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Tackling Mideast issues, one scoop at a time

Mideast politics may be fraught, but there's one thing diplomats, kings and statesmen can agree on — the ice cream at Syria's Bakdash.

DAMASCUS, Syria — Call it ice cream diplomacy.

For foreign diplomats traveling to Damascus, a local ice cream parlor has become an unlikely, yet essential, first stop.

Praised by locals and frequented by statesmen, the 115-year-old shop, called Bakdash, attracts several thousand customers daily and sells more than 500 kilograms of ice cream.

“Everyone in Arabia knows about Bakdash,” said Ghaissan Bakdash, a co-owner of the shop and grandson of founder Hamdi Bakdash, who opened it in 1895. As is typical to businesses in Syria, Hamdi passed Bakdash on to his two sons, who passed it on to their sons, who today operate the internationally renowned shop. Lonely Planet calls it a “souq-shopping must” and tens of thousands of viewers have watched YouTube clips of burly men pounding the ice cream into thin, stretchy layers.

Part of its fame comes from a convenient location among the important attractions in Damascus’ Old City. The shop is located on the al-Hamidiya souq, a covered market that dates to Roman times and leads to the entrance of the Umayyad Mosque. One of the world's oldest and holiest mosques, it supposedly houses the head of John the Baptist, while Jesus is meant to appear at its southeastern minaret on Judgment Day.

But it's the shop's high-profile custom that lends it an added aura of holiness.

During state visits, President Bashar al-Assad leads his honored guests on an orchestrated tour of the Old Town, complete with a stop at Bakdash. Past customers include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Jordanian King Abdullah II and the foreign ministers from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi. Assad orders several vats of ice cream to be delivered to his private residency at least once a month, added Wissam Bakdash, operations manager and a cousin of the owners. The suggestion has been made that barring lactose intolerance, Robert Ford — still awaiting Senate confirmation as the new U.S. ambassador to Syria — might do well to stop here as one of his first diplomatic acts.

So many diplomats visit that Wissam can't seem to keep their visiting dates straight, nor was he certain which official from Cyprus visited this month — but it was somebody important, he assured GlobalPost.

Bakdash owes its fame to the traditional methods it employs.