In a moment of weakness and desperation the other day, I dined at Kentucky Fried Chicken, the only Western fast-food restaurant in Syria. It was past 2 p.m. and finding my favorite coffee shop shuttered, as well as several other restaurants, on account of Ramadan, I spied the familiar white-on-red “KFC” letters, perched above a busy corner of Damascus’ answer to Massachusetts Avenue -- embassy row. The restaurant that locals refer to simply as, “Kentucky,” was open.
The spacious interior was virtually deserted, and I imagined that the “chicken” that I was about to order had been sitting under heat lamps for hours, if not days. I chose the three-piece dinner meal, original recipe, no super-size, which came to $5.50, quite a hefty sum for lunch in Damascus. You could buy nine shwarma sandwiches for that chunk of change and still have 10 cents left over.
I hadn’t eaten at Kentucky Fried Chicken for three and a half years, when, in a similar state of yearning for a taste of fried Americana, I sampled the Colonel’s secret recipe in Kuwait. My Syria experience reminded me why I had stayed away.
One of the reasons Syria is attractive to a Westerner learning Arabic and learning about Arabic culture is that it is still very much “Arabic.” There are no McDonalds or Pizza Huts, as there are in neighboring countries -- the Kentucky Fried Chicken, which arrived earlier this year, said to be owned by a Kuwaiti, is an anomaly -- and the walled old city of Damascus, a warren of bazaars, medieval churches and mosques, and Ottoman stone houses, is one of the gems of the Middle East. And not one Starbucks.