Shawarma in Istanbul
After Donald J. Trump won the presidency, a full 24 hours after a Twitter troll became the de facto leader-of-the-world in waiting, I mourned his ugly victory the only way I knew how: kabsa, shawarma, hummus.
I went through the motions with a bunch of young Americans in Istanbul, our voices strained, our eyes watery, our emotions running high as we licked our plates clean. Bite, chomp, stew, digest, vent, repeat. It was our form of protest, a culinary middle finger to a man who’d won by demonizing everything we ever cared about, everything that surrounded us now. What better way to say ‘Not My President’ than by chowing down on some Syrian food?
We went to Al Rayan, a Syrian joint tucked away in a side street jutting off of Istiklal Avenue. To find the place, you orient yourself between Hüseyin Ağa Camii (Istiklal’s only mosque, built in the 1590s by a eunuch-turned-statesman) and the Demiroren (a glitzy, multi-storied mall). Between the Ottoman and the post-modern, past the pedestrian thoroughfare filled with ice cream sellers, street musicians, and TOMA vans, runs Atif Yilmaz Sokak—a street studded with restaurants from the Levant. Tarboush is popular; there’s a Palestinian place as well. We ended up choosing Al Rayan because the Syrian-American in the group suggested that it was the best of the lot.
There were four of us, three of us women. Some of us had Muslim backgrounds and immigrant parents. I am an immigrant to the United States. We tried to console each other at the dinner table, our own Venn diagram of who Donald J. Trump hated the most. We ordered more than we thought we could handle, telling ourselves that we could always take it home. We had kabsa, a mound of spiced yellow rice with cashews strewn about, and chicken shaved from the rotisserie spinning right next to us, its warmth and its smell intensifying our hunger. There were two whole plates of shawarma, rolled, crisped and cut into pieces, better for dipping into the garlic mayonnaise sauce. The sauce is so addictive I slather it on everything, even the carrots, cabbage, and tomatoes thrown in for complimentary nutrition. That night, Syrian food was our soul food.
We finished everything, washing it down with our Diet Cokes. How could this have happened? We asked each other, dazed and afraid. More than 60 million of our fellow citizens had just voted to reject the most fundamental aspects of ourselves. Our layered identities, once a point of pride, part of our life’s work abroad, were now bruised and battered, and celebrated no more.
Wiping away the tears, I realized I was naive about how I saw myself. “I’ve met real Americans,” an oud seller once told me in Istanbul, eyeing me up and down. I’ve known that look my whole life.