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Originally published Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 6:20 AM

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On Capitol Hill, a restaurant as refuge

Far from their birth country in Syria, the Harouns opened Capitol Hill’s Mamnoon, a modern, cool paean to the culinary and communal traditions of the Middle East.

Seattle Times columnist

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Seattle is lucky to have the Haroon's and their delightful restaraunt - it is a slice... MORE

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The news is worse every day.

People are pouring out of their native Syria by the millions and flooding into Jordan and Lebanon. Militants are fighting the seemingly power-mad regime of Bashar al-Assad. The threat of chemical weapons looms, and the United Nations has estimated the death toll near 70,000.

Loved ones have been kidnapped for days just for posting in chat rooms. Others say little for fear of who is watching and listening. And no one leaves the house after dark.

Meanwhile, here in Seattle, Racha Haroun can do nothing but dial the phone and hope that her father, who lives in the northern city of Hama, picks up.

“The other day when I couldn’t get to my father, I cried all morning and then I thought, ‘What can I do?’ ”

This far from home, she went to the closest thing to it: Her Capitol Hill restaurant, Mamnoon, where Haroun and her husband, Wassef, have recreated the very best of their birth country with food and community and hope.

“You can’t go home,” she told me as I sat with her at the restaurant last week. “That’s the whole idea of the restaurant. It brings me so much pleasure.”

Opened in November, across from the Melrose Market, Mamnoon (it means “grateful” or “thankful” in Arabic) is sleek and open, with a lounge to the side where people can tuck in. (It’s gotten rave reviews in the press.)

In the front, a window for takeout orders and two long communal tables are frequented by Middle Eastern students learning English nearby.

“It’s so nice to look around the room,” Haroun said. “Having that happen is a much bigger picture than just opening a restaurant.”

It is a sanctuary from the news back home, and a way to keep alive what they love of the Middle East, but for the moment can’t visit.

The Harouns used to spend six weeks in Syria every summer, visiting family.

“But the last couple of years, we haven’t been able to go because of the political situation,” she said.

Haroun’s mother has been with her sisters in Dubai, and is headed to Seattle for four months.

But her father remains in Hama, where he has built an orphanage with a school on the upper floor. He eats lunch with the students every day.

He has told Haroun that he is happy, and staying put. The roads out are impassable, not only for their physical condition, but for the people and the danger that travel on it. And the children need him more than his wife and family need him in the States.

“I worry because he is a man of power, and educated,” she said. “But my father is ready to die for his country. And if there is change, I think he wants to be there to see change happen.

“It’s a choice he’s made, and I have to respect that choice.”

The Harouns have made very different choices with their lives.

They first met during college in Houston, not long before Wassef took a job in Abu Dhabi.

In 1989, Wassef was hired as a program manager at Microsoft, and they had two children (a daughter Roya, now 21, and a son, Azmi, 19).

Wassef left Microsoft in 2000 and the family moved to Paris, where they had a third child, Rashid, now 9. They moved to Dubai, again for Wassef’s program-management work, and returned to Seattle, to the Leschi neighborhood, in 2006.

“We couldn’t think of another place,” Racha said. “The mountains and the art. And when you make friends here, you make them for life.”

As I sat with the Harouns at Mamnoon, they spoke measuredly about their country.

They are not practicing Muslims, but were both born to Muslim parents and respect the religion.

Mostly they love and miss what Syria once was.

“It was a model of secular coexistence,” Wassef Haroun said. “We come from that period, that psyche, that people wanted to coexist.

“Now that they are being threatened, they are destroying that,” he said of the fight between the militants and the regime. “It’s important for us to continue to present this secular aspect of Syria, because it’s an ideal that we truly believe in.”

They loved entertaining, having friends over and preparing the dishes they were raised on. Over time, they realized “We needed something bigger than cooking for our friends.”

Their hope is that Mamnoon brings to the city a sense of modern Middle Eastern culture, something beyond the headlines and the suspicion that have permeated the United States for so many years.

Indeed, as the technology boom continues to transform Seattle into a multicultural mecca of lanyard-wearing workers, it has also become a place where their traditions are transplanted and bloom — even as they are threatened in their place of origin.

Mamnoon is just that; a place where a community comes to withstand their worries, and keep what they know and love alive.

“There is a ray of hope for our culture,” Wassef Haroun said. “And we want to be good role models for how the culture survives.

“We’re very sad and very upset, but life is going on and we’re hoping for a much better future, for Syria to re-emerge.”

There’s a reason that the Harouns have put freshly baked flatbread at the center of the menu, and keep it coming at every table at Mamnoon.

In Syria, bakeries and flour are subsidized, so bread is available to the poor.

When the uprising started, the regime cut off flour supplies and bombed bakeries — some of them with lines of people waiting outside — to inflict the most damage.

“Bread is the staff of life,” Wassef Haroun said. “It is critical.”

In fact, he said, bread is called “aish,” which means “life.”

“That’s one of the reasons we make it right here,” he said. “There is plenty.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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