"Aissa Sweets Brings Owner’s Syrian Culture to Concord"
By MEGAN DOYLE
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
(Published in print: Wednesday, May 28, 2014)
The kitchen at Aissa Sweets is clean and quiet.
There’s a big wooden table where owner Ahmad Aissa can roll out long sheets of filo dough. A metal tray with several pans of pistachio baklava waiting for the nearby oven. A large window, which opens up to the faint sounds of mid-morning traffic on North State Street.
The place is untouched by the chaos that brought Ahmad to this kitchen, to this country. But everything else about his business harkens back to Syria, his home and the origin of the Middle Eastern sweets he now sells in Concord.
“Home is there,” Ahmad said. The bakery “makes me feel I’m there. It makes me feel I’m still connected. It makes me feel I’m representing good things about my country.”
Today is the first day of business at 205 N. State St., where Aissa Sweets has opened a retail shop to supplement its wholesale orders. That address is a long way from Damascus, where Ahmad lived until civil war broke out in 2011.
“It’s really ugly,” he said. “All of a sudden, things become crazy.”
He didn’t go into detail about the war. But his wife, Evelyn, spoke about the conflict that has claimed several of his family members and the bombs that fell on his family home.
“It was devastating, to be honest,” Evelyn said. “I spent years studying war. That’s what I specialized in. It was just completely crushing to be in a place that I loved and watch it fall apart.”
Evelyn, 32, grew up in Manchester. She met her future husband through a mutual friend when she studied Arabic in Syria for a summer, and they started dating after she completed her master’s degree and moved back to Damascus to work as a journalist about 2009.
The explosions were just beginning when the couple married in May 2011. The Aissas left Syria just a few months later, moving back to her native New Hampshire that August to escape the violence.
“He’d never been out of the Middle East before, and I hadn’t planned on moving back to the U.S.,” Evelyn said.
“We were totally shell-shocked.”
In the bakery, Ahmad pulled out a large bag of imported pistachios, already shelled. The nuts would soon be chopped and baked into baklava.
“Some people, for example, they go to exercise to relax their brain,” Ahmad said. “This is what I do to relax my brain, to think of something different than everything else that I’m thinking of all the time.”
Reinventing a life
In Damascus, Ahmad owned his own business manufacturing and importing clothes. He learned how to prepare Syrian desserts just for fun, from a friend who worked as a chef.
“He was the person who taught me all of these strategies to make filo, to make baklava and pastries,” he said.
Then, the country began to rumble with revolution in March 2011, when protests against President Bashar al-Assad began to turn violent.
“We saw it everywhere,” Evelyn said. “In our relationships with people that we’d known forever, those changed really quickly. In my work, I had security issues, of course. I was writing about the revolution. . . . We saw it in our neighborhood. . . . They would park buses full of people holding bats and weapons and leave them in front of the mosques. It was inescapable.”
Newlyweds, the Aissas left Syria that summer.
“There was no way other than leaving,” Ahmad said.
The transition to a new language and a new country was a difficult one for him.
“He really needed to kind of reinvent his life,” Evelyn said. “It was the same for me. . . . So the two of us were kind of a mess for a while.”
She got a job working in health care policy for New Hampshire Voices for Health. He took English classes at Southern New Hampshire University. And one day, he made baklava for his in-laws.
“I thought maybe since they liked the taste . . . why not just start selling?” he said.
He rented a kitchen near Dover and spent months trying to relearn recipes with kitchen equipment that was different from what he had known in Syria. Within a year and a half, his website listed 14 shops across New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine that sell the sweets. The new store in Concord will make 15.
“It makes me feel like there’s always something to understand every day, there’s always something new that could happen, more understanding for the dough,” he said. “The fact is that it’s very difficult and challenging. I feel good when it comes out as a good result. I feel very proud.”
A universal idea
That pride was evident as Ahmad walked through his pristine kitchen last week. He opened a box of imported apricots, deep purple and wrinkled from drying out under the Turkish sun – “like brown sugar when you put it in baklava,” he said.
He snapped a pistachio in half and squeezed it, letting its oil ooze onto his fingers. Not as dry as pistachios from California, he said. He wants his ingredients to taste fresh and authentic.
His mother and other friends are still in Syria. But they are following his new business with the same pride that was in his own dark eyes.
“They were excited for me because . . . I’ve always done my own things back in Syria and had my own business going,” he said. “To really start something in a different country that speaks a different language . . . they’re very happy for me.”
New Hampshire, in a way, also feels new to a woman who grew up dreaming of anywhere but here.
“My entire teenage life, I just couldn’t get far enough away from New Hampshire. . . . Something about going through the crisis in Syria, it changed my thinking,” Evelyn said. “It was like I wanted to live in a quiet and wholesome place that’s safe and green, and now I’m so happy to be here.”
But the couple has brought pieces of Syria here too – in the home they bought to settle down in Concord last year, in the traditional date ma’amouls Admad brings home from work for his wife. His sweets are pieces of the Syria they know, the Syria they want Americans to meet beyond the bloody headlines.
“The business, it gets to highlight something cultural about Syria, something wonderful,” she said.
Ahmad agreed. He’ll have coffee and samples waiting for his customers in the store, where he wants them to experience his desserts like his friends and family back home would.
“I’m trying to tell customers that we care about nice things and culture, like having a cup of coffee and some sweets and sitting and chilling,” he said.
Good food, he said, can be universal.
“People everywhere like this idea,” he said.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)
AT A GLANCE:
205 N. State St., Concord
Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Also available this summer at the Bedford Farmers Market on Tuesdays and the Laconia Farmers Market on Saturdays.
To view this article on The Concord Monitor website, click here.