On the walls at Haritna Restaurant are homages to simple sights: a large gate, ancient Damascene windows – it’s a scene that hopes to inspire the very particular feeling of sitting in the middle of a Damascus square, down a well-trodden, old lane. For in Arabic, haritna means “our lane.”
Also a colloquial term for neighborhood, Haritna evokes a sense of home for those now living far away. In fact, owner Loay Bakdash, originally from Damascus himself, had dreamed of opening such a restaurant while working as a civil engineer in Saudi Arabia. But he didn’t want it to be a place where people would just come and eat. “I wanted the customers to feel that they are in one of Damascus’ neighborhoods, among their acquaintances in a family-friendly atmosphere,” he says.
With Ramadan in full swing, folks are flocking to the restaurant’s Beylikduzu location to break fast with other Arabs from all over Istanbul looking for a piece of community. Surrounded by the sounds of live Arabic music and diners eating and talking enthusiastically, Ali, a customer, says that since the beginning of Ramadan he has come to the restaurant nightly. “Every day, I notice the presence of almost the same faces – from Iraq, the Gulf, Syria and Lebanon,” he says. “I feel as if I am in a small Arab neighborhood. And, what’s more, people began to greet each other. You see a Syrian and Iraqi are shaking hands and talking as if they know each other for a long time.”
On Bakdash’s visits to the city, he noticed the increasing number of Arabs, particularly Syrians, living here. His envisioned a restaurant with a “Syrian atmosphere, full of warmth and intimacy. You can see this in the decor of our restaurant – but because of the different Arab nationalities of customers, the Damascene neighborhood became an Arab neighborhood,” Bakdash says, echoing Ali’s very feelings. But it is not just nostalgia pushing diners through the doors of Hartina. During the Islamic holy month, the restaurant organizes nightly entertainment programs, serving up Middle Eastern and Western food in a musical atmosphere. Bakdash brought in a famous Lebanese journalist and media guru, Zakaria Fahham, who had been hosting a popular Ramadan celebration in Lebanon for the last few years, to host Haritna’s evening program and truly make the restaurant into an Arab gathering place.
Each night, popular singers croon well-known Arab songs and a Syrian Arada band takes the stage. Arada is a type of call and response folk music style, accompanied by instruments and dancing. The environment is carefree, with diners joining in: Some nights, comedians are at the mic, and customers can even find themselves winning prizes.
“The idea of the Ramadan tent was not in my mind,” Bakdash says, referring to tents or venues that pop up during the holy month in Muslim-majority countries where people can enjoy an iftar meal and time with family and friends after sundown. Bakdash attributes the spark to Fahham, who realized Haritna would be a good location for such a purpose.
Haritna is the middle child in Bakdash’s family of restaurants, the elder being Golden Box in Ortaköy and the youngest Golden Night, a Bosporus dinner cruise. “The food of my restaurants is one, and it has the same touch and flavors,” Bakdash says. That’s because all three of his restaurants are served by two head chefs, professionals from Damascus and Aleppo. They work together in one kitchen, and the food is then distributed to Golden Box, Golden Night or Haritna.
Here, an iftar meal always starts with soup (lentil, tomato or mushroom are available), then mezze and salads (including Arab classics like fattush, tabbouleh, hummus and baba ghanoush). Quench your thirst in the heat (or a day without water) with a signature Ramadan beverage: jallab (grape molasses, date syrup and rose water) or tamr hindi (tamarind and rose water).
Some of the traditional dishes you’ll find gracing the buffet table include: kibbeh (fried cracked bulgur, onions and lean ground lamb topped with spices), yabrak (stuffed grape leaves), shakriyeh (lamb cooked in yogurt with a side of nuts and rice), ouzi (spiced lamb, rice and nuts wrapped in phyllo), djaj mahshi (roasted stuffed chicken) and a summer specialty, kebab bil karaz (sour cherry kebab).
Chef Mohamed Khair Al Helou has worked in restaurants in Dubai, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon since the ‘90s. It’s no surprise he has Middle Eastern cuisine down, but cooking for three restaurants at once is no small task. “Here we are used to cooking large amounts, and there lies creativity, excellence and craftsmanship – not like cooking small quantities,” Al Helou says. “I taught many young assistants who have worked here, and now they are working as chefs in many other restaurants.”
Bakdash is also providing opportunities to those trying to settle down in Istanbul: He employs more than 200 workers. Most of them are Syrian, all have families, and Bakdash stresses that the success he has achieved is thanks to these people and their dedication. Though he’s helping many make Istanbul home, for about $15 a person, those yearning for another time and place can dine on dishes that speak of Damascene squares and quiet, jasmine-filled lanes after a hard day’s fast – with a show that goes until midnight. Nisreen, a diner at Hartina, says she comes to the restaurant with her family every night. “Gathered at the same table, sharing the same delicious food – here you forget that you are in a land that it is not your homeland.”