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Al-Agha Restaurant is a famous spot in the Hamadiyeh neighborhood in Homs, a Christian neighborhood. Although it was in the Christian area, people came from all over the city to go to it. A lot of Sunnis would go to the Christian side just to go to this restaurant. And it’s actually somebody’s house – it’s called Bayt al Agah, al Agah’s house. It’s this really rich notable Christian family in Homs that was there for a long time, hundreds of years. It’s almost like a castle, it’s three floors with a courtyard like the old Arab houses. There’s a fountain. He transformed his house into the restaurant. They actually had a photo hanging of Bashar [al Assad] and his wife eating there.
In my family’s neighborhood of Salamiyeh, the closest cities to us are Hama and Homs, and Homs is an hour and 10 minutes away, so we would always go there for day trips to eat or go shopping. When I was 16, 17 we went to these new restaurants that weren’t really that good, they’re all fancy. They’re trying to do American food, really bad. My uncle, who lived in Homs for 30 years, said no one can come to Homs without going to al-Agha: you have to go to al-Agha.
I tried to convince my family to go, but my mom’s side was like, “No, no, we’re going to the new modern places.” We stopped next to al-Agha in the car, and the thing is, it looks weird. The house is very old. The alley next to it is so narrow, and it’s filled with cars and stores and it’s all Christian. When we first drove over there we were like, “Where are we? There’s no one around here.” So we went instead to eat at this big modern place, one of those new places that opened up in the mid-2000s.
Syria had this boom in that decade, new restaurants opening everywhere with Western food. One of them [the Damascus Gate restaurant] was the Guinness Book’s biggest restaurant in the world. They tried to imitate foreign cuisine, but did so awfully. We had Italian and French all over Syria.
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Eventually I convinced my family to go to Agha, and it was the best food. They had really authentic old Syrian cooking. I would always have kibbeh, and they were very well-known for sejuk, the Arab sausages. They would go around and put Turkish coffee in everyone’s cup. Everyone was very well dressed, the place was always packed. The crowd was a bit more liberal because it was a Christian area but there were still head scarves there. It was the pride of the Christian neighborhood, that they had this place and people would come from all over to eat.
They had really good spicy fish, really good kebabs. The kibbeh was just really spicy.Dessert was the best, halawet el-jien, which has the cheese. We’d start to just regularly go there. We would drive an hour and a half to eat there. Regulars went there all the time. It was really an example of coexistence in Syria, of culture in Syria. It showed that the old restaurants, the traditional places there for a long time, were better at making food than the new stuff that came in this boom.
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Agha also symbolized the middle class in Syria. This restaurant was making good money, and it was on the pricier side, so the less fortunate would not be able to go there often. People who are there were the middle class who were increasing in number through the mid-2000s. They would always have parties and stuff, singers every Friday and Saturday.
It was a great example of a good place that had been there for a really long time, better than the new places, and it had such cultural significance. When I saw pictures of the old house destroyed, it was heartbreaking. It shows what the country has come to, whether Assad stays or goes, that the cultural landmarks in Syria and the historical coexistence that’s lasted for centuries and generations is being broken apart. And once it’s broken apart, it’ll be very hard to bring it back.