Syria's famed sweets bringing smiles once again

Damascus (AFP) - Syria's grinding conflict has brought bitterness to producers of the country's renowned Middle Eastern sweets, but after years of struggle they say business is finally picking up again.

At the "Daoud Brothers" sweet shop in the capital Damascus, 20 workers surround large metal platters, preparing hundreds of wafer-thin barazek, a famed Syrian biscuit dotted with pistachio pieces and coated in sesame seeds.

Syria's Arabic sweets were once a leading export as well as a must-have souvenir for visiting tourists.

But the war that erupted after March 2011 anti-government protests decimated the industry, with tourism disappearing and domestic consumption nosediving as the conflict ravaged the economy.

Fighting cut routes that brought the finest ingredients from across the country to producers, and closed borders that once facilitated exports to the region and beyond.

"With the war, exports were basically interrupted," said Radwan Daoud, the shop's export manager.

"There was no demand, and we couldn't deliver on what orders there were because the workshops were in Damascus province," he said, referring to areas where clashes between Syria's army and rebels were frequent.

"Getting through was difficult and dangerous, and the routes were often cut."

Parts of Damascus province outside the capital are some of the last remaining strongholds of Syria's rebel forces, but in recent months fighting has dropped off thanks to the implementation of a "de-escalation zone" in the region.

Elsewhere in the country, Syria's regime has recovered territory, backed by ally Russia, restoring supply and export routes.

Daoud said exports were back on the rise in the past few months as a result.

"Primary materials and products can reach markets easily and quickly," he said.

"Things have finally started to pick up again, and we've recovered about 15 percent of our activity."

- Enticing smells, samples -

There are no publicly available official figures contrasting sales and exports in the sweets sector before the war and at present.

But Daoud Brothers once exported up to 40 tonnes of sweets a month, mostly to Canada, the United States, Europe and the Gulf.

For the moment, sweets are exported either by boat from the ports of Latakia and Tartus, or taken by land into neighbouring Lebanon and flown from Beirut airport.

But producers are eagerly awaiting the promised reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan so they can once again export to the Gulf by land.

Most of the capital's most famous sweet shops are clustered in the southern neighbourhood of Midan, where an enticing smell wafts from stores and owners offer passersby samples from their doorways in a bid to draw them in.

Inside Abu Arab Haider, one of the city's most famous sweet shops, Abu Moataz carefully slices a tray of baklava, its delicate golden layers of flakey pastry sprinkled with vibrant green and purple pistachios.

"We have been stopped for a long time, but the time has arrived to restart work," he told AFP.

"Every ingredient comes from a different city. The pistachios are from Hama, the samna (fat) is from Deir Ezzor and Raqa, the flour comes from Houran," said Abu Moutaz, 45.

"When a particular region was affected by the events in Syria, the taste of the sweets would be changed because we'd have to use alternative ingredients, which generally weren't of as high quality."

Like all the sweet-makers in Midan, Abu Moutaz's shop closed its door for two weeks in the summer of 2012, when clashes between the regime and rebels reached the neighbourhood, which was briefly captured by opposition fighters.

- 'Happy little girl' -

In recent years, the store has opened branches abroad, four of them in Germany and a fifth in Jordan, which sell both sweets made locally and imported from Syria.

"Syrians are everywhere abroad, particularly in Germany," said Abu Moutaz, referring to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have made their way there.

Sitting behind his desk, shop supervisor Riyad Naama said he is optimistic after years of slow sales.

"Today we're feeling good about the export market. We started preparing last year and now we're already exporting."

Naama breaks away to attend to some Iraqi customers, who end up buying more than 50 kilos (110 pounds) of sweets for around $300.

But even if exports are picking up, local consumption remains slow.

Laila, 40, accepts a sample proffered by an employee as she admires the sweets displayed in the shop window.

"Before, we would always have Arabic sweets at home, but because of the crisis I've had to do without them," she said.

"A kilo of luxury sweets nowadays costs a quarter of my husband's monthly salary."

In the end, she settles for buying just three pieces of the "mabrouma" desert, little cylinders of golden syrup-soaked vermicelli stuffed with a centre of pistachios.

"One for my husband, one for my son, and one for me," she says, with a broad smile.

"There's nothing to be happy about these days except sweets. I thought that the war had made us old, but I feel like a happy little girl with my dessert."