Mouneh: The safe room hit by war in Syria

The Tanabel Market in Damascus became known as an alternative to traditional mouneh in 2022 (Athr Press)

The Tanabel Market in Damascus became known as an alternative to traditional mouneh in 2022 (Athr Press)

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Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi

The mouneh room in Syrian homes was not exclusive to specific social classes; it was present in nearly every home for years and continued until circumstances changed during the war in Syria. These circumstances included displacement, economic and security conditions following the popular revolution to overthrow the regime, the subsequent military and security presence in the streets, and the outbreak of battles.

A small room containing various types of non-seasonal vegetables and diverse preserved food items at low temperatures sufficient for a family for an entire season.

It does not have to be a spacious room; as long as there is a place equipped with shelves and appropriate temperatures, visitors will find vegetables like cucumbers, carrots, peppers, and fruit-flavored jams, arranged like a colorful painting, organized according to need and use.

Thousands of Syrians sought refuge in other countries, the family size decreased, electricity became scarce, the economic crisis hit the Syrians, and their purchasing power dropped. All these factors changed the perspective of “mouneh,” considered part of Syria’s “intangible cultural heritage.”

A colorful painting

“In my grandfather’s house in Yabroud (one of the cities in Qalamoun), there was a cold room dedicated to mouneh (long-term food supplies) containing large pottery containers for storing cheese and pickles.” This is how Aisha (50 years old), a housewife from Yabroud, described the mouneh room.

The room contained a two-layered box, the outer layer made of iron and the inner of wood, used to store items like bulgur, lentils, or flour. Aisha described the unique scent of the cold room, a mix of the various materials stored.

According to Aisha, mouneh rooms had to be spotless and well-organized. Glass jars were covered with cloth underneath their lids for added security to prevent insects from entering.

Before electricity reached Syrian cities and villages, Syrians dried vegetables to keep them edible for as long as possible and used them out of season, like green fava beans and mulukhiyah. Therefore, there are two types of mulukhiyah in Syrian cuisine: dried and fresh.

Aisha, who currently resides in Damascus, stated that Yabroud witnessed entire neighborhood streets boiling wheat during its season for storage, placing it in large copper pots over firewood, transforming it into a long evening around the fire with the aroma of wheat filling the air.

She added that it turned into a festival or celebration, and when the wheat reached the desired level of doneness, the young men would carry it to the rooftop to spread it out, with everyone helping each other, flipping it daily until completely dry, which takes time, and then it is cleaned.

These rituals have nearly disappeared in Syria today after millions of Syrians were displaced from their cities and villages. Aisha said, “Houses were vast and mouneh was necessary due to wars, sieges, and harsh weather conditions. Gradually, houses became smaller and people emigrated.”

Neighborhood women gatherings

Near the capital, Damascus, lies the city of al-Rihan, one of the nearby rural cities just a few kilometers away, where Hanan (55) lived most of her life before leaving Syria for Egypt.

Mouneh in al-Rihan and its rituals do not differ much from those in Yabroud, having different timings based on the seasons of the targeted food and vegetables.

Hanan told Enab Baladi, “Mouneh has different seasons, there is the wheat harvest season to boil and turn it into flour for bread, as well as freekeh, bulgur, and kishk. Then there is the season for preserving vegetables like peas, fava beans, grape leaves, artichokes, eggplants, zucchinis, and mulukhiyah.”

Women in the neighborhood would gather to de-head the okra and string it, along with red peppers and braided garlic. During summer, house roofs would be covered with trays protected by white gauze for cleanliness, from tomato paste to apricot jam.

The same applies to “makdous,” a traditional Syrian dish of eggplant stuffed with walnuts and garlic preserved in oil.

Through mouneh, women avoided high winter prices and found everything families needed from household food supplies.

According to Aisha, security fluctuations in the region diminished Syrians’ sense of security, prompting them to store food supplies. Since 1948, when the Israeli occupation was declared, Syria’s direct involvement in the Palestinian cause and regional wars including the 1965 wars, the 1967 setback, the October War of 1973, intervention in Lebanon in 1975, battles with Israel in 1982, and international sanctions on Syria in the 1980s.

The end of the mouneh tradition

The armed conflicts in Syrian cities, resulting from the Syrian regime’s security approach against the protesters in 2011, gradually turned these cities into war zones. Residents fled to safer areas or out of Syria as essential services like electricity and water declined. The Syrian pound collapsed, and Syrians’ purchasing power diminished.

Of every ten Syrians, nine live below the poverty line, and 15 million Syrians (70% of the total population) need humanitarian assistance, according to UN figures. The Syrian conflict has claimed around 500,000 lives and displaced over 12 million people.

All these factors are enough to change the behavior of the Syrian community in various fields, including mouneh.

Aisha told Enab Baladi that there is no longer mouneh, whose role diminished even before 2011 due to factories, modernization, and dedicated food markets. After 2011, the current conditions further reduced it. She pointed to alternative patterns that emerged over the years, such as the “Tanabel Market” in the Shaalan area in central Damascus, which stocks all kinds of vegetables and food items regardless of the season.

The importance of mouneh has declined today, Hanan said, and with most people wishing to emigrate or work abroad, family sizes now do not exceed the fingers on one hand.

Syrians ranked first in asylum requests submitted to Germany since the beginning of 2024, with a total of 14,456 asylum applications, among them 14,024 initial applications and 432 follow-ups.

Asylum requests in the European Union increased by 18% during 2023, according to data published by the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) on February 28.

Syrians constituted the largest group of applicants, with 181,000 asylum requests, marking a 38% increase compared to 2022, according to EUAA data.

 

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