash Sweets, an authentic Syrian brand, opened its first shop in Amman in 2013 under a franchise bought by a Jordanian investor, who has launched a handful of stores in the country.
In the Amman store two young men wearing white scarves on their heads and using wooden paddles pound ice cream with mastic and sahlab, a flour made from the tubers of the orchid genus Orchis, and a generous covering of pistachios. This method for making ice cream made Bakdash a landmark in Syria and a famous brand to many Arabs.
Jordan has its own modern ice cream parlours, which boast a wide variety of flavours from cantaloupe to watermelon. They cater mostly to the younger generation and, so far, they don’t feel threatened by Bakdash “The traditional Syrian ice cream has its own clientele, while we have ours,” Ahmed Dasouqi, 24, an employee at a popular Amman ice cream shop, said.
“Business for us is as usual and we don’t feel any threats from the Syrian shops in town. I know that there are thousands of Syrians here and I’m happy that they can get a taste of home.”
Another well-known Syrian brand making its mark in Jordan is Nafiseh, which is famous for its kanafeh, a thick Levantine cheese pastry soaked in sugar-based syrup.
Nafiseh supervisor Zuheir Katbah said the company has been doing good business in Jordan since 2013.
“We are really happy to be here because our business is doing very well,” he said.
“Jordanians have a good taste when it comes to sweets and they like our products. We have dedicated customers from both Jordan and Syria.”
He said Nafiseh mostly employs Syrian workers but there are a handful of Jordanians. “We wanted to have an authentic Syrian atmosphere with the bulk of staff being Syrian,” Katbah said.
While many Jordanians enjoy the new offerings, others fear that a “little Syria” is being built in their country.
“We are having some kind of a Syrian business invasion that will, in the end, have a negative impact on our businesses,” said an Amman sweets’ shop owner.
“It seems that Syrian businesses are becoming very popular, that they will take over the business in the future, if the momentum of opening up Syrian shops remains the same,” he said, not wanting to reveal his real name.
While some Syrians focused on the sweets business, others ventured into in the fast-food sector, opening shops in Jordan that serve sandwiches, including traditional ones, such as falafel and gyros or burgers and pizzas. The Syrian crisis, which began with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011 before it plunged into an all-out war, has led nearly 1.5 million refugees to seek shelter in Jordan.
Many others have gone to Lebanon or Turkey.
Syrian refugees have been taking jobs from Jordanians by offering to work for lower wages. Some Jordanian businesses, however, stick to domestic labour. They have put signs in their shops that read: “Sorry! We hire only Jordanians.”
In Irbid, north of Amman, loud, but peaceful, demonstrations in recent weeks warned Jordanian employers against hiring Syrians.
“This is not Syria, this is Jordan”, said Azmi Halaq, 23, a carpenter who said he lost a job he had at a local firm for the past three years to a Syrian in April. “The Syrian accepted to take one-third of my salary, so they fired me.”
Despite the growing presence of Syrian shops across the country, the value of the Syrian capital registered with the Jordanian Trade Ministry declined 8.3% in the first quarter of 2015 from the same period in 2014.
The figures also showed a sharp decline in the number of new Syrian investors during the first quarter. At least 37 Syrian businessmen set up shop, compared with 188 during the same time frame in 2014.
The decline in the Syrian capital investments is attributed to the receding wave of Syrian refugees to the kingdom, which reached its peak during the first two years after the outbreak of the conflict.