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Syrian Saj: Breaking Bread in Rural Damascus

Staving off hunger through a traditional, almost forgotten skill

Story by World Food Programme March 7th, 2017

On International Women's Day on Wednesday 8 March, World Food Programme (WFP) staff in Syria bring us the story of Salwa, who was forced by conflict to flee her home and managed to stave off hunger in her host community through a traditional, almost forgotten bread-making skill. WFP support allows women like Salwa, in more than 80 countries across the world, to feed their families and communities, and build resilience to future potential crises.

Saj, a very thin and flat type of bread commonly used in Syria until the 1980s, was every Syrian woman’s homemaking trademark. Made with hard wheat flour, it came to be known as Saj after the curved, dome-like metal surface on which the dough was baked. Baking Saj is a tricky business, requiring dexterous, hand-shaping skills. Nowadays, very few Syrian women are able to bake Saj bread at home.

Saj bread is named after the dome-shaped surface it is baked on. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al-Saleh

Salwa comes from Beit Jan village in Hermon Mountain, Rural Damascus. She fled to Ein Al Sha’ara, a nearby village, in 2012 after armed groups raided her village. She says she did not expect that a skill she picked up from her mother as a young girl would save her from a lot of trouble one day.

“As a young girl, I used to complain whenever my mother would ask me to prepare Saj bread," says Salwa, who generates income by selling bread to her neighbours. “Who would have thought it would become my only weapon to fight hunger?”

Salwa fled her home in 2012 after armed groups raided her village. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al-Saleh.

Nothing catches a curious crowd of Syrians like the aroma of freshly baked bread and burning dry wood. Salwa was preparing a fire to bake Saj bread for her family using WFP wheat flour, oblivious to her audience of interested villagers. The news of her bread-making had spread across the village like wildfire!

Saj bread-making – an almost forgotten skill – helped Salwa and her neighbours through difficult times. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al-Saleh

The next day she found several neighbours carrying bags of wheat flour, queuing at her door. They asked her to bake them some Saj bread too. Some even brought her wood to make a fire.

“I refused to take money from them. After all, they had been so generous to welcome us in the village as a displaced family,” recalls Salwa. But the neighbours insisted on paying her.

'I refused to take money from my neighbours.' Pboto: WFP/Hussam Al-Saleh

To make Saj bread, Salwa prepares the dough the day before. Mixing WFP wheat flour with warm water, yeast, salt and a bit of oil, she beats the mixture together until the dough forms. She sets it aside overnight, covering it with a wet cloth to activate the yeast. Saj bread is very healthy because it is easily digestible. It can stay fresh for over a month if stored in the freezer.

The next day, she softens the dough by beating it against a stony surface. Then she spreads it into a wide, thin sheet. To do that, she tosses it in the air in a circular motion multiple times to get it into a round shape. She tosses it up, flipping it quickly from one hand to the other, and lays it flat on the surface without so much as a poke or a tear in it.

“We call the swinging motion of the dough Louha. It is also the same name of our folkloric dance,” she says.

The swinging motion to shape the dough is called Louha, like Syria's  folkloric dance. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al-Saleh
Not many women in Syria can bake Saj bread at home nowadays. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al-Saleh
Captivated by the aroma of Salwa's bread, neighbours began to ask her to bake for them. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al-Saleh
Salwa is one of 6.3 million people displaced by conflict inside Syria. Another 5.8 million have left the country. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al-Saleh

One of the many touching traditions of the Syrian countryside is offering bread to strangers and passers-by as a sign of sharing a meal. "Saj is used to break bread with anyone in the community. It is thin and crispy, full of wholesome goodness and it melts in your mouth," Salwa says proudly.

Offering bread to strangers and passers-by is a tradition in rural Syria. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al-Saleh
Footnote: Story and photos by Hussam Al-Saleh
Damascus, Damascus Governorate, Syria