Krytyka Polityczna Athens talks to Taher, the Syrian chef whose passion and love for what he does acts as a driving force that never abandons neither his spirit nor his good fortune. His empowering outlook of life is filled with gratitude and grace every step of the way. A culinary healer exudes joy, which is channelled by gesturing Syrian appetising invitations.
This interview has been conducted as a part of Re-Build Refuge Europe project. Activities of the project included storytelling, training and workshops for participants and the digital arts.
Joulia Strauss: Thank you very much for finding time between all your wonderful workshops.
Taher Jazmati.: Thank you, it’s very nice to meet you again.
J.S.: So, I’ve heard many things about your life and they all seem so different I don’t even know where to start!
T.J.: You can start wherever you want!
J.S.: Let’s start with the present, you are doing workshops in Athens for Syrian and International kitchen.
J.S.: How did it start?
T.J.: It started by creating relationships with people, by meeting people. This is the secret in succeeding in everything. To communicate with the right people, this happened with me. I communicated with a lot of right people who helped me greatly and I cannot forget that. If I were to mention some names I would maybe forget some, there are a lot! Like Jeffrey Andreoni, Stephanie Cisowski, Anna Pantelia, a lot of people!
J.S.: How nice that you were able to find so much help! I’m not sure this happens to everyone. How did it happen? You arrived here in Athens and you went to Exarcheia Square and asked people to help you? How should I imagine this?
T.J.: No, no! I’m not used to this way actually. If I was to die in the street I would not ask someone to help. It’s more like you’re walking, you see someone, you have a conversation, you introduce yourself to him he introduces himself to you back and you become friends. And then he finds something to tell you, you may be interested in this project and it becomes a mutual thing. We do something, we succeed, we make another step and then meet another person, we do another project with them, more success and more people again and its like it becomes bigger and bigger this way. This way really worth it, this is how I also worked back in Syria. The secret to success are relationships. Imagine yourself being a genius in something, let’s say food. You make amazing food but you don’t sell it because you don’t have any relations with customers so what’s the benefit?
You make something amazing but you don’t market it. To be able to work with others and have a relationship with people, that’s the key. I arrived here without knowing anyone.
J.S.: Exactly, you didn’t know anyone! So how did you start?
T.J.: You have to be full of hope, this is the first thing. And smile and then do whatever you like.
J.S.: I’m sure that if somebody would just smile people wouldn’t immediately help them, that’s not how it works, you have to smile for real.
T.J.: You have to smile and believe your smile, not just smile.
J.S.: So that’s how it started, you came to Athens and you just smiled to everyone?
T.J.: I had a lot of problems here. Some were very very bad and actually they should have destroyed me or broken me down but it’s not the way that you ought to compete in life Because for being destroyed or broken there is always something you are responsible for and sometimes the problems come from nothing. God just chooses… Some people see problems as a test, if you succeed through them you will be stronger, you will feel proud about yourself. I had a lot of those problems and in every single one of them I passed, I succeeded. It felt I was someone great overcoming even small obstacles, one-step-at-a-time.
J.S.: Can you give me an example, tell me a step?
T.J.: An example is when I met this girl from Germany called Stephanie. She is really someone I cannot thank enough. First she made a shooting video with me just to upload it to the radio, it’s called Chihuahua radio. Day by day we became normal friends and she was eager to help me. She introduced me to Jeff who already worked with Option Food Labs (OFL) and then he introduced me to other people. So they made projects for people which were like events and this one included a lot of people from around the world. Some from Africa, others from Pakistan, Egypt, Ireland, the States, Syria… so can you imagine one company with all these cultures coming together. So Stephanie spoke to Jeff about me and he reached out to me about an event – since he knew I was a chef. He told me that it would be a big important event. I was interested and said yeah let’s do it! It was for “Ideas City”, it was very important and it was for VIP people from around the world who came to discuss their ideas together. They stayed here for about four days and we served them food The first time we met up for the event, we stayed almost twenty days to a month. During this time I also started to make my own website. Stephanie arranged a meeting between me and a director who I didn’t even know but she just prepared everything. She prepared the director, the photographer, the kitchen and she just told me to go in front of the camera and cook. And I was surprised when I saw the video, it was very professional and I thought it was like a dream. It’s a very big step, and it seems just like a dream in your mind that you don’t even consider seriously.
For me, even though I’m a chef when I see videos from other chefs I think to myself that this is something amazing but I never think to do the same. So imagine that now for me, that was a reality. So I felt great when Stephanie also prepared the channel on YouTube and the page on Facebook and Twitter, she had a lot of experience in this field. When I uploaded this video where people said: “Oh, what is this!? Congratulations! This is something amazing!” As I told you, during this month we also started to prepare the event for “Ideas City” and you cannot imagine how successful it was. Everyone was speaking about it and it makes you feel proud to be a member of this initiative, it makes you feel a sense of accomplishment. New York Radio was contacting me the first day and one Greek newspaper was writing about Option Food Labs and after seeing that I know I made something great! After that, some diplomatic people from the Canadian Embassy saw me and when they heard the news about the OFL work and Syrian cuisine they asked me to cook at a private party in their house. So I got to the private party for people of the Canadian Embassy. They’re diplomats, so it’s not easy. So, when you succeed in such a mission, you know you are going in the right path.
J.S.: It’s very adventurous! You came here and shot through some kind of cosmic dimension professionally.
T.J.: Yes, exactly.
J.S.: So how long ago was this?
T.J.: This happened in one month and a half. After that, we tried to prepare professional work. We made two special events: one was a special party for finger food, that I again prepared the food. Every time we did such a project, I would be very caring about the people I met there. I tried to have everyone I met on Facebook, that was the most important place for me not a telephone or WhatsApp or anything. I would invite them to like my page and through this some would start to know me more. So one day someone called me from Solomon magazine, which is a famous magazine here. They wanted me to make a food review for some restaurant and so I did. Just imagine, I made a food review and then they shared it on their page by letting people know I did this. People started to learn my name and me day by day. I’m very proud whenever I go to some party or some place and it happens that people who I don’t know will know me or even have heard about me. This makes me very proud. And not everything depends on the money. With this job we did, we brought in some money and that was good but it’s not about money. If you make what you like then the money will come anyway, you just have to be professional in your work and you have to love what you do and then the rest will come.
J.S.: Your secret is the relations between people but of course that comes second. First is what you love to do, what you want to present to the people, what you’re going to bring to them!
T.J.: Of course it is! When I was doing all this I didn’t see it as a work, I would see it as the most important decision or test. To be or not to be. And not to be afraid if you fail but to do more. I like to do more, I wanted to show these people that I could do more. I did a lot of things they didn’t ask for but just because I loved preparing them. When people eat I look into their eyes, I see that when they eat the first bite, it gives them a smile. And that makes me happy and I feel that I’m okay. This was my habit before I came here, even in Syria. When any customer took the food I would look at him from a distance, just waiting for him to taste it, just waiting for his smile. Just imagine how happy you are to see two people eat and speak and smile about the food and then eat and eat and eat again! You feel that you’re on the right path. Maybe this is my secret but it’s not really a secret… Maybe a talent? No, I’d say my skill really.
J.S.: And how did you grow up? What did you study?
T.J.: I studied this. I mainly studied about tourism and cooking, but when you study you get a course in which you learn about stuff like when did French cuisine start and where? And what’s the difference between Italian cuisine and French cuisine, there’s a sauce like this, there’s a salad like this.
When I went to study in tourism after I got my high school degree, I knew that okay, my career will be orientated within this industry. I was planning to maybe go to a medical university or engineering or even law but I ended up with this because of my degree. It’s not something important but I said to myself that okay, in whatever field you can work in this life you can make it better. Sometimes a taxi driver can be more successful than a doctor, because he is a genius in his work and everyone will be satisfied with him. So sometimes you see that someone might not have any degree and is more successful than a lot of engineers.
J.S.: And happy also with his life.
T.J.: Yeah! So when I started my studies I said okay I won’t spend any more days. I will go directly to work. I just wanted to work, for free or for very little money I didn’t care, I just wanted to work. So I started working the first months with about one hundred dollars. The chef of that restaurant had told me that his staff is complete and he didn’t want anyone else but he said: “If you want to come, to grow up and learn new skills then you can come. But we cannot give you more than one hundred dollars per month. If you like it though, you can come”. And I accepted and was also really excited about it. After one month of working there, my salary became two hundred dollars because he liked me. He could tell that I worked hard and learned easily. It was in an American business, so the first thing I learned in my life in cooking was American stuff. After that I changed restaurants when I heard that another chef came to town and left my work for a new one with very little money, just because I did not care about money at that time. I just cared about experience because I knew the money will come if I have the experience.
J.S.: And this was all happening in Aleppo?
T.J.: This was all happening in Aleppo. It all happened during the course of ten years I also worked with bars, sweets, soft bars, everything. I just wanted to have a lot of experience in all aspects of a restaurant. In kitchens, in halls, in tables. One has to make a connection between the customer and the kitchen. I stand by that, that is why I started working general shifts in a restaurant in Aleppo so that I would have my first chance to make a direct connection between myself and the customers by welcoming them all. I’d say: “Hello, I am the chef of this restaurant and I would like to speak to you directly about what we offer and what you would like to eat.” And the customer feels great if you approach him directly. They’d explain to me and I’d take the order and go and make it. After a while all these customers knew me because we had been connected. So when I went to another restaurant they would follow me. After a while when they didn’t knew where my restaurant was they’d call me on the telephone and they’d say: “Taher, can you send us food for ten people?” They asked primarily for VIP dinners in Aleppo, I had made a name for myself. And every new restaurant that opened called me and would ask me to work for them. Sometimes, I would just go to give my opinion and help them to open, not to work. I got a lot of offers but I felt that while I succeeded I unfortunately succeeded in the wrong way, in the wrong place maybe. For a moment I didn’t want to leave Aleppo because I said to myself that I did a lot of things there and that I maybe can’t do them outside of Syria. And this was my mistake.
J.S.: Why did you think so? You’re already so successful here after one year. Everybody knows you!
T.J.: Yes, but I didn’t know if that would happen. I told you, it was the wrong idea, the wrong opinion and the wrong decision that I decided to stay in Aleppo for longer.
J.S.: Ah, it was the other way around! Now I understand, you stayed too long.
T.J.: Yes, I stayed too long. I had to go reestablish myself in another place. I am established here now in my work, but Aleppo was the wrong place because after a while I saw that day by day the way of life was becoming more difficult and it was also very dangerous for my life. You could be working and a bomb would fall, you could be dead at any moment.
Day by day leaving Syria was becoming more difficult so I took my decision suddenly to go and discover the world, which was important to me. I will not worry about what I built here because I said to myself, if I managed to built it here, I can build it anywhere.
And I think that I had to trust myself and do it and start my trip. So I did it and I left Syria. The first place I arrived to was Turkey, I arrived to Istanbul and I thought it was an amazing city. The people there are also different. They aren’t similar to Syrians or Europeans, they have very special skills. They are kind, and nice people but they have a very different mind. They have their own way to live and it’s also good to know their culture. Istanbul was an amazing city but the work there was very difficult. You can get a job but most people work for fourteen hours per day, sometimes sixteen hours so you just work/sleep, work/sleep, work/sleep. I don’t care about that… until, I saw this offer for work at a restaurant. They wanted a chef, I called them and we set up a meeting with seven or eight chefs. So one day they all called us to test out our skills. I went to my test and there were some Arabic and some Iraqi people that they had also come to test their food. It was like: “Okay I am successful with Arabian culture, I know what they like, but now you were with different people, you don’t know – if I maybe do this the way they’d like it, they are not used to this kind of food.” I started to do some stuff and after we finished the organization of the space, the boss came from a Turkish bank and sat and ate and recorded us while we worked. He wanted to see how we moved, everything. In the evening after two hours they were very happy about the food. The manager took me and we went out alone and we spoke about working for twelve hours.
J.S.: Twelve hours?!
T.J.: Yes! In the beginning it was ten hours but he said to me: “Look, I want you to do fourteen hours”. And I said: “That’s very difficult”. He said: “As much as possible, we want you in this restaurant, as much as you can”. And they made a good deal with me. It was good for that time and my salary was seven hundred Euro per month. It was not a lot but it was good for my first chance. Syrian people who come as refuges get used, some people take two hundred euro and I took seven hundred so it was something very good for the beginning. They also told me: “We will give you a place to stay, we will give you a lot of things. You are the general chef and others are under your control”. And I really could not believe that, so I was afraid because I was entering a different culture. But I became general chef of this place. I worked for three months, but after that, while it was good for me to stay, I had to take a decision again. The borders were going to close at that time and there were only a few days left for me and I had to take a decision, to stay in Istanbul or go to Europe. I said to myself that I’ve made this mistake before, when I took the decision to stay in Syria, because I said that I had to stay in my work. So I didn’t want to make the same mistake in Turkey. I knew Turkey and I liked it though.
J.S.: And which language did you speak there?
T.J.: A little English, a little Arabic… It was a very difficult wth the language but someone would translate between me and them. If I spoke Turkish they have told me that I would take more than seven hundred, probably one thousand or even four thousand euros. If you are Turkish you are more than king, you are president. Turkey is beautiful and sometimes I miss Istanbul, I miss the days there but I still convinced myself that I should go. And now, I started believing in my idea to go and discover everything and that if you believe in yourself you will succeed here and you will succeed everywhere you go. Take this chance to discover another place, another culture, another world. So I took my decision to leave and my boss begged me not to go. There was one girl who liked me and I liked her… Sometimes I miss those days.
J.S.: Was she sad? She was very sad huh?
T.J.: Everyone was sad but not to the point of tears. People would tell me to think more about it, they didn’t want to advise me not to go, so that I don’t blame them in the future I could feel the sadness in their eyes and in the way they spoke, but I had to go.” And now I know the world better, I have a new idea. it’s not just about having work and a family and a home. If you spend every day in one place, you will end your life before you discover the real world, so go out there, discover new places, meet new people, be happy, live these days in good ways because they won’t return.
J.S.: Do you feel that you are the only person from Syria who came to Athens with this kind of mood and attitude?
T.J.: No, I think there are a lot of other people. There are a lot of Balkan people who also had a lot of problems. Some people saw their family being killed right in front of their eyes, this isn’t easy… I saw a lot of people being killed in front of me, too. Sometimes, I would be walking past the street and one bomb would fall so that meant that if I had come one minute later the bomb would have fallen on me. There was just that one minute between me and death. When I left Syria, I spent one month where I tried to forget that mood. We built our city Aleppo and it was the capital of economics and trade and everything in Syria. It was industrial so we used to create very new things. Aleppo is very famous in industrial things, economics and cuisine. Also there are a lot of people there way more creative than me, maybe they pass and go to another country.
J.S.: But now the borders are closed so we have to find them here.
T.J.: Yes, the borders are closed now, this is what happened. That was a very bad moment for me when the borders closed and I said “Ah f…! What am I going to do here? It’s Greece!” I’d like to know Greece, I like the history and the films about Greek warriors, I like to discover the historical part of the place but it’s not a place to build your future.
J.S.: It is very difficult here.
T.J.: Greek people leave to find jobs in other countries. I went to the relocation program and the relocation program did not work. I wanted to go to France but France didn’t accept my file, they just denied.
J.S.: What kind of file they didn’t accept?
T.J.: For the relocation program, to be relocated to France. But after they rejected my file and I don’t know why they did, they never told me, it was like a bomb for me. I spent one month in hysterics, I just smoked and didn’t do anything. I kept asking myself: “What can I do?” Go back to Turkey would be one decision, stay here would be another decision, or go illegally which needs a lot of money, and I didn’t have this money here. So I spent the days not doing anything.
J.S.: And where did you live at that time?
T.J.: In an apartment by Praxis, it’s an NGO organization, they provide accommodations for us for three months and they renew the contract for the house again.
J.S.: Was it summer?
T.J.: Yes, it was summer.
J.S.: So, it was very warm.
T.J.: Yes, it was very warm but you cannot imagine how it was. When I spoke to my mother and told her that they rejected my file, my mother started to cry. And I didn’t want to make her sad. It’s something very difficult what happened that time and I cannot find a real way to explain the situation. Around that time I began to think, “Who are the people I know here?” So I made a paper with everybody I knew in Athens. I didn’t want to go back to Kavala or Veria again. I liked Athens, at least it was more active than other cities. If I went to Veria or Kavala, I wouldn’t have found some job there. I made a list writing down what I would have here and what I would have in Turkey if I went back. And at the time one of my friends in Turkey told me to come back, so we could open a restaurant together. He said: “I will put the money and you will manage it with your experience and we will work together half and half”. So I had to sit and think about this very well, because if I went back to Turkey, I could never come to Europe again. I told him to wait and I wrote this paper with everyone I know here. I knew Stephanie, the girl I spoke about and I knew some more people here. So I called everyone and explained what happened. And then we return to the first story where I said that Stephanie made a lot of connections and not just Stephanie, there were a lot of other people also, like Jeff. I’m very thankful to everyone because two months ago I got very sick, and I was in my bed and couldn’t move at all. It was a very, very bad illness, and at this moment I just looked around myself, and there was nobody. And I remembered my family, but I was thinking that now I am alone and I am sick, and if I had been with my family, I wouldn’t be in this situation, at least someone would take me to the hospital or at least I’d find someone near me. But I was alone. I was scared because it was very painful, so I sent a message to Jeff, but Jeff wasn’t in Greece. Jeff called a lot of people here to get someone to send me to the hospital and Annie also came and brought me medicine and did a lot of things. She told me that she could make food for my situation. I am very shy about this but I feel that I’m not alone, there is another family with me now and everybody I know here I am very thankful to and they are part of what I have done. So I ‘agapo’ them.
J.S.: Do you feel that you just told your story?
T.J.: I’m not trying to make this world green, and I speak like I’m in a film but we have to live. It doesn’t matter if we are sad or happy, we have to live. So we choose the way that we will live, this day will come that we will live this moment. We can live it happily or sad.
J.S.: It depends on how we see the situation.
T.J.: Yeah the situation is very bad here. If you would stay in Greece, you would not have any support like in other countries, say Germany or Netherlands. Nobody would give you money every month, or bring you in a house. Okay, some NGO organizations like Praxis support us, but this support doesn’t last forever. But if you look at it another way you have something positive. The government here allows you to work directly. So if you want to work, you can work. In Germany for example you cannot work directly until you learn the language, but here you have direct permission to work. So, if you come here to work and start your life, I think it’ll be better for you. It’s less money than other countries, but you do something at least. If you cry and just wait nobody will care about you. You are not alone, there are about one million refugees, they cannot care about you. The people here are also very kind and they’re similar to our countries and if you want to go to another country at some point to make another step, you can.
J.S.: Is it easy for you to find similar products that you would have in your market if you want to cook Syrian food?
T.J.: Yes, I was very surprised when I came here and saw the people waiting in line sometimes ten minutes and sometimes fifteen minutes to take one sandwich of falafel.
J.S.: They want someone who can make a good falafel.
T.J.: For sure I know! It’s my motherland cuisine.
J.S.: You know what the good thing about Greece is? It’s not so West oriented. And West sucks, it’s so artificial.
T.J.: I feel that, I’ve heard it from other people.
J.S.: And other people would like to go to Germany because of the social security, so it’s a little dangerous to say that its better here. But you said or felt so.
T.J.: If you feel that it’s better here you will stay here. If you remain all your life wondering whether Germany or France is better, you’ll end up doing nothing.
J.S.: Exactly. You would get sad and depressed. And to find a way to think like you, somebody has to be very strong, or we have to help people find a way to think like this.
But in Germany its different how people help. They create the categories. Often they are helping refugees but here people help but not because they’re helping refugees, but because its normal to help.
T.J.: People here are poor and help. And it’s very sad to see Syrian people like this. Before the Syrian war, Syria welcomed refugees from Kuwait, from Lebanon, from Palestine, from Greece. When the war between Greeks and Turks happened, a lot of Greeks came to Aleppo. And all this time we never singled them out to stay in containers. We would invite them to our houses.
J.S.: You have managed to make me cry.
T.J.: This is what happened, and the history is widely known. One time one man let me stay at his house and I said “Thank you”, and he said: “No, don’t thank me, because once my grandfather came to your city and you hosted him, so I do the same now. Don’t thank me.”
J.S.: We are all refugees.
This article was first published in the Krytyka Polityczna Athens. It has been published here with permission.
European Alternatives lead Re-Build Refuge Europe, a project that brought together partners from the UK, Sweden, Spain, Finland and Germany, and Greece. It aimed to counteract the dominant discourses of ‘crisis’ and ‘threat’ by using art, culture and innovative practices allowing European citizens and refugees to learn from each other as equals. Activities of the project included storytelling, training and workshops for participants and the digital arts. Interim and final results of the project were exhibited and performed during the Athens Biennale 2017 and TRANSEUROPA Festival 2017 in Madrid.