Of late, life in Monrovia had become drab, dull and lacked some good old Syrian drama and flair! But fear not, little friends, the low times are over. Mama Susu is back in town from her 2-month holiday in Syria. We actually wondered if she'd ever come back and had decided to stay on and help President Assad fully crush the revolution. But thankfully, she is back.
[Thin Lizzy 'The Boys are Back in Town' plays triumphantly in the background….]
Mama Susu is virtually an institution in the small town we call Monrovia. I have known of her and her establishment since 2003 when I first came here to work with the UN. Her place back then was the place to go for lunch and dinner.
One could expect a fantastic home-cooked-style three course lunch along with complimentary Arabic coffee for the lunch time sessions. I remember how busy it used to be - UN vehicles jam parked outside her place and fresh flowers on every table. Not to mention her doting presence lingering at every table. Unfortunately, Mama Susu was taken ill and went to Syria to seek better medical treatment sometime in 2006/2007. During this period, her business suffered and other restaurants in the vicinity grabbed a lot of her customer base.
But she eventually came back to Liberia with the same style and pinache and, has a loyal customer base which loves her home-style food and most of all her personality. And what a personality - the woman who has been in Liberia for the past 40 years first came here as a belly dancer! I have been fascinated with her life - which has all the highs and lows of a soap opera. I have sat and listened for hours at a time to her stories: nightclubs, thwarted lovers, her beloved parrot that was stolen during one of the wars, and inside scoops on the business community. I love her love for Liberia and her loyal workers. I love her sense of fierce pride for where she comes from, a mountainous village in Syria, full of olive gardens and fruit orchards. I love her view on international politics. I really respect that she has made a life for herself in this far-flung jungle and supported her family back in Syria and continues to do so.
She tells me she has mellowed down quite a bit since her youth faded away and doesn't live life so dangerously anymore.
If you live and work in Liberia or are merely passing by, I strongly suggest you go to Mama Susu's on Gurley Street for a meal. Sure, there are the ultra-chic sushi bars of Royal and Mamba Point Hotels but to get a real local feel, go to Mama Susu's. Gurley Street itself looks so dodgy - that itself is an experience. Once you step into the restaurant, you'll find yourself in a cozy place with brightly colored table cloths and fresh flowers. Mama Susu will either be busily serving her guests, smoking and playing solitaire in a corner table or chopping up zucchinis.
I live and work on Randall Street so often times I skip and hop to Gurley Street for a scrumptious lunch. Her lunch specials are still some of the best in town! Sure Mama Susu is a bit pricey but the portions are super generous. Some of my favorite dishes are lentil soup, the chicken shawarma plate, stuffed zucchini, spicy mushrooms, the kafta plate, the oven-baked kebbe, the garlic shrimp and lastly the 20-egg omelette with everything in it.
Some people find her a bit over bearing because she'll demand you generously praise her cooking. She'll even ask you to agree that Diana's sandwiches do not compare to her's.
I once made the dire mistake of complaining about a dead fly in my coffee. My God - did I get the angriest stare from Mama Susu! Not to mention she charged Haresh $10 extra for his steak. I still did not learn and told her at another occasion that I threw up after eating her shrimps right there in her restaurant - that was the biggest insult I could ever give to her. She talked about it for months later and to everyone we mutually knew.
There was also the time when Mama Susu and a close friend of hers parted ways and Haresh and I tried to reconcile the two. Ouch did we get our fingers badly burned! She politely told us that she loved our company and we were always welcome at her place but she swore on her mother's grave and vehemently instructed us never to mention the other person's name ever again. See, this is what I love about Mama Susu - she is dramatic.
Since then, I have learned it is best to go along with her moods and only praise her cooking and Syria. If you want to stay in her good books, you better do that. And make sure you go there often because she gets really angry if you don't come visit or phone her to check in. That's another thing I love about her - she takes everything so personally.
I have had some of the best times in Monrovia at her place. For instance, if Haresh and I ever go out of town, we make it a point to eat at her place the first night we are back.
It's a great people-watching place. Haresh and I have met a skinny-bespectacled Chinese cyclist who cycled all the way down West Africa from Spain and Mama Susu fed him on the house as he had a very limited budget. We also met a gentleman from Mali fully dressed in his magnificent robes and a turban. Once when I had shifted my office to her restaurant due to lack of electricity in my place, I people watched for hours in amusement - the head of Toyota, an Egyptian mama who sells jewelry, a WTO consultant, the most obese Lebanese businessman who smokes thick Cubans and has a petite Liberian girlfriend, NGO aid workers, the odd GOL official and countless Liberian friends of Mama Susu's. It's a treasure cove of people and novel-ish characters.
You'll also hear the 'Gronah Boys' once in a while singing outside her door, 'Mama Susu, Mama Susu, feed your children.' If she's in a good mood, she'll give them some token Liberian Dollars. But if she's in a bad mood, she'll open her front door with a slam and command them to go back to hell.
I have once even seen her banish a customer from her premises - like forever.
Of all the descriptions I have told my father in detail about my life in Liberia, the only person he seems to remember the most is Mama Susu. I guess I painted such a detailed portrait - maybe even exaggerated a bit - that he always asks about her and if he visits Monrovia as he has promised me, I can't wait to introduce him to her. I'm sure she'll go into one of his English short stories. She's truly larger than life.
There was the time I stalked Anthony Bourdain at the Kendeja Resort and took along Haresh the confident I-can-convince-anyone-to-do-anything so we could convince AB to ditch his plans and check out the real Monrovia restaurant scene by visiting Mama Susu's. The guy is always looking for a most out of the way places, right, so I thought he would be interested in checking out the Syrian Mama's kitchen. Sure, it has cats crawling out of it and she is a bit out of the way, but it's one of the coolest places you can check out in Monrovia. But nope, he politely declined and instead went to Rozi's! Ha - how cliche can you get?! That's the most pretentious restaurant I have ever been to! Well that's what I said even though I had never been. I eventually liked the fusion food for what it was worth and the over-priced Sunday brunch with its snobby mimosas. I'd rather prefer Mama Susu's slightly-over priced but huge plates of lovingly-prepared food and the personal touch. So what if you have to close the bathroom door by pushing a huge rock against it? It's still homely. So what if all you hear playing on her CD-player is some Chinese-English pop? She lets you go and take drinks out of her freezer behind the counter.
I always love going to Mama Susu's even if it is a bit grudgingly. I have to push Haresh and myself out the door so we are sure to show her our faces once in a while. While she was away in Syria, thankfully Haresh and I checked on her restaurant to make sure it was still standing because we knew she would eventually know we cared enough to check on her place.
And sure enough, not only did she call us herself to inform us she was back but also thanked us for checking up on her restaurant. She is like a character out of the Godfather - loyalty, an honour code, and grudges are important to her.
We had a pleasant meal at her place, asked about her visit, politely nodded our heads in her condemnation of the revolution, had some delicious food, and enjoyed coffee and Syrian sesame-seed covered biscuits. And she gave us presents and sweets to take home.
It was so clear to see how warmly she's been welcomed back by her friends and loyal customers. Her restaurant was full tonight and as it is typical, some of her customers were bringing her gifts and telling her how glad they were she made it safely back to Liberia.
Welcome back to Mama Susu!
Check out this article in Syria Today. It talks about Syrian connections with Africa and also interviews Mama Susu: http://www.syria-today.com/index.php/april-2011/787-life/14884-journey-to-the-sub-saharan