From Damascus to Cairo: How a catering service rose from the ruins of Syria’s civil war

Photo: James Gordon

From a small apartment in the desert suburb of Obour, come drafts of scents and aromas, the sounds of metal pots and pans clacking together and the commotion of many women speaking a mixture of Egyptian and Levantine accents going through their orders of the day.

It sounds and smells like a place to eat at, yet there is nowhere to sit or order anything. Apparently, this is not a restaurant.

Despite being an apartment, the inside is more like a factory where each room represents a different department. In one room, the women are preparing dough. In another, there is a fully equipped kitchen. And another where the women are wrapping and packing together the final incarnations that come out from all the previous rooms, ready to be delivered to far off tables where they will finally be enjoyed.

This is the home and headquarters of Zeit Zeitoun, a Syrian cuisine catering service staffed mostly by women refugees from the war-torn country.

Zeit Zeitoun was founded in 2016 by Lina Kassah and Tamara El Rifai. While El Rifai left Syria long before the war started, Kassah (who is the kitchen’s head chef) came to Cairo in 2012 with her husband, their son and their two daughters after their home in Damascus was destroyed.

“We decided to leave because there was no work and no school for the children as well. We came [to Egypt] to start a new life,” Kassah says. She and her family moved to Obour, one of Cairo’s desert-lying satellite cities to the North-East of the capital and home to many of the country’s Syrian refugees and immigrants.

Zeit Zeitoun began with a team of five Syrian women refugees, in addition to Kassah and El Rifai. Each woman was responsible for one of the kitchen’s specific departments. Among these departments, Kassah says, there are ones for popular Syrian delicacies such as kibbeh and mo’ajinat, along with departments for cooking and packing and so on.

While El Rifai helped set up Zeit Zeitoun through her connections and market research, Kassah handled the work on the ground in the kitchen.

In the beginning, they did training courses with the women to learn all the nuances of the business of catering. Tamara spoke to people with more experience in catering to try to get a better understanding of the trade because “cooking for the home is different from cooking for customers” Kassah says.

From the very beginning, Zeit Zeitoun was already enjoying success. El-Rifai spread word of them through her networks so they already had a small dedicated clientele to offer their services to. Then they gained more attention through Facebook and just four months into their existence, CNN came knocking on their door to do a feature.

A large part of their clientele are Cairo’s embassies. “The American embassy, the British embassy, the Canadian embassy; all the embassies order from us,” Kassah says. On top of that, they also cater for weddings, social gatherings and birthday parties.

Zeit Zeitoun’s kitchen is the size of a big living room and each of the departments has a head with two or three others working with them depending on the number of duties. Rasha handles the Facebook page and communications with clients and they have a driver for deliveries.

While Zeit Zeitoun has faced many challenges and difficult periods since its establishment, Kassah says the most recent period with the COVID-19 crisis has been the hardest to hit them so far.

“At the beginning of Corona, a lot of people got scared. There were no orders in the first week” of COVID-19 arriving in Egypt when a nationwide overnight curfew was instated. When orders slowly started returning, customers “would tell the [delivery] driver to leave the order in front of their door, even though he would be wearing a mask and gloves.”

Kassah adds that many customers have also been paying by dropping money from their balconies.

Gradually, business has been returning but the summer season tends to be slow period for them anyway. “In the summer, people travel and the schools are off, so business is slow, even without Corona. We work most when schools are on.”

Even so, their volume of orders has still not returned to usual levels. However, Zeit Zeitoun adapted. “I took a different route. When I found business was still slow, I worked on another way. People are scared to eat and to touch things with their hands so I started to work on frozen orders.”

This helped business pick up a bit. To Kassah, there was no choice but to adapt to the new situation. “I have women on my payroll. I have salaries to pay.”

Zeit Zeitoun is also a tight space. “I can’t have 15 women working in it” at the same time. In addition to having everyone wear a facemask, they adopted their own social distancing measures by only having half the team come during a shift. Half the team come in for a morning shift from 8 am to 12 pm, and the other half come in from 12 pm to 4 pm “so the numbers of people are low” on the premise. No more than two people are allowed in each room at any one time.

“Because of Corona, I don’t have a lot of orders anyway so I think we’ve adapted well to the situation. Because we started to do frozen orders, things have been moving again slowly. We no longer rely on social occasions or weddings because everywhere is closed.”

Even home deliveries have not compensated enough because orders are small, just enough for groups no bigger than the size of a family, since many are no longer hosting big gatherings in their own homes, she says.

Beyond COVID-19, in the future, Kassah hopes to move Zeit Zeitoun to a location closer to the city, ideally in a more central area “so that if you’re hosting an occasion in two hours, I can take your order and deliver it to you.” In order for the kitchen to make orders, they have to be placed one or two days in advance at least, depending on the workload they have.

“Obour is far away [from central Cairo]. I have a problem with deliveries. I have to charge EGP 75. For most people, that’s a lot. They usually pay EGP 10 or 15 for deliveries” and many of their orders come from Maadi and Zamalek.

Kassah also hopes that a new location will be big enough for Zeit Zeitoun to have its own dine-in restaurant. She speaks of how she would very much like to welcome guests and to bring their kitchen’s creations directly to their tables. For the moment, they stay in Obour for the affordability. She says rent in Cairo is too high for them to make a move just yet.

Kassah could not be more delighted about her home country’s cuisine becoming massively popular in Egypt. “We are happy that Syrian food has entered Egyptian homes!”

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