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Originally published June 19, 2013 at 6:18 PM | Page modified June 20, 2013 at 6:44 AM

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Syrian exiles get taste of home: beloved ice cream

The arrival of a branch of a Damascus ice-cream landmark in Jordan is a bittersweet sign of the civil war’s dispersal of Syria’s population and culture.

The Associated Press

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AMMAN, Jordan — For Syrians, no visit to Damascus’ Old City is complete without a stop at a more than century-old ice-cream parlor in its main souk (market) where you can watch them make their distinctive dessert by pounding it into shape with giant wooden mallets and then enjoy a bowl of it sprinkled with pistachios.

Those who fled their country’s bloody civil war can now savor a nostalgic taste from home. Damascus’ most famous ice-cream shop, Bakdash, has opened a branch in the Jordanian capital, Amman, and Jordanians and Syrians are flocking to it.

With its mix of milk, gum Arabic and sahlab — a flour made from orchids — Bakdash ice cream is distinct from the American style, and it has a more elastic texture and slightly more perfumed flavor than Western versions.

The Damascus landmark’s appearance in Jordan is a bittersweet sign of one of the civil war’s repercussions: The dispersal of Syria’s population and culture. Jordan alone is home to more than 500,000 Syrians, out of nearly 2 million who have fled into neighboring countries with no immediate prospects of return. The number is rising by the thousands daily, as life in Syria becomes more tenuous.

Things are not easy even in Damascus, the core of President Bashar Assad’s government, with prices mounting and the currency draining value.

Bakdash’s owners — the third generation of the Bakdash family — keep the Damascus parlor running. But they have set up shop in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, hoping the new businesses will help keep the store at home afloat. The stores abroad also could be insurance for the future as the war, in its third year, batters Syria’s economy and annihilates tourism.

In Damascus before the war, a visit to the Bakdash parlor topped the to-do lists for Syrians, tourists and other visitors exploring the winding alleys of the capital’s Old City. Since 1895, the shop has been a fixture in the Souk al-Hamidiya, the Old City’s main traditional market.

For Basima, 45, a housewife who fled Syria seven months ago to Jordan, running across the branch in Amman was a cherished touch of home.

“We were walking outside along the street and saw Bakdash. It reminded us of when we would walk in the Souk al-Hamidiya,” she said as she dug into a creamy bowl at the parlor this week. She asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her family still in Syria.

“Any name from Syria sounds wonderful to us,” she said. “My heart beats faster whenever I see Syrians ... When I meet other Syrians here in the parlor, I feel my spirit lift.”

About half of the customers are Syrians, said the Amman branch’s assistant manager, Yarob Ababneh, whose father is Bakdash’s Jordanian partner. The Amman parlor opened last month.

“Once or twice I saw people cry,” he said. “Bakdash has been in Syria since 1895, so those who grew up there know the place and have been there many times.”

The ice-cream base arrives in refrigerated trucks overland from Syria, sometimes at great risk crossing the border, Ababneh said.

“We deal with a shipping company. They make their calls to ensure that the road is safe before the truck travels. We stay in contact with the drivers hour by hour,” he said. “It is dangerous, but what can we do? The drivers take the risk and we pay them for that.”

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