Baklava as Art

Sondus Asad Moussa (photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program)

By Theresa Kubasak

“I love making baklava… It’s art!” Sondus Moussa sets up her wooden board, positions a warm pan of clarified butter and sniffs a mixture of ground nuts, smiling at the scent of cardomom. “When you cook you should be in a good mood. When you’re happy your food comes out delicious!”

Perhaps this is the true secret of the baklava that Sondus bakes several times each week at the Baghdad Market, her shop in Harrisonburg. Despite the hardships Sondus experienced in Iraq and the difficult transitions as a refugee, the sunny attitude she learned from her mother shines through.

“My mom had a strong faith in God. She never cared about tomorrow. I’m the same. Life is a gift from God.”

Anyone observing Sondus baking will notice how her face lights up and her eyes gleam with delight as she layers up delicate leaves of phyllo dough, brushing butter between each, sprinkling on her special blend of walnuts, almonds and cardomom. She is relaxed and at peace as she sighs, “See how beautiful it is!”

Sondas’s baklava (photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program)

Sondus tells of following her mother and grandmother around the kitchen asking a myriad of questions. “My grandmother put butter in everything!” she recalls. “So I use local, organic butter from Mount Crawford Creamery. It’s the best!”

In addition to the pride she has in her baking skills, Sondus is proud of her family. Her grandfather migrated from Turkey to Nineveh/Mosul during World War I and she attributes her family’s taste for baklava to this Turkish heritage. She tells of her father’s mandolin playing with the Baghdad Symphony for over 40 years. Her favorite story is when the legendary vocalist Fairuz came to town and her father played in the orchestra.

Her taste for exquisite baklava intensified as a child because her father would stop on his way home from work on Karrada Street at Abu Afif, the best sweets shop in the city. Between her father’s habit of eating half a tray of baklava in one sitting and her mother’s baking at home, Sondus developed a love of the multi-layered Middle Eastern treat.

“I love doing this! I taught my younger sisters how to make baklava but they are not passionate about it like I am. Food is my language!”

Sondus Asad Moussa will demonstrate making baklava at the Richmond Folk Festival on Saturday, October 14 as part of the Virginia Folklife Program’s Cooking Demonstration Stage. More information»

Theresa Kubasak is the coauthor of Never Can I write of Damascus: When Syria Became Our Home.