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Syria’s Sensitive Souls

When the late journalist Robert Tewdwr Moss visited Aleppo some 12 years ago, he thought it was like a “rich cake heaving inside with maggots”. The great travel writer Paul Theroux described it as a place of grime-caked buildings and filthy streets, but acknowledged its charm. It is hard to disagree with either of them. Aleppo’s history is as rich as that of any city in the world, its architecture can be awe-inspiring, its people are an ethnically diverse mixture of Arabs, Armenians, Circassians and Kurds, its Christian minority lives in harmony with the Muslim majority, its restaurants are amongst the finest in the Middle East – and yet, despite all this, it is just another Asian backwater, a place of mud-splashed sidewalks and crumbling apartment blocks, where the suburbs continue to devour the countryside and the city centre coughs and splutters into life every morning through a nargileh haze. Together with Damascus, Aleppo can claim to be one of the two oldest cities on the planet, but it has long ceased to be a frontrunner in world affairs and retreated into its battered, time-ravaged shell. Aleppines accept this with dignified resignation. When they drag their indolent bodies out of bed mid-morning, it is as if they are saying: “We were great once. Now we don’t care.”

The city’s highlights offer a faint suggestion of the medieval cityscape. Like gems shining dimly from the bottom of a murky pond, their brilliance has not been completely smothered by the darkness – by the encroaching urban development, by the exhaust fumes and the trash. The government has even taken some steps to preserve what remains of the old city. Project for the Rehabilitation of the Old City of Aleppo is an initiative that aims to restrict any modern development near the ancient souks and caravanserais, the Mameluke mosques and Ottoman hammams, and it must be working because the contrast between the old part of the city and the grid-like twentieth-century sprawl is striking. Walk from arterial Baron Street into the warren of narrow lanes south of the Ummayad mosque and you travel back in time through several centuries. It is easy to imagine what this living museum must have been like during the golden age of Islam, when rich merchants proudly paraded their sartorial splendour through the streets and pious clerics fresh from midday prayers rubbed shoulders with weary peasants en route to the bazaar. I spent an afternoon wandering around this antique stone maze, gazing in admiration at the architectural pearls scattered liberally throughout every neighbourhood, and then realised I was horribly lost. As I was flicking through my guidebook in search of a detailed map, a grubby pick-up truck rounded the corner behind me. I flattened myself against the wall to let him pass, but the driver pulled up beside me and slapped the passenger seat, indicating that I should clamber in. Without thinking, I opened the door and sat down next to him.

“Where you go?” he asked.
“Er, trying to get to Al Jawaher hotel,” I replied nervously.
“OK, no problem.”
Off we drove, and minutes later I was deposited with a smile and a handshake at the entrance to my hotel. That was my first taste of Syrian generosity.

Apart from the fading beauty of the old town, the most noteworthy physical feature of Aleppo is the cult of Assad, the ‘dynasty’ that has governed Syria with an iron fist for the past 30 years. Everywhere you turn there are pictures of Hafez Al Assad and his two sons – a sort of unholy trinity watching over the Syrian people from on high. Two of the three are now dead. Bassell, the older of the two brothers, was killed in a car crash in 1994. A military man being groomed for the presidency, he was also a good-looking bon viveur, and his death came as a great shock to the Syrian public. It is strangely ironic that this man, who – most agree – would have been a leader from the same mould as his tyrannical father, was mourned so widely. Hafez himself suffered a fatal heart attack in 2000, after which his younger son Bashar returned from studying as an eye specialist in London to assume the presidency. Unexpectedly thrust into the limelight of international politics, he has so far shown himself to be a more lenient head of state than his father, encouraging greater press freedom and lifting the ban on public discussion of domestic affairs, but the West is still waiting with bated breath to see just how far he will go. Syria remains a dictatorship, albeit a more benevolent one, and relations with neighbouring Israel continue to suffer. There is also the spectre of terrorism: despite protestations to the contrary, Syria is thought to be one of the principal funders of the militant Shia organisation Hezbollah. More thoughtful US commentators have speculated that Bashar is not in complete control, and that any dramatic moves towards peace with Israel or greater political representation would meet with reprisals from the military – hence the occasional chest-thumping tirade against the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and the lack of support for the coalition’s efforts in Iraq.

My first port of call after the rather stress-inducing bus journey from Antakya was the bar of the Baron Hotel, a semi-colonial institution in the centre of town that has hosted such luminaries as TE Lawrence, Agatha Christie, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh and, of course, the former President. It is an oasis of calm in the midst of Aleppo’s busiest district, but somewhat symbolic of the decay at the heart of the old city. Like some haunted, gothic mansion, its squat frame, smog-blackened walls and grimy windows refuse to budge in the face of what little progress Syria makes towards accommodation with the technology-driven twenty-first century. Inside, the floor tiles are cracked, the wooden bannisters peeling and the leather sofas shredding like paper, but there was a cosiness and familiarity about the bar area, even if it was deserted. Bottles of Courvoisier and Glenfiddich were ranged along one wall, and the comforting sight of draught beer taps behind the serving till induced pangs of homesickness after the alcohol-free zone that was Antakya. I ordered a large bottle of Syria’s premium brew Barada and settled back in a cushioned chair to soak up the atmosphere.

“Excuse me, sir, but which room you in?”
My reverie was broken by the shrill interrogation of a portly, bespectacled Syrian lady with a cap of permed, greying hair.
“Oh, I’m not staying here – I just popped in for a drink,” I replied.
She smiled warmly. “No problem, sir. After drink, would you like to see some rooms – just for interest?”
“Well that would be very nice, thank you,” I consented, thinking that it would indeed be interesting to see what US$40 a night gets you at the Baron Hotel these days.

My impromptu tour guide led me upstairs to view a host of rooms and, most notably, the presidential suite, where many of Aleppo’s more distinguished visitors have elected to stay. The suite comprised a well-furnished living room, with elegant writing and dining tables and an incongruously positioned widescreen television, a spacious bedroom whose walls were adorned with sketches of TE Lawrence in full Bedouin dress and a bathroom the size of my basic single room back at Al Jawaher.

“Lawrence of Arabia stay here once – and Agatha Christie,” announced the Syrian lady with pride.

Back downstairs, I was shown into the lounge where a glass cabinet tucked into one of the side walls houses a grainy photograph of TE Lawrence and his famous unpaid bar bill, as if the hotel management half-expect his ghost to breeze into reception one day and settle the debt. Already, the Baron Hotel is more museum piece than component of the Syrian hospitality business. In 10 or 20 years time, people won’t pay to stay here anymore, but to be shepherded through the building in neatly packaged tour groups.

Later that afternoon, I ventured into the covered souks west of the citadel. If there is one thing on which visitors to Aleppo can agree, it is that these medieval markets are not to be missed. I had just finished reading Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules, in which the writer describes an encounter with carpet salesmen fluent in Australian slang and seemingly determined not to sell him a carpet out of fear they would not see him again. The journalist Robert Tewdwr Moss bumped into a cluster of Syrian teenagers proficient in Cockney and wrote up the experience in his much-acclaimed travelogue Cleopatra’s Wedding Present, a book I had been unable to procure before my flight to Istanbul. It sounded, bizarrely enough, like a place where you could trade jokes with ordinary Syrians without being pressured into making expensive purchases.

I was sauntering through the Souk of Atarin, famed for the quality of its clothing and leatherware, when I heard a voice ring out behind me.
“Hey, hey, are you Australian?”

I turned to confront the assailant and found myself face to face with a dead ringer for Shane Ritchie on a bad day. His pasty flesh sagged from his jowls like soggy dough and dark, puffy bags drooped beneath his tired eyes. He was sucking away frantically on the stub of a cigarette.

“No, English,” I responded.

“English! Please, please come and have tea with me. I don’t want to sell you anything – just to practice my English. I’m moving to Australia tomorrow.”

I had heard similar chat-up lines employed by carpet and jewellery sellers to ‘warm up’ the customer, but he seemed so earnest and looked so utterly beaten down that I agreed. Besides, this was – according to my research – not a place where hard selling figured prominently on the agenda.

Inside his shop, I was offered tea and cigarettes before he pulled up two kindergarten-sized chairs and hunched over a portable gas burner that gave off little heat.
“Very cold today,” he stammered, rubbing his hands together. “Where are you from in England?”
“Ah, London. I’ve never been there but my brother knows it well. You’re here on holiday, yes?”
I nodded. “An extended holiday, I guess.” The concept of giving up employment in order to travel is anathema to the Arabs.
“And what do you do in England?” he enquired.
“I’m an editor.”
He stared at me uncomprehendingly.
“A sort of writer, I suppose,” I offered, casting around for a related profession he would understand.
“You’re a writer?” he beamed enthusiastically.
“Well, trying to be,” I said.
“Maybe you know Paul Theroux? He wrote a book about Syria called The Pillars of Hercules.”
“I don’t know him personally, but I’ve just finished reading that book,” I replied, excited to meet a Syrian who had heard of one of America’s most popular travel writers.
“Really? You remember reading about Aladdin the carpet seller, who taught Mr Theroux Australian slang? Well that’s me,” he declared proudly, beating his fist against his chest like a cigarette-smoking orang-utan.

This was extraordinary. As a traveller, you often wonder about running into characters mentioned in recent travel literature, but, to my knowledge, this was the first time it had actually happened to me. Thinking back to the book, I could see this man fitting the description of the charismatic Aladdin perfectly. And besides, why would he invent such a ruse. He had so far made no attempt to foist his wares on me.

At that moment, a genuine customer arrived and Aladdin turned his attention away from me in the hope of securing a sale. I took the opportunity to examine his shop more closely. Shelves stacked high with carpets, kilims and colourful scarves lined every wall, and behind the main counter a few trinkets of jewellery were haphazardly arranged. Poking through gaps in the assortment of handstitched fabrics could be seen postcards of Britney Spears and Shakira. A diamond-shaped signpost bearing the legend ‘Kangaroos – 25m’ dangled from a thin wire fastened to the ceiling, which was covered in posters featuring various Australian sports teams. I picked out the Brisbane Broncos in the centre of the collage.

“Why Australia?” I asked Aladdin, who had, by this time, finished dealing with the customer.
“My brother spent time there and really enjoyed himself. He worked in a bookshop in Sydney. You will meet him soon,” he said, checking his watch.
“And is that where you’re going? Sydney?
“Yes, Sydney, but I’m very worried because Australia is not like Syria and maybe people there will not like me,” he said, crinkling his brow in a severe frown.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be OK. Australians are very friendly and your English is excellent.”

A small man with bright blue eyes and a pale, round face had stumbled into the shop during our conversation. A very well-tended goatee framed his thick, rubbery lips, which curled into a smile when he spotted me, wriggling together like a pair of mating slugs.

“Welcome, welcome,” he squeaked with a camp inflection, allowing my hand to slither slowly out of his grasp when he had finished shaking it. “I am Mejid, Aladdin’s brother, here to save you from his boring smalltalk.”
“Oh, he’s not boring,” I laughed politely.
“You are too kind,” asserted Mejid. “He is very dull. But tomorrow he flies to Istanbul so I will be spared.”
“Istanbul?” I queried.
“Yes, Istanbul,” confirmed Aladdin. “Before I go to Australia, I spend four days there with my, er, ladyfriend.”
“His sheila,” smirked Mejid.
“Yes, she is very beautiful,” remarked Aladdin. “She looks like …”
“Like Jack Straw,” interrupted Mejid.
“Bugger off,” cursed Aladdin with indignation. “She does not look like Jack Straw. She looks like … like Princess Diana.”
“After the crash,” teased Mejid.
“Bugger off, Mejid. She is better looking than your boyfriends.”
“How would you know? The best ones I left in Sydney.”
“You were in Sydney long?” I interjected in an effort to quell the bickering.
“Four years,” sighed Mejid. “It was wonderful there – so many more … opportunities for someone like me. But unfortunately I am back here now – from drag queen to Bedouin.”

Time was getting on, so I made my excuses and got up to leave. But before I could reach the door, Mejid stopped me. “You know that I am also the subject of a literary travelogue, sweetheart,” he crooned, reaching behind the counter and producing a dog-eared copy of Cleopatra’s Wedding Present. Turning to page 31, he pointed to two lines of text underlined in bold blue ink: “… I almost collided with the blue-eyed moonchild. He looked at me fruitily, with eyes growing rounder by the second.”

In Aleppo, carpet-selling hustlers were the least of my worries.

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