Seria Series: Shutta ya Butta

Here's Plump Abu Halen, before we departed for Syria.
One of the great joys of traveling is sampling a new palate of food choices . . . that is, unless you happen to be Abu Halen. Raised on hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, Abu’s food preferences never developed properly. He has the taste buds of a four-year-old. 

As a spouse, I have spent years trying to work new flavors and textures into his diet, hoping that somehow he can learn to enjoy adult foods. Although over the course of a decade I’ve had some success--truly. He has come a long way. Now he eats all sorts of things, like onions (in soup), salads (sometimes), fruit shakes, and even Mexican food. But my efforts were still in their inchoate stages when we departed for Syria. Abu Halen was almost completely unprepared to survive in a foreign country long term.

While I was reveling in spinach pies, grape-leaf rolls, tabbouleh, baklava, cinnamon-rice and peas with lamb, and the most divine watermelon and peaches and pears on this side of heaven, Abu Halen had managed to countenance only hummus, bread, and schawarmas.

Abu Halen consumed so many schawarmas within our first few weeks in our neighborhood in Damascus that he became fast friends with the schawarma guy. The schawarma guy often ran to hug Abu Halen when he saw him round the corner. They were tight. 

Sometimes I felt a little jealous, so I would accompany Abu Halen on schawarma stops. We’d stand, sweating, near the spit of chicken that sizzled while it rotated near an electric heating element. Abu Halen would grab a cold bottle of Pepsi (pronounced “beebsie” in Arabic) from the cooler as he fielded friendly questions from the schawarma guy, who was now shaving paper-thin slices of savory chicken from the spit and piling them into a huge piece of flatbread. 

This is what is face looked like whenever he ate food that I made for him.
The first few times at the schawarma stand, the guy asked whether we wanted hiyar and shutta ya butta. I didn’t catch all of the conversation, because I knew almost no Arabic, but I’m pretty sure Abu Halen was like, “Shutta ya what?” It took weeks of careful observation for us to discover that shutta ya butta was pomegranate sauce, and hiyar was pickle. But it took mere moments to discover that the schawarma was best with neither of those options.

We’ve never had better schawarmas than we had in Damascus. They were for Abu Halen a merciful bright spot amid my own dark attempts at making meals with unfamiliar ingredients. One day I made a garbonzo bean soup I had learned on my mission in Portugal. It was lovely—full of veggies and spices, offering loads of fiber and protein without requiring meat, and all at very low cost. Abu Halen wasn’t impressed. In fact, the soup actually elicited the same reaction I got when I first served him bacon made from turkey rather than pork.

During those nine months, I never could bring myself to buy much meat, although it was all Abu Halen wanted. It seemed too expensive, too left out in the sun all day, too imported from who knows where, and too maybe full of growth hormones or something else that would make me grow whiskers or something. It was at mealtimes at home that Abu Halen most wished he were married to the Rays (who ate hamburgers quite a lot) instead of to me.

But no matter: I knew he loved me. And I always bought hummus for him, so that was something.


Here's Abu Halen near the end of our nine-month stay in Syria, completely emaciated. Here he's pleading with someone to hold his child, because he has no strength remaining.