Feeling old in Aleppo—شعور بإني عجوز في حلب

The grand plan to cycle around Syria and Jordan started to become a reality for me as we flew over the Syrian coast and the Orontes River valley. For several days I had engaged in that peculiarly modern form of global tourism, pouring over images of the northern Syrian landscape on Google Earth and Wikimapia, judging between road quality (not so large as to be an unpleasant highway nor so small as to possibly be a restricted or private road), terrain (not so steep as to be too difficult on my fixed-gear, nor so flat that we would have to suffer in the higher heat and humidity of the lowlands) and occasionally what the guide books had to say. Looking out the airplane window, as we crossed over the coastal mountains of Syria from the Mediterranean, the constellation of roads and towns and villages started to look familiar and I felt myself moving one step closer to the world below, trading in the digital eye of Google Earth for a slightly older technology that lofted my own eyes high above the earth. The challenge ahead would be to forget what Google Earth and Lonely Planet had told me about Syria, to forget what my view from the airplane window had told me, to forget all of the advice I’d been given and stories I’d been told about the place. And by “forget”, I don’t mean simply to fail to remember, but to remain cognizant and aware of all the conceived and pre-conceived notions that would shape my experience here, and to put them aside as much as possible.

Getting through immigration and customs was remarkably easy, and the immigration officer gently encouraged me to practice my Arabic in response to his questions.

The hard part came in trying to get money. The ATM machines weren’t accepting our cards (American and Egyptian, both) and the currency exchange windows were all closed. The taxi drivers outside wanted US$10 to get downtown, which sounded exhorbidant to me. Elaina’s Brandt guide book indicated that this was the standard rate, so we took a cab to the famous Baron Hotel to exchange money. The rate was horrible, but we didn’t have much option. The driver then called our Couch Surfing ™ host and we drove off somewhere else and parked for a while near the “Great Umayyid Mosque”, waiting for “Jameel”. He arrived and, seeing our large boxes, got in the car and had the driver drive closer to our destination along narrow cobblestone streets, lined with beautiful old buildings.

We found ourselves at a store in the gateway to an old khan (which Jameel referred to as a karavanserai, thinking that the Farsi word would somehow be more familiar to us). Jameel introduced us to “Adam”, also known as Moustafa, the owner of the khan.

We went with Jameel and Adam and a gaggle of other Couch Surfers ™ to the rooftop restaurant above the afore-mentioned Baron Hotel, where we ate a wonderful selection of Aleppan food, while some drank `Arak, others drank whiskey and a couple of us had beer. Occasional bursts of excitement would echo from the street below and rise up to the restaurant from the match between Barcelona and Manchester being shown on a small screen in a cafe.

Beside me sat a Syrian fellow who went by the name `Abad (short for `Abd al-Latif). He spoke decent English, but with an insufferable faux-cockney accent (which he seemed to think represented “the Queen’s English”), whereby he willy-nilly transformed every other consonant into a glottal stop. He drank glass after glass of `Arak and regaled us with bad, sing-songy love-poetry. We learned later that he is no more sufferable when sober.

At some point in the evening, Elaina noted that the only women occupying the entire rooftop were in our party. I’m not sure of Adam’s age, but I’m quite sure that any age competition in the group would be fought between he and I. It was a very odd scene. I’m even tempted to call it “exotic”…as in “non-native invasive.”

It’s not often that I find myself following other people around in an unfamiliar environment, and this sense of disorientation added to the feeling of alienation.

The next day, we headed to the khan and I assembled my bicycle while an intimidatingly-large bee-like creature buzzed around the awning above me. A fellow named Muthana came by to open Adam’s shop and told us the story of how his family’s origins were kept a secret, even from younger generations, and how his father gave him such a strange non-sense name. From it’s similarity to the Arabic word for “feminine”, I wonder if it sounds femmy to locals, too, and if it’s sort of like Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue.”

Jameel also eventually came by, as did `Abad, and we all shared a wonderful “breakfast” of Syrian foul (which beats the sloppy over-cooked Egyptian variety, I can assure you), served with hot-ish peppers.  After another several hours spent chatting casually over stimulant drinks (an activity that has taken up much of our time here), Jameel escorted me upstairs to a place to exchange money. The rate was fair and I was served tea to boot.

Elaina and I then took an independent trip to the citadel, a castle perched upon a hill, surrounded by a mote. The place was pretty incredible, in terms of architecture, military design, and scale. After just a few minutes, it, combined with everything I’d seen and experienced up to that point, led me to exclaim, “Aleppo is kinda just like Cairo, but everything is better.” Up a series of narrow and convoluted passageways was the throne chamber, which had been restored sometime recently and was one of the most gorgeous examples of Ottoman architecture I’ve seen. We wandered around for a bit longer, and went down into the cistern that had been converted into a dungeon, where I was trapped for some time waiting for a seemingly endless stream of rollicking local teenagers to wind their way down the tight rock-hewn staircase. We came upon a sibeel dispensing water in a little tree-shaded courtyard outside of a small mosque and had a few drinks. Another group of teenagers (or perhaps it was the same one—that dungeon was dark) came through and engaged us in a sort of conversation. One fellow, a student at a nearby technical college, asked me about the quality of American’s teeth. I responded that, pretty much like anywhere, it depends on social class.

We wandered around a bit more, climbed the tower for some sweeping views of the city and I took some interest in this old winch.

Our next goal was to get some of the famous Aleppan olive oil & laurel soap. We wandered around for a while, bought some cookies (here called either biskueet or miskueet), and were intercepted by Jameel while browsing the succession of soap-sellers. He told us he would take us to the factory to get a better price, then continued on his way.

Later on, we met up with Jameel at the khan and he took us to tour the mosque next-door. It had some wonderful domed architecture without pillars that made for some great acoustics, along with some somewhat jarring digital displays of the prayer times. Jameel passed us over to the mosque’s welcomer and tour guide. His English was pretty good (one of several people we’ve met studying English literature), and he was indulging with my Arabic, though he had that habit of the devout of correcting my Egyptian pronunciation. He took us to the roof and helped us ascend on the smaller domes for a view of the city, then explained the architecture and generally made pleasant conversation. We went out back to the roof to photograph the sunset as the call to prayer started. The welcomer/guide then took us to another building, where the muezzin was performing the idhan (call to prayer). We all sat for some time in this room, chatting some, but with some extended periods of awkward silence, during which I generally preoccupied myself by admiring the damask fabric draped from the ceiling. We were given a few words of friendly advice about reading the Quran, particularly in regards to the study of Arabic, but he was not particularly pushy. After some time, I started to wonder what we were doing there, and if we were waiting for something or someone. Jameel eventually emerged and settled that quandary.

The evening was spent walking to the New City with Jameel’s friend and fellow Couch Surfing ™ host , Muhammed, who spoke fairly good English (another English literature student, though he admits he hates the literature of the English), but very quickly, and with a bit of a staccato rythm. Jameel passed us off to Muhammed at some pre-arranged landmark and we walked for some distance to a falafel joint called Falafiloo. It was like the foul & ta`maya joints in Cairo where you order, then eat your sandwich standing up around a table. Here, though, the table was mostly covered with various raw vegetables to eat along with the sandwich: peppers, cucumbers, arugala (I think), radishes and some tahini dressing.

I found that Muhammed’s speech in Arabic had the same pace and rythm, and I had a hard time following him.
He took us to a large, well-lit mobile-phone shop, where I went through a process more involved than getting food stamps in the US in order to get a SIM card. I had to show my passport, give a local address, sign and seal the deal with a thumb print.

We then headed to get some ice cream, taking a detour to the train station to use the restrooms. I was pleased to find that my ATM card was working at the machine there–yet another reason to travel by train rather than airplane (or bike even better, though I haven’t come across a bike station with an ATM machine, working or not).

Along the way between the train station and the ice cream shop, in addition to meeting back up with Jameel, we passed the fence separating the street from a nearby park, decorated, for some reason, with Disney cartoon characters by the Aleppo Parks Council. On the street, there were advertizements for La Vache Qui Rit processed cheese, and I exclaimed, “Look, it’s President Mubarak in Syria!” Muhammed explained that the more common local epithet is “son of a belly dancer.” I prefer the laughing cow, personally. I guess I’m more willing to insult the feelings of a cartoon cow than those of an entire profession.

The ice cream was cheap and delicious, and the system not unlike the chaos of the el-`Abd sweet-shop chain in Cairo. We crossed the street to go hang out in the park, where we drank tea and smoked shisha. We American and Polish tourists were introduced to the practice of lightly slapping the hand of the person handing you the shisha mouthpiece as they pass it on. Elaina and I weren’t sure if they were just making of fun of us because I had slapped her hand to kill a mosquito just prior to this. We discussed a few other cultural niceties, like the habit of teenage Arab boys to walk down the street arm in arm or hand in hand listening to the latest hits on their cell phones.

The following day was Friday, and as we had been told, the Old City was empty and calm, with maybe one or two shops open. Elaina and I went on a search for coffee and a restroom and eventually went to a place next to the Great Mosque (which was at that moment emptying itself of a couple tour bus-loads of Westerners). We paid entirely too much for two demi-tasses of Turkish coffee and a bowl of foul (which was admittedly quite good). Later on, I spent some time writing while the Couch Surfing ™ crowd lounged about the khan and another shop I didn’t visit.

Finally, around 4pm, we headed off to the microbus station just outside the Old City to take a trip to San Simeon’s Citadel. I was a bit ambivalent about this trip, being somewhat anxious to get on the road (not in a microbus) and take care of some necessities. I was persuaded, however.

We quickly caught a microbus to the town of Daret `Ezzah and then transferred to the back of a truck for the rest of the trip, making a quick stop in between to get some french fries and a sandwich of spicy chicken drippings, french fries & mayonnaise. Delicious!

The Poles, Nicolas and Magda, seemed to find the experience of riding in the back of a pickup much mre novel and exciting than I, as they sat up above the cab while Jameel took pictures. St. Simeon, like the Citadel the day before, had a wide discrepancy between the price for students and Syrians and that for foreigners (S£10 versus S£150), and I was grateful that they found my AUC student ID acceptable (even in Egypt, this is seldom the case).

The place, the ruins of a Byzantine basilica erected around the spot where St. Simeon spent 40 years perched utop a pillar, was interesting enough, and Jameel gave a lovely tour (he is studying archeology). Chahinda, on our tours of Pharaonic Egyptian ruins, had often made a point to draw attention to the ways in which many of the architectural features of Pharaonic temples were adopted in Christian ones, and it was interesting to see that here.

The most interesting part of the trip occurred outside of the fee area. After we left St. Simeon’s, we walked down the hill to a very small home bakery, where Jameel showed us the stone oven (called a tanour) where a woman was baking what I believe was called “mana`eesh filfil.” It was a flat bread, covered with a mixture of olive oil, chopped hot peppers, sesame seeds and cumin seeds, then slapped on the round inner wall of the oven to bake. Superb!

It was nevertheless a bit of an odd experience. Jameel had first taken us to a tiny little roadside stand to drink Syrian soda (forgot the name), and then we followed him past a circle of men smoking shisha, and then scrambled over a short wall–trying to avoid trampling the plants–into what seemed like a private yard, with the tanour built into the outside wall of the house. The woman was there making the bread, and we weren’t introduced, while children walked and sat around doing entirely practical things, taking only a mild interest in our presence in their yard. The circle of men outside seemed more perturbed by the situation than anyone else, and if they were offended, it wasn’t entirely evident to me.

We then hitchhiked a short distance down the road to another turnoff toward the village of Qaturah, then walked for a ways up this side road. We eventually caught a ride in the back of a small vehicle whose name I’ve forgotten. It’s sort of like a tuktuk in terms of the power of its engine (maybe a bit stronger), though it is less muffled and has a flat bed rather than a covered area on which to carry cargo and passengers. We ended up at the burial tomb of the Roman chronicler (?) Titus and his family, hewn into the rocky terrain. A microbus filled with two families arrived around the same time, followed by a substantial herd of sneezing, bleeting goats that congregated around the well just in front of the tomb. A wonderful cross-species inter-cultural exchange ensued, documented in detail by cell phones, digital cameras, and now yours truly.

After some time of mingling, Ahmed `Akl (pronounced “`Agal”), a guard at St. Simeon and an acquaintance of Jameel’s, arrived on the scene and invited the whole lot (goats excepted) to dinner at his farm back down the road a short ways. The Syrian families declined, but the rest of us obliged. Magda was mounted upon one of Abu Kadus’s (I believe that was his honorific) five horses while Jameel repeatedly pretended to whip the creature into a gallop with a piece of vinyl tubing found on the road. Elaina was next, and found this draft animal unresponsive to the commands common for a Santa Cruz thoroughbred. It seemed more interested in wading into a patch of thistles to snack than anything Elaina might want.

We sat for a while under a fig tree drinking tea, brought by his son, then wandered about his vegetable patches, separated by low stone walls. We eventually retired to a small room attached to the main part of the house, which seemed usually to serve as the entertainment room, complete with television. I was a bit surprised to find Syrian television acting even worse than its Egyptian counterpart, and the volume of its commercials even higher in relation to the main programming (although commercial breaks were thankfully less frequent). Mr. Akl proceeded to call a number of his friends who were keen to practice their English and foist them upon his guests.

A meal was presented of oily, salty eggs and processed meat, salad, yoghurt, two types of olives from his farm and olive oil from those olives, pressed at a nearby press. After dinner came a dessert of orange popsicles, and one of the sons took the opportunity to produce a deadly (and dead) snake he found in the field outside. Mr. Akl went to some length to explain that he is regularly forced to kill these snakes because they can kill a man, or at least cause his arm or leg to be amputated. He then turned to me and asked me why it was that tourists wince and try to convince him that he should allow such deadly creatures to live. I tried to explain that most tourists experience nature as the good, healthy part of food and hygiene goods, not as a potential danger, and even among most Westerners who are not quite so alienated from nature, snakes from their region are not generally so dangerous.

Several rounds of tea were then brought out, and the channel turned to Al-Jazeera, which was a treat for me. We don’t have cable at home and most of my attempts to watch on the internet are too frustrating to be worthwhile. Meanwhile, the kids tried to teach Arabic to Nicolas, Jameel coached Elaina with Arabic letters, and Abu Kadus brought out his collection of photographs that most of us struggled to maintain an interest in.

We set out somewhat abruptly at Jameel’s urging, said our goodbyes and caught a ride in the back of a track, shared with a couple barrels of diesel fuel from the road to Qaturah to a gas station at the near end of Daret E`zzah. We then walked across town to the opposite side of the town and attempted to catch a microbus. Seeing as we are all light-skinned, and all the microbuses were otherwise empty, they all wanted to charge us for a private trip, which would cost much more. After many attempts, including one which sent us half a kilometer down the road before the disagreement around prices became evident and we turned back around, Jameel finally bargained a microbus driver down to S£400 for the five of us.

More to come, but there’s some photos here

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