Through his restaurant ‘Taza’ in Lalitpur, Bassel Shreiqi gives out a loud and clear message: Syria is not just only ISIS and shootings.
How did you come up with the idea to run an Arabic restaurant in Nepal?
I was living with my wife, who is a Nepali, in Dubai. We got married in Dubai and have a small daughter. In 2012, I came to Nepal for the first time for a vacation. I went to Pokhara, which is really a nice place. I had heard of Nepal before.
I think Nepalis don’t see their country as they should. Especially those who live abroad don’t represent their country in its true form; Nepal is such an amazing place. When I came to Nepal, I didn’t expect to see an amazing place. I immediately fell in love with this country after seeing its green hills and waterfalls. Later, when I came for a second visit, I had this talk with my wife about starting a restaurant that represented the food where I came from, Syria.
Usually when people come to another country to live, they represent their food. When you go to France for example, you find Moroccan restaurants because you find a lot of Moroccans living there. Here, they have Chinese food, Indian food, and Korean food, but you can’t find Middle Eastern food. Middle Eastern food is known worldwide. So, I thought it could be a good idea to open up this place. We started with a small place and started serving limited items. In the future, we plan to expand the menu because as of now, we are hardly serving 20% of the dishes that we plan to serve to the people here.
When you come to a different country from the country of your origin, you must have faced certain difficulties in starting up a business.
It’s all about love. I love the country and the people here. While living in Dubai, I found the lifestyle vastly different from that of Syria. Everything is up to date there. But those things hardly matter when you have a place like this. I like it that everything is natural here. I am not saying that everything is perfect here, but at the end it’s about loving a place and its people.
As for the difficulties I faced, I don’t like the fact that there are no companies to do specialised tasks like those who overlook the construction part, or the painting part. Other thing is that, they never finish the task on time. For example, the previous tenants were supposed to vacate the place in three weeks but I got it after three months. In Dubai, where there are specialised companies to do these kind of jobs, the tasks are finished in the given time. They are afraid to get bad reviews from the customers. But there is no culture like that here and when you get people for the work, they honestly don’t care. Official policies for foreigners starting a business is not that bad actually. You fill a form, go through their procedures and you get approved. It was quite smooth to be honest.
Does this establishment mean to you more than just a restaurant?
It’s about introducing your culture to a new place, and the feedback people give about my country. We all know the happenings in Syria. Taza, I think, represents Syria through its food and that the country is not just only ISIS and shootings. Syrians are not part of the killing spree and I think as a Syrian, it’s my responsibility to paint a positive picture of Syria, especially at a time like this.
We Syrians are not religious fanatics. I am Muslim and my wife is a Buddhist. There is no difference in religion here in Nepal. I was surprised that there is a public holiday on Eid even when there are far few Muslims in the country. I really like this about Nepal.
It’s about representing your country and the people. See what has happened now after the recent Paris attacks? They say Syrians were involved in the attacks.
We cannot generalise a race or a culture.
Definitely. But media does that. And it’s a big part of my responsibility that I represent the best that Syria has to offer, especially from here in Pulchowk, where there is a good mix of expats and locals and offices like the UN.
Nepal went through a similar fate as that of Syria as both the countries suffered a lot of collateral damage. How do you remember your home back in Syria?
Home is another story. My country is getting destroyed as we speak. I come from Aleppo. I think you know Apello. Everybody knows about Aleppo, the city most affected by the crisis. I do miss home. Even if I miss home, there is no way for me to go back home. My mum is still back in Syria and my plan is to get her here to Nepal. I miss my mum more than I miss home. If she comes here, I will miss my country a little less. For that, I want my business to grow and it was going good until recently. But now, the shortages of essential supplies has lowered business.
Are you hopeful for your business and do you see Taza expanding any time soon?
Definitely. As I said, the current menu hardly covers 20% of the Middle Eastern cuisine. Desserts are a huge part of the cuisine. My plan is to have it all but right now all I can think is to get my hands on the gas cylinders that are on limited supply.
How are you managing the fuel crisis?
I use firewood where it’s possible to use. But certain dishes have to made in a grill which is designed to run on gas. I cannot depend on electricity because of the load shedding. Besides, the price of cooking oil has also increased but I am managing.
Are you in touch with fellow Syrians here in Nepal?
There aren’t many Syrians here in Nepal. I did come across someone working with the Red Crescent. He was a doctor and was here to help those affected by the recent earthquake. He was passing by the place and stopped for a bite after seeing the grill in which we make our Shawarma. Beside him, I haven’t met any Syrians here in Nepal. They all go to Germany (laughs).
In a way you are representing the best of Syria has to offer through food here in Nepal. Isn’t it?
I cannot say this is the best Arabic cuisine on offer but I am trying to do my best. I am representing Syria and its food and culture with the restaurant and myself.
You don’t have to be in a country to serve the country.