Many people consider opening a restaurant to be one of the most daunting business opportunities there can be. But if you’ve already managed to gather up your young family, leave a country run by a dictator and relocate to a land where you don’t speak the language, perhaps opening a restaurant isn’t so difficult after all.
Thirty years ago, Syrian troops under the government of Hafez al-Assad — father of current President Bashar al-Assad — unleashed a bloody 27-day attack on the town of Hama, killing approximately 25,000 people. The assault was not an isolated incident, but rather the culmination of tensions that had built up over many years between al-Assad’s government and political opponents. The country was left brutalized and in fear.
While not in direct response to that attack but after realizing the country was not going to change for the better, Suhail and Hanan Barazi left Syria in 1986 and followed family to Kent, Ohio in search of the American dream and a better education for their children. Suhail came first for six months to work two shift-jobs to save up enough money to send funds back for airfare for Hanan and their three small children.
Over the course of the next 31 years, Hanan learned English and how to drive a car, took care of her home, raised and expanded her brood to eight, taught Arabic and Quran at her mosque, and cooked and volunteered at her children’s schools. But all along there was a love of the food of her homeland and the desire to share that food with people.
Last June, the time was finally right and Hanan and her daughter Rana, who had moved to Cincinnati as a married woman, finally realized that dream when they opened Baladi Restaurant & Bakery in Clifton. According to the restaurant’s website, Baladi means “my country” in Arabic, which describes how the Barazi’s want their guests to feel — welcomed and at home. We recently sat down with them to discuss Syrian food, family, the current state of affairs in their homeland and the importance of their faith.
CityBeat: Why did you want to come to the United States?
Hanan Barazi: I had the idea about America — it’s the free land, it’s the opportunity land and the education.
CB: Do you still have family in Syria?
HB: I do have family. I have my oldest brother and my oldest sister with her family and with his family.
Rana Barazi: All of our people, all of our family were in Syria before the war and no one was planning on going anywhere.
CB: Is there a misconception here in the U.S. that people aren’t living a normal day-to-day life in Syria?
HB: In Damascus, you hear the bombs, you have checkpoints everywhere you go, everything’s so expensive; you always live in fear.
RB: But before the war everyone was very happy. It was fine. You were used to your dictator. It was fine — just don’t rock the boat. There were lots of people, like our cousins that were saying, “Be quiet with your freedom. You think you’re going to get your freedom with your protests and your riots? You’re not going to get what you think you’re fighting for.”
HB: They numb the people. They’ve been in control for 40 years, so imagine those generation of people from 40 years until now — they are numb. With education, you cannot excel. With business, you cannot excel. They want the people to be like sheep with a remote control.
CB: How does Syrian food differ from other Middle Eastern foods?
HB: It is delicious. We are close to Turkey, so we have (the influence) of the Turkish and the French (Syria gained its independence from the French in 1946). We have the chance of the classic food, we have the traditional food, we have the street food. We are very close to the Lebanese, so we are very similar, but they have more French. If we’re talking about Jordanian, they are more Bedouin — they have more rice and meat and yogurt. Heavy stuff. But for us, because we have land and farmers, we have people who specialize in dessert, we have the variety of everything.
RB: Syrian food just tastes very clean. It’s not overdone. The spices that you use in the food are really just to enhance the food and the flavors there. So, it’s not confusing. You never wonder, “What am I eating?” With, like, the Foul, it’s like these are fava beans with fresh lemon juice and fresh olive oil and fresh tomatoes and parsley. I can taste everything, and it tastes amazing just as it is.
CB: You are devout Muslims and you opened your restaurant during the notably Muslim-averse Trump administration. Has it affected business in any way?
RB: No, I think it just goes to show that, “Hey, Trump, most of us are not actually with you, dude.” He doesn’t affect our life.
HB: I’m not really into politics. I like to be here to present myself as a Muslim woman for people to see how much I can offer. I’m giving you good food, clean food. This is who I am. You like to come to my restaurant, welcome. You have any objection, you have any question, if I can answer it, I will.
RB: But you contribute how you can. It’s very difficult in the beginning when you first open a restaurant. You do not know the work that goes into it and the work that my mom was doing that she’d never done before. And just seeing her was so exhausting and feeling like, wow, she’s really working more than she should be, but then it’s like, now you’re making a difference. You are a positive Muslim, you are an articulate Muslim, you are an educated Muslim. So that even if it’s just one person a day that comes and meets you and talks to you and feels safe by this new version of a Muslim that they just found out, and they can go and share that with somebody else, then I think that everything that’s hard pays off.
HB: I’m just being who I am. That’s the way I like people to see me. I’m so pleased with God’s plan. If I had to make this plan for myself, I can’t. Even though this is a place for food, when I cook, I say, “Bismillah,” in the name of God, and I wish the blessing for everyone (who) come and sit and eat here.
Baladi Restaurant & Bakery (3307 Clifton Ave., Clifton) serves authentic Arabic and Syrian dishes with a special focus on baked goods. More info: baladicincy.com.