A few straggling pomegranates from the late-summer harvest still hang on a tree outside Neomonde in Raleigh. The small fruits are sparse now, outnumbered by the shocking flutter of vermilion blossoms peeking through dense, tiny leaves.
Samir Saleh, the restaurant’s owner, plucks a flower, leaving a stem that will later take root in a cup of water. He mentions his father, Fahd Saleh, who planted the tree outside the restaurant twenty years ago.
“He would always have a clipper in his back pocket,” Samir says. “Always! That was his favorite tool.”
The elder Saleh died in 2007. Samir recalls his father’s hands, rugged and worn from his passions for construction and landscaping. Fahd grew up in a village in northern Lebanon called Mazraat Toufah. Fittingly, the name translates to “apple orchard.”
“Right after World War II, gardening and cultivation was a must,” Samir says. “There was a famine, and so people had to learn. My father took gardening seriously. When he got here he was aching for a conducive space so he could create a garden.”
Samir came to North Carolina in 1974 to continue his studies in engineering. By 1976, the Lebanese civil war had already started, forcing Fahd to follow his son to Raleigh with his wife, Cecilia, and the rest of their children.
For Fahd, fruit trees and herb gardens were a cathartic way to make sense of the world. He had slipped grafts of Lebanese pomegranate and fig trees, sprigs of mint attached to their roots, through the more lenient American airport security of the 1970s. Because he often worked landscape jobs for Raleigh’s growing community of Arab-Americans, Fahd “would not ask,” says Samir, to plant these three treasures in his friends’ backyards. He just did it.
One of those friends was his doctor, Mazen Hamad. Through Fahd’s offer to landscape the doctor’s backyard, they developed a big-hearted friendship rooted in common Arabic culture (Mazen is from Syria) and a love of fresh food. From the same Lebanese graft that grew into a shrub outside of Neomonde, Fahd planted a pomegranate tree in Mazen’s yard that has grown twelve feet in as many years.
The pomegranate is venerated as a jewel of prosperity in various cultures of the Middle East and Mediterranean. It represents fertility and hope, and reveals fortune in major religious texts, including the Qur’an and the Old Testament. In the Greek myth of Persephone, it symbolized a change in season and entering another world.
Pomegranates aren’t supposed to thrive in humid climates, like the American South in summer. According to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, they don’t “fruit reliably” here. But unlike the ornamental trees found in neighborhood nooks across the Triangle, with tiny fruit that stays green to light pink, the pomegranates in Mazen’s yard are the majestic ruby orbs of divine stories.
Fahd, an expert gardener, planted the tree at the perfect slope in Mazen’s yard, giving it the full drainage capacity it has needed to prosper. Mazen calls it his orphan tree; the others he has tried to graft and plant since Fahd’s death have not survived.
The tree reminds Mazen of his youth in Syria. When it began fruiting seventy to a hundred pomegranates a season, his sister advised him to store them in the refrigerator, which preserves them for up to a year. After giving them to as many friends, colleagues, and patients as he can, Mazen still has enough left to fill two refrigerator drawers and nearly two more shelves.
The rest fill a large bowl at the center of his dinner table, which, like his home, is open to anyone. Meals from breakfast through dinner incorporate pomegranate seeds and attract a varied cast of guests, including the Duke medical students whom he teaches.
Mazen, a general practitioner, was born in Hama, Syria, where pomegranate trees were the centerpiece of family courtyards. The youngest of nine siblings, Mazen helped his mother and her friends juice pomegranates to boil down into molasses. He sat on the floor, picking at the flesh around the seeds, and juiced until his hands were stained.
In 1982, his hometown experienced one of the bloodiest massacres in history under the Assad family regime. Historical accounts vary, since journalists weren’t allowed into the city. But in a matter of weeks, as many as 40,000 people were killed by the dictatorship.
“Hama was the epicenter of turmoil in Syria, hell on earth,” Mazen recalls. “So after a while, you didn’t see males like my age. You saw women, small children, and you didn’t see anybody smile. Everybody lost somebody.”
Once a thoroughfare for all major cultures and civilizations, Syria is a proud, ancient country, credited with creating the alphabet and known for the ancient food mecca of Aleppo. But it has been ransacked by the Assad family regime, leading to the current war and flood of refugees to other countries. Mazen, who has practiced medicine for twenty years, travels to Turkey biannually to treat Syrian refugees.
“These are war injuries on civilians that I’ve never seen in my lifearms shattered, gunshot wounds to the spine, to the head, a kid with half a femur gone,” he says. “What you hear on the news here is a blip.”
Mazen and Saleh both fled wars and established themselves as leaders in Raleigh’s Arab-American community. Together, they fostered an unlikely friendship. Samir says his father was a kind man, but a stubborn one.
“He was loving, but very forward,” Samir says, laughing. “What was in his heart or gut was also on the tip of his tongue. Sometimes that got him in trouble.”
Mazen viewed Fahd as a father figureespecially when they shared food.
“It’s the Middle Eastern way,” he says. He mentions a saying in Arabic, phonetically spelled beinatnah khubz wa milh. It translates as “between us, bread and salt.”
Arab culturean amalgam of countries, faiths, and dialectsapprehends a common truth: if you share the basic needs of bread and salt, you are connected forever, no matter what. And like the pomegranate, the culture prospers.
This article appeared in print with the headline “A Tree Grows in Raleigh”