The strings of my life are made from cheese

A student reflects on how the ingredients in the Syrian string cheese that she would make with her grandmother serve as a symbol of herself.


As the daughter of a Syrian immigrant, I feel the spirit of my father’s and grandparents’ journeys. The echo of my father’s experience as a 10 year old shot in Aleppo and my grandparents’ immigration journey to America sticks with me. I carry their pride, learning the ins and outs of Syrian culture and cuisine. 

I shoved kebab in my mouth as early as my first birthday. Growing up, I’d eat lots of pita bread and lick the sweet and sticky Middle Eastern pastries, kanafeh and baklava off my fingers. 

At age 10, I tied my first jibneh mshallaleh, Syrian string cheese of Armenian origin, braiding each thread with precision. Each string represents the strands of who I am as a first-generation Syrian-American woman.

When my Sito, or grandmother, taught me her jibneh mshallaleh recipe in middle school, she passed a cultural torch, helping me discover ingredients with meanings that served in navigating challenges and finding my passion. 

My kitchen was prepared with three key ingredients: salt, mahlab and habbat al-barakah. The stove was ready with a pot of boiling water and cheese curd. 

I eagerly handed my Sito each ingredient, knowing salt would be added first. 

Salt intensifies and balances the bitterness of the cheese. Like how salt balances cooking, I learned to balance my mindset as I faced more challenges, like struggling with math, moving schools and searching for my passions. 

I added “salt” when I was diagnosed with dyscalculia, a learning disorder that impairs my ability to understand number-based topics, in middle school. 

Through my parents’ mentorship, I addressed my problems with a positive mindset, perseverance and determination. I used these strategies — my “salt” — to overcome mathematical challenges and continue my writing dreams. 

While mixing the salt into the pot, the appearance of the white cheese didn’t change. On the inside, the flavor slowly elevates, similar to how I grow as a person with each challenge I address. 

Mahlab, ground cherry pits, is an unexpected ingredient in jibneh mshallaleh, as it’s uncommon in everyday cuisine. I couldn’t imagine something overlooked could deliver a distinctive taste. 

As I sprinkled mahlab into the pot, the brown specks peaking through added extra bitterness to balance the saltiness. Including such a rare ingredient gives jibneh mshallaleh its unique identity.

Mahlab is the part of me that looks for the unseen. While it’s easy to understand what’s in front of me, I’ve learned hidden within myself and others are untold stories of powerful messages. 

As a journalist, I search for hidden narratives. I’m mindful of topics that must be published and the importance of proper representation and diversity in the news. Media today features predominantly white males, which motivates me to ensure all voices are heard by uncovering and pitching inclusive stories. 

After more stirring, the mahlab displayed its faint light-brown color. The balance from salt and power from mahlab complete me, with one ingredient missing: habbat al-barakah. 

Habbat al-barakah is a legendary medicinal black seed —  “the seed of blessing.” The black seeds are revealed when I pull apart the strands of cheese. 

Habbat al-barakah represents parts of me that learned to embrace failure. Whether it’s struggling to subtract fractions or mathematical concepts, these seeds symbolize challenging parts of my journey. They’re the crucial flecks that make me push harder and dream bigger.

After mixing, adding ingredients and spending time on the stove, the white cheese with black speckles forms a ball, ready for pulling. 

With the aroma of the cheese’s salty goodness, I formed a braid showcasing my hard work and new skill. 

I watched my grandmother handle hot, fresh out-of-the-pot cheese with ease. She pulled the strands apart, bringing them together in a pattern to form layered strings within the cheese. 

I’m the composite of each strand, layered story and unique flavor, adding salt, mahlab and habbat al-barakah into my everyday life.

I carry my first-generation Syrian-American identity with me every day. I embrace my culture by teaching my peers Arabic words, sharing cuisine and encouraging fundraising for Syrian refugees and those impacted by the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey.

The braid of cheese was easy to devour and easy to relate to. These strings and ingredients reminded me of myself, someone with many layers, even unexpected ones.

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