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Ahmed and Mohammed

I met Ahmed whilst sipping tea outside a smoke-filled cafe in the old town of Aleppo. He spotted me leafing through a guidebook and strode brazenly over.

“Hi, I’m Ahmed,” he began, hand extended and teeth bared in a gleaming smile. “You’re English, right?”

He was taller and rangier than most Syrians, and he looked as though he had been locked in a cupboard without food and water for several days. His skin was the colour of old parchment, and it seemed to have been stretched like clingfilm over his nose and cheekbones. But by far his most striking features were his eyes. Buried deep within that emaciated skull, they shone into my face – pools of jade-green light flecked with tiny, dark pupils. “I have Crusader eyes,” he grinned. I felt as if I were having a conversation with a Halloween mask.

Ahmed had studied English Literature at Aleppo University, but like so many educated members of his generation had found it impossible to put his intelligence and talent to use in twenty-first century Syria. He worked in a shop called Sebastian’s on the ringroad surrounding the Citadel, selling carpets, kilims and jewellery to the more discerning of tourists. Michael Portillo was his most famous customer. The photograph commemorating their meeting hung above the doorway inside the shop. Portillo looked sunburnt and diplomatically cheerful. Ahmed looked bored.

Mohammed owned and managed the shop (I never did find out why it was called Sebastian’s) and he rarely went outside, or, indeed, got up from behind the Hewlett Packard PC he used to monitor the world news, exchange emails with his girlfriend and trade on the stock markets. He was good looking in a foppish sense, with floppy black hair, lugubrious eyes and a perpetual pout. People often mistook him for an Italian tourist, and it was true that he could have passed for any number of southern European nationalities. Like Ahmed, he was another of the underachieving elite. Educated in Germany, widely travelled and fluent in four languages, he was a skilled software engineer employed in a upmarket cornershop. His fiancee was a British lawyer working in the City of London, and Mohammed’s ambition was to move into this affluent, upper middle class world himself and launch his own computer software firm. The likelihood of his being able to do this in Aleppo was in serious doubt, and so after their wedding in six months the couple planned to settle in England, or possibly Canada. But there was, of course, the problem of visas.

However, at the moment this was the least of Mohammed’s worries. Several weeks ago, his former best friend had broken into the shop late at night and absconded with the bulk of the quality merchandise. Mohammed was recovering from this blow to his business when another supposedly good friend reported him to the authorities for not paying taxes on imported Persian carpets. “It was a lie,” said Mohammed. “I buy all my carpets in Syria. Some are Persian, yes, but they have been in Syria for over 20 years now. The import taxes were paid a long time ago. Basically, I don’t import any carpets, but this guy didn’t care about that. He was jealous of my success. People in Syria can’t stand to see you doing well. You can’t trust anyone.”

In a society where corruption is the cultural norm, Mohammed’s plea met with a stony faced, unsympathetic response. The Syrian police paid him an unwelcome visit and offered to conceal his ‘misdemeanours’ for the sum of US$20,000. Mohammed refused to pay the bribe and the case went to court. He was immediately fined the same amount of money and threatened with a jail sentence of up to eight years. “I was desperate, but what could I do? No one cares about justice here. The courts are dominated by the Bedouin – uneducated, unqualified, but loyal to the President. I saw other businessmen there with similar problems.”
Fortunately, Mohammed had been able to prove his innocence, but the US$20,000 fine was never returned and he was struggling to make ends meet. Understandably, his feelings about the current regime were somewhat mixed. “You can discuss politics now – before that was forbidden – and you can read the foreign press. But economically things are even worse and many people want to leave. If I don’t, I think I will work in this shop for the rest of my life.”

I spent an afternoon chatting with Mohammed and Ahmed. They were keen to know about the latest developments in the Hutton Inquiry, but clearly knew more than I about what had transpired over the past three weeks. I found out that Greg Dyke had resigned and the government been absolved of any blame for the death of David Kelly. It came as little surprise.
The following day I hired the use of Ahmed and his car to travel to the monastery of St Simeon, a destination poorly served by public transport. St Simeon was a fifth-century Byzantine ascetic who spent the greater part of his life seated atop a 20m-high stone column in a bizarre attempt to commune more closely with God. Pilgrims from across the Middle East and Europe travelled for days simply to witness the spectacle and pay their respects. Historians believe that a select group of disciples used ladders to bring him food and water, although how he went about relieving himself is a matter of conjecture. By the time of his death, he had spawned a religious movement – that of the Stylites, who spread across the Levant, emulating St Simeon’s pillar-squatting example. Such was the fanaticism of the early Christians.

The ruins of the monastery were perched on the edge of a limestone bluff overlooking a broad, sweeping valley mottled with pomegranate and olive trees. The slab-like houses of local Bedouin farmers dotted the valley floor, scattered as randomly as rolled dice on a craps table. Only a few miles north of here, the ethnic composition of the population altered dramatically, Arabs giving way to Kurds, many of whom were former refugees from eastern Turkey.

What was left of the monastery was impressive enough. The monks who had worshipped here certainly would not have been short of space: the baptistry was at least half a kilometre from the famous pillar itself, worn down to a smooth egg-shaped boulder by the hands of pious pilgrims and curious tourists. The four walls enclosing this odd relic were as well preserved as any ancient monument I had seen. Up here, breathing the clean, mountain air, miles away from busy streets and congested suburbs, with the twittering of birds the only sound and the sun like a warm hand on my cheek, I could understand why the faithful had sought solace in such a place.

As a bonus, Mohammed had promised me an excursion to Ain Dara, a neo- Hittite temple dating from around 1000BC and deep within Kurdish territory. The route took us through a few isolated settlements, where the land was more fertile and the pale limestone boulders that had speckled the fields like nascent mould on stale bread were gradually supplanted by unruffled carpets of emerald green. As we tore through the winding country lanes the heads of perplexed villagers swivelled robotically as their eyes tracked our progress.

“All these people are Kurdish,” said Ahmed, gesturing to either side with his left hand.

Unlike their brethren in Turkey and Iraq, the Kurds of northern Syria have been made to feel a part of national society. If there is one thing that can be said in favour of Hafez Al Assad it is that he clamped down on religious and ethnic intolerance. As a member of the minority Alawi sect of Islam, he knew what it was to be persecuted for your religious persuasion or racial background.

“Is the language very different from Arabic?” I asked Ahmed.

“Yes, completely different. But all these people are Syrian citizens so they speak Arabic as well. I suppose it is like Barcelona in Spain, where the locals speak Catalan amongst themselves but Spanish to strangers.”
The ruins of Ain Dara were sprinkled over a steep-sided plateau that gazed beyond the green fields and orchards of northern Syria towards the mountain ranges of the Hatay. I struggled up the grassy slope, my feet slipping on patches of bare soil, and was about to collapse on reaching the summit when I was pounced on by an extended Kurdish family, out sightseeing for the day.

The British and Americans are very popular amongst Kurds because of the war in Iraq – which they view as a struggle to liberate their kin from oppression – but I did not realise quite how popular until this particular encounter. As soon as they found out I was from London, there was no chance of my getting to fully appreciate the remains of this ancient temple, as a multitude of Kurdish men, women and children swarmed around me like flies, tugging at my clothes, shaking my hand, offering me cigarettes and leading me by the hand to meet yet more of their relatives. Standing amidst the basalt slabs and carved stone lions of Ain Dara, being venerated in this peculiar manner, I felt like some neo-Hittite king surrounded by his loyal subjects. A few of the adults whispered excitedly among themselves and pointed at me. “English! Tony Blair!” Funny how a politician who is currently so unpopular at home is a figure of great standing out here in a rural backwater of the Middle East.

A shy, bespectacled man wielding a cheap camera approached me to ask if he could take my photograph with two of his brothers. We posed to the left of a colossal statue of a lion carved from basalt, and as the camera clicked one of the men planted a sloppy wet kiss on my cheek. The photographer asked for my home address and promised to send me copies. I envisaged my parents opening the morning mail to find a picture of their son squashed between two overfriendly strangers from Syria.

On the way back to Aleppo, Ahmed and I somehow got on to the subject of food. Ahmed was interested to know what constituted a traditional English meal, and I found myself chatting enthusiastically about the various components of the Sunday roast, espousing the merits of gravy-soaked chicken breast and crisp potatoes roasted under a hot grill.

“And what other vegetables do you eat with this meal?” asked Ahmed.
“Well, sometimes we have cauliflower,” I replied.
“It’s a white vegetable shaped, well, like a flower.”
“Ah, yes, I know this plant. And how do you cook it?”
“Well, we chop it up into small pieces and then boil it with a little salt.”
“You’re kidding me?” exclaimed Ahmed, turning to look me in the eye.
“No, I’m serious.”
“And it’s good this way?”
“Yes, very tasty.”
“Amazing,” murmured Ahmed, shaking his head in disbelief.

We drove in silence for a few miles, past rows of identical concrete dwellings and the occasional Bedouin farmer herding his sheep through overgrazed pastures.

“So, Iain, tell me what else I could expect to enjoy at one of these ‘Sunday roasts’, as you call them?” Ahmed’s interest in British cuisine surpassed that of anyone I had met outside England, and most people who lived there.
“Well, there are plenty more vegetables – carrots, broccoli, cabbage, sprouts …”
“Whoa – I think this is a ‘Sunday feast’, not a ‘Sunday roast’, yes?” Ahmed smiled at his witticism. “And tell me, how do you prepare all these other vegetables?”
I hesitated before answering. “Er, we cut them up and boil them with salt.”
Ahmed was giggling uncontrollably by now. “Oh, this is too much,” he wheezed, wiping tears from his eyes. He went quiet again for a few seconds and then, as if to herald a momentous occasion, he slapped his palms down on the steering wheel determinedly. “That’s it. I am asking my wife to cook this way tonight – English-style.” He shook his head again, as though immediately regretting his decision. “She will think I am crazy.”

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