Mistaking Aleppo

By Iain Manley Apr 22, 2007

star-and-crescent-moon I woke as we neared the Syrian border, my left cheek clammy and wrinkled. Saliva had collected on the headrest of my reclined bus seat and gone cold. I rubbed life back into rubbery skin, and looked outside. The land was drier than yesterday, when I had watched the sun set over central Turkey through the same window. Olive trees clung to brittle soil, their roots shabbily exposed. Adding theirs to other muted greens, they pushed a withered face above the ground’s gradual undulations.

At immigration, Claire and I – the only tourists on our Syrian owned bus – were treated with suspicion. A man sporting dirty fatigues and an oily black moustache examined my passport, close to his nose at first, and then, after slowly extending his arms, from a great distance. He punched something into the computer before him, eyelids narrowing over already strained eyeballs, and hailed a superior.

“France?” the superior asked.
“No,” I replied, “South Africa.” The superior gestured dismissively to his underling. The underling, his still narrowing eyes now almost completely shut, started to type, hitting the keys with undisguised frustration.
“Germany?” the superior pleaded, when this fresh attempt to persuade the computer of my nationality failed.
“No, South Africa,” I repeated slowly, exaggerating the syllables.
The underling bashed more keys.
“Where place of issue?” the superior barked, now angry.
“The Department of Home Affairs.” My voice was tinged with irritation, which disguised the beginnings of concern.
“No! Where place of issue?”

“The Department of Home Affairs.” South African passports do not actually mention a place of issue. They refer, instead, to an Authority, and mine, as my passport clearly stated, was issued under the authority of the Department of Home Affairs. But this answer was obviously unacceptable. “In Pretoria!” I added, guessing the bureaucratic difficulty.

The muscles around the underling’s eyes relaxed after a few brutal keystrokes. He wrote six cryptic letters on page one of my passport, above the president’s request that I be allowed to “pass freely without let or hindrance”, and grudgingly welcomed us into Syria.

We entered Aleppo through a cloud of slow moving traffic, past posters tied doggedly to every streetlight, beaming a “welcome” more earnest than the immigration official’s, and flat roofed, ugly homes, resembling bomb shelters. Past huge all-seeing portraits of Bashar al-Assad, the president, and his late father, Hafez, the former President for Life.

The conductor, muttering his best wishes and a few garbled directions, let us off on a busy street. We walked the first few metres on our own, but were quickly surrounded. A crowd – some adults and many children – gathered around us, speaking all at once in Arabic.

“Nejm Illahdar?” I asked. The name of our hotel produced giggles. Children, fingers hanging from their bottom lips, started to gleefully repeat my words.

“Nejm Illahdar? Hotel?” I asked again. A man wearing a knitted skullcap and long sleeved tunic pointed past us, to a dilapidated building across a chaotic intersection, it’s Arabic sign glowing a dirty green.

The room contained two far-apart single beds, a shower cubicle without a toilet, tired looking plastic sandals to be used when standing on the shower’s greasy floor, and a large, quite probably antique, wooden closet. Closed curtains, hiding a broken window pane, shut out most of Aleppo’s already dreary winter light; a single low voltage bulb was expected to compensate. We took it, assuming the room was one of the city’s cheapest, knowing, more importantly, that it was the one we had already found. The owner – who wore a shock of thinning, wiry hair with threadbare traditional clothes and smoked continuously, recklessly scattering ash over himself, the floor, the furniture and, occasionally, me – spoke English in a low but just comprehensible hum. He would also, because the hotel was mentioned in our Lonely Planet, be familiar with the requests of like tourists us.

Outside, at the intersection of the new and old cities, young boys pushed heavily laden carts between falafel stands, past bright bolts of fabric and military surplus stores. They worked casually, too young to be conscious of their labour, and we followed in their wake. Passing beneath a long stretch of gentle gothic arches, we entered Aleppo’s World Heritage listed souqs, where pedestrians battled donkeys and donkeys battled trucks. “Welcome!” hailed a barber, his razor blade steady over another man’s throat. “Salaam!” wailed a butcher, his toothless grin visible behind chunks of hanging offal – liver attached to lungs, lungs attached to heart and spongy stomach, its inside out. Deeper, past the end of natural light, we were stopped by the purveyors of cloth and trinkets.
“What country?” one asked.
“South Africa,” Claire replied.
Another grin, toothy this time. The man leant over, shuffled his wares, and produced a dagger, its curved blade atop a brass hilt. Behind that he brought up a placard.
“’n Geskenk vir jou skoonma?” it asked. “A gift for your mother in law?” in Afrikaans. The man must have had a pile of these placards, written by every foreigner to visit his store.

Lost under the patterned high roof, we glimpsed men silently carding cotton. We gave way to manually drawn carts, carrying that cotton, and stood mesmerised, observing the clickety-clack of a large handloom. Everywhere – amongst all of the slow fading subdivisions, where men sold jewellery or underwear, underwear or soft green bars of olive oil soap – people greeted us. Some demanded we take their photo, others offered tea. All gave us a flattered, insistent welcome.

Later, using the pen a stationer had given me, with the words “Syria, South Africa: Salaam, Salaam,” I attempted to define a single of the afternoon’s sensations – Aleppo’s layers of exotic sound – in my journal:

The rustle of a veil is drowned by clicking worry beads, pushed endlessly through a palm. Both succumb to the flick and grind of a blender at a juice bar, to the Arabic grunt of an order (any possible combination of orange, mango, kiwi, pomegranate, apple, carrot, strawberry, sugar, honey, nuts, and others, beyond my tourist’s radar). The tap tap tap of a cobbler on a street corner, resoling shoes. The hiss and drip of rows of chickens, turned manually around a wood fire. The laughter of men clustered around a blaring television. The clatter of metal doors rolling closed. The imperious yells of a wrinkly old man directing oblivious traffic with his shepherd’s crook. And the hoot that punctuates all, defining each maddening crescendo.

We had entered the Orient, I decided. Turkey, the squat bridge leading to Asia, could be grasped and fathomed. But here, just over its southern border, I sensed the beginnings of an incomprehensibility. Past the debris of forgotten buildings and the battered motor vehicles – a visible absence of wealth, the most obvious change – I detected permanence and clung-to traditions, new ideas of family and the individual.

“Three hundred people call my grandmother Grandmother,” said Jassem*. “And I have more than five hundred cousins.” I paused, processing this complicated generational mathematics. The Arabic definition of grandmother must be loose, or this matriarch and her progeny had the ridiculous average of seventeen children per person.

We had met Jassem in the depths of a souq. He stopped us, introduced himself, and quickly suggested we meet that evening for tea – at the citadel, which we could easily find. He spoke English well, looked about our age, was a student, and wore familiar, slightly formal Western clothes. We had just as quickly agreed, and were now smoking a nargileh, drinking tea, more and more sweet black tea, near the proud mouth of a perfectly circular thirteenth century fortification. Its dull geometry and neat limestone bricks – without turrets and crenulations – looked grindingly utilitarian, almost modern, and made my imagination work harder.

Jassem was studying European languages: English, German and French. Through these languages, and a few visiting European girls, he had encountered much of the West’s history and thought; this until recently devout Muslim now reserved his tones of reverence for the likes of Descartes and Kant. He quizzed us on South Africa, which he had obviously researched after we arranged to meet, and described an urgent desire to visit the homes of the tourists he’d befriended, to share their lives as they had shared his.

But Jassem’s family, affluent nomads from the country’s east, wanted him to marry. “I am 25,” he explained, “and they have found me a wife. She is from a good family, so they will pay a good price.”
“A good price!” I choked. “How much?”
“$3000.” The transaction would obviously not be made in Syria’s erratic pound. “$1500 is normal.”
Jassem, in spite of himself, looked proud. He did not want this veiled bride. He wanted to travel, and had developed an appreciation for “strong women” – who smoked nargileh, he told us, like Claire. He did not want the bland, traditional life of his forefathers, but could not conceal his respect for the family’s hard earned status. This respect might make it difficult for him to leave home, as he planned to, and go to Europe, to work illegally, as he planned to.

“My family have told me to come home and get married. If I don’t,” Jassem paused, absently striking and restriking my lighter, “we will be finished, I must not return. And they will not pay for my studies anymore.”
“Have you told them that you want to leave Syria?” Claire asked.
“They know,” Jassem was now twisting the string on his tea bag, round and round until the paper label broke, “and they will try to stop me.” A friend in Belgium had offered to accommodate him, but even getting a tourist visa, and leaving Syria, would be difficult.

Every Syrian man is obligated to spend two years serving in the country’s military. Jassem, because he was a student, had been allowed to defer conscription. The government required only some routine paperwork; but his brother, somehow responsible for these forms, had refused to submit them this year. Jassem would be stopped at the border and forced to serve.
“It is the worst two years of your life,” he spat.
“You’ll be an officer,” I suggested, wondering how bad it could really be.
“Officer! Pah!” His lips curled back in revulsion. “I will be paid one dollar a month and get only two days leave – no weekends. It is a prison!” And, by extension, so was Syria.

Sensing our disinterest, the café’s staff, carrying hot braziers past the rickety tables, no longer replaced the small chunks of red coal at our nargileh’s top; it had long since gone cold. We slurped the last of our tea, left the protection of our table’s pale umbrella, and entered the slowly falling rain. Jassem’s light blue top darkened with every drip. We watched him recede from the light, turn, and wave.

He had helped us arrange to visit the time blackened remains of Qa’alat al Samaan the next day. This Byzantine cathedral was built to honour Saint Simeon, an extravagant monk who spent 43 years at the site, sitting atop a pillar. Initially a little over four metres, the pillar grew and grew; by the end of Simeon’s life it was exactly 40 metres long.

I had struggled to trust Jassem. He seemed on edge, shifty. Perhaps understandably, but my South African’s imagination dwelt on the worst. I thought of unlikely, but possible, incidents. He now knew where we were staying. Knew that there was a laptop, and probably money, in our room. Knew, while we were with him, that we were not in that room. He made a call, punched a number into his too fiddled with mobile phone, and I wondered.

When he offered to help us arrange a visit to Qa’alat al Samaan, I felt relieved. I could now understand his friendliness, knew why he had shown such an unselfish interest in us, and our journey. Jassem would add commission onto the taxi driver’s price; he would be happy and so, he thought, would we. But, after he had made a few enquiries, I realised Jassem was more interested in finding us a reliable driver, at a rate we could not have negotiated alone.

My suspicion must have stemmed at least partly from guilt. Jassem had less than us. He wanted to travel, but might soon be cut off from his parents, and would not, like us, have the money. I entertained these tired justifications while we walked wet-shoed through Aleppo’s now dark, empty streets, amongst its shuttered shops and battered homes. Claire clung to my hand and our pace quickened. We walked fast, without talking, until inside our hotel, where the owner waved his cigarette wildly past me, offering tea.

Bashar al-Assad, smiling but distant, was comfortably enveloped by his chair. Across from the President, on a longer, less thoroughly cushioned seat, sat Reverend Warren. The men had met – according to the Syrian Times, a government daily published in English for uncertain reasons – to discuss “Syria-US relations.”

“The US delegation,” meaning Reverend Warren, a Protestant of otherwise unknown provenance, had apparently “underlined the wrong US administration’s position not to open dialogue with Syria.” Would the election of Democrats warrant the description of America’s government as the “the right US administration” I wondered, while sipping a much hunted for espresso.

Mr al-Assad was featured daily, always on the front page, usually at its top left. He met with victorious schoolchildren, the truly aged, and a wide variety of sympathetic foreigners. His close lipped smile appeared amongst columns detailing the release of “I Hate Israel”, a song from the already successful play, and dubious foreign reporting. These few poorly printed pages suggested that Mr al-Assad, while working hard for his people, was an important player, a star on the international stage.

Claire and I had searched the new city, where burka-ed ladies gazed lustfully through shop windows – at a mannequin, on one occasion, wearing suspenders and a lacy thong. We had scoured the Armenian Quarter, where sombre churches wore a fluorescent cross, intimating the nearby presence of Aleppo’s only bars. Past that, in a small stone walled room – after cinnamon tea with the owner of Orient House, a shop hung with rusting antiques – we found espresso, good cheap espresso, and could satisfy a craving built through our months in continental Europe.

*Jassem is a pseudonym, chosen by Jassem.

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21 Responses to “Mistaking Aleppo”

  1. Heather says:

    Interesting Iain. I love your "afternoon's sensations" and your honesty about the difficulty created by South African prejudice when trying to discern a person's true motives.

    "I sensed the beginnings of an incomprehensibility" – you make us, your readers, sense it too.

    Ek is net teleurgesteld dat jy kan nie die skoonheid van die taal verstaan nie!

  2. Salma says:

    You do not serve the city justice, and you are very much seeing only what is in front of you. Which is predictable – I suppose most people are like that in a country foreign to their own.

    However, you don't see past the end of your nose and that is not how Aleppo truly is that is not how you should be as a tourist, a traveller, a foreigner. It's a beautiful city with wonderful people, just as beautiful as any other European, American, African, Australian. Also, the city is just more safe than Harlem, NY, which is in America, but I can understand the caution you take, but there is no need for constant and alert wariness. I'm not sure how long your stay is or to what country you might be innately comparing Aleppo is, but there is no reason to make make all these people look and seem like Jafar (from the Aladdin movie).

    I would have been okay with your entry should you have made at least one comment more positive than that of "Well, he turned out NOT to be a theif."

    If you stay longer in the city, I suggest you take a good look around and understand the city historically, politically and socially a bit better. There are places you can go that will make you and Claire feel right at home and very comfortable.

  3. Iain Manley says:

    Hi Salma,

    I've left Syria (too long ago). We loved being there; it was an explosion of unfamiliar sensations and unexpected friendliness.

    This article chronicles only my early impressions. We met Jassem again – he came with us to Damascus – and he will be mentioned again.

    I'm sorry if what I wrote is thought unfair. Syrians are, I know, a very proud people. The layman's impression of their country is warped by too much reported politics, and not enough reported people (if that makes sense).

    I haven't tried to debunk any Middle Eastern myths, but there is time: Claire will soon post an article on Damascus.

  4. Lindy says:

    Hey guys.

    Salma, most S.Africans are paranoid about crime anywhere – give them a break!

    Iain, your article gave me the chills – very atmospheric descriptions. I'm really looking forward to Claire's take on the ME. This phase of your journey is the most intriguing to me.

    Lindy.

  5. Iain Manley says:

    Thanks Lindy. I got a little too involved in other comments, posted on a Lonely Planet forum, and forgot to mention how being a paranoid South African might influence what I write.

    A user (who calls himself ruffgyder… on the the LP site) thought "it would help if you [me] laid off the fancy stuff and told us what you [me again] see, rather than what you [etc.] think you see. If you don't understand what you're looking at, say 'I don't understand' – not 'I sensed the beginnings of an incomprehensibility.'"

    I thought he was being a little severe, got a little upset, and focused on defending myself there. Follow this link if you want to read my response.

    Okay, onto being a South African: yes, it informs much of what I do. South Africans are innately wary; travellers are told to be. Most South Africans will, at some time, have been victims of an up close and personal crime; travellers must make decisions without the comfort that familiarity normally provides. The two factors combine and, inevitably, I trust slowly.

  6. Frank says:

    Hi Iain

    Nice article. At times I felt as though I was standing beside you. Maar wat is hierdie kak oor "archaic language that I refused to learn". Don`t deny your roots!!

  7. Iain Manley says:

    Ons het Afrikaans in Egypt gebruik. It's still arcane (I didn't call it archaic): "known or understood by very few; mysterious; secret; obscure."

  8. Frank says:

    Many languages are "known or understood by few".Afrikaans is not mysterious,secret or obscure.Sorry,I don`t agree with "arcane"either!

  9. sammer says:

    hi in fact it is unsuccessful artical and it is not fair . I am stying now in south africa and if i will write artical about it depending on what i am saying in the street well not believe that i am staying with with human . and lit me tell u some thing that syrian people dont have the honor to receive u in thier houses . and if u are angree coz u did not find drugs there please tell me i can sent to u some from cape town . thatnks

  10. Iain Manley says:

    Huh? The article was honest: it chronicled what I saw, said, and thought soon after arriving in Syria. It isn't gushy, but also, I think, not negative – it's descriptive, and seems to have been misunderstood.

    I didn't anticipate how alien people would find my "South African's imagination." And, perhaps, how sensitive Syrians would be to what they perceive as a negative portrayal of their country. I certainly wouldn't take personal offense at a negative description of South Africa.

    Your mention of drugs is bizarre. No, I didn't find them in Syria, and no, thanks, I rather you didn't send them.

  11. Mousab says:

    Hello,

    I'm from aleppo, and I think that some of what was written might be true, but I want to tell you, wherever you go there are to many ways to go through and apparently you guys have choosen to walk through one direction "no idea what was your motivation??'" but I tell you that I've been to Jo'burg and what I saw there was much much worst apart from the hotel cus I stayed in sandton city, regardless what I saw If I want to write an article about it now.. I think it will make %99 of the S.Africans feel ashame, either because of misunderstanding or because of me cus I'm not S.African, what I mean here if u want to comment something u have to explain, describing only could be offensing and inappropriate, on the other hand wish u described one more positive thing u saw apart from the essepreso, last and least I have too many french, british and other nationalities freinds who live in aleppo and haven't seen any of what you mentioned .. yea some of them suffer of having to carry dictionary all the time cus not too many ppl cd speak english but still they have been there since ages and not planning to leave soon, but I really thankes god that I have lest S. Africa… ..

  12. Tracey says:

    Hi there you two

    I would just like to say that your articles thus far have been informative and wildly exciting. I am envious of your travels and wish you God's strength on your continued journey.

    As for the people who have given you (Iain) so much flack about the Aleppo article, screw them, it's your damn opinion of what you BRIEFLY saw. We all have parts of our country which we wish visitors would never see or experience but that is the adventure of traveling and no harm or disrespect to another culture as I know you, was intended.

    BRAVO to both of you!!!!!

  13. Iain Manley says:

    Thanks Tracey. No insult was intended. Claire's posts should have proved our love for Syria by now. As for Afrikaans being an arcane language: I used "arcane" because die taal's presence took me by complete surprise. In an Aleppan souq? Surely that's arcane…

  14. May says:

    Ianin- I find your entry truly disappointing! What purpose does it really serve other than preserving a first impression, informed by fear and ignorance? I am really sorry for this negative comment, and I hesitated before writing it. As a historian of the region, your post left me quite disheartened. Surely, it is honest to the extent that it captures your own subjective impression of the city, but does it have to be made public? I didn't have to read it, but I was doing research on the history of Aleppo, and your post came up!

    By the way, what do you mean by burka-ed ladies? As far as I know, the burqa is not used by Aleppine women…

  15. Iain Manley says:

    May,

    Honesty always has purpose. Travel writing must be left at impressions, or no longer be the observations of an outsider (and no longer travel writing). My fear – as I mentioned in the article, and repeated in these comments – had as much to with South Africa as it did Aleppo. Fears of the unknown are, besides, a part of travelling, and this blog is, ultimately, about travelling, and not just each isolated destination.

    Aleppine women certainly do wear burkas, and the comment suggests you have never visited the city.

    Syria, as much as I liked being there, has a number of serious problems: gender inequality, an oppressive tyrant and child labour included. Why are people so sensitive to the observations made here?

  16. sabumani says:

    Friends,

    the so called -ve comments have stirred up quite a dust…..but unfortunately, the people who protest should look into their own societies. Honesty and straightforwardness from local people meeting guides is a rare phenomenon. Most touts, guides, are out there to filch off money by whatever means!! 'information' about the local culture is not one ofthem. As to foreigners, please listen to all those immigrants who rushed off to the west seeking better living conditions! You would think there was no hell like the west!!!

    must say that yr photographs are quite indicative of yr own artistic inclinations!!!good and mood-evoking. Congrats!

  17. Rosemary Sheel says:

    Hi, Ian. I've got to look up the meaning of arcane! I enjoyed your story about Aleppo and your impressions including your anxieties about Jassem. It is only natural! You wrote with feeling. Your description of the ash-wielding hotel proprietor was funny. I could feel the chill of the rainy afternoon as you and Clair made your way back to the hotel.

    Keep it up. If you censor yourself your work will be boring! It's your work. You are the judge.

    Rosemary

  18. mahmoud says:

    Hello everyone,

    I am not syrian but i lived in Aleppo for a few years… and i must say, it is an extremly beautiful city. its not about how modern and clean a city is but its the spirit of its people, the stories each building holds, the essence of its streets and the culture and history behind it that makes it great.

    your article does make it seem very stereotypical. honestly it seems like you havn't discovered the city enough… to start there are several five star hotels all over the city and obviously you werent in one, there very luxorious restaurants…the city has much more to it…i worked their as a tour guide and i know for a fact that you visited the worst of the worst in the city… i study in toronto and i still go visit aleppo every summer to enjoy its hospitality and if your are ever there just e-mail me at midoshennawy@msn.com and i WILL show you the city and its old places…i will even open the ones that are closed and invite you to the luxurious restaurants all on me…

  19. Maha says:

    Dear Iain;

    I'm from Aleppo, an Aleppine university woman student. Every city or country in this wold has advantages and disadvantages. If you objectively examined many European and American cities , where justice is supposedly achieved, you would easily discover that there is no perfection what so ever in this world. While reading your article, I felt that I am reading a fairy tale!!! I'm sorry Iain, but I think that a good deal of what you narrated is not true! Aleppo is a very beautiful city. Aleppine people are very friendly. It is your passive attitude and your prejudice that make it hard for you to see Syrian beauty.

  20. abs says:

    Dear Iain,claire hope your both well.

    Its saturday afternoon and youve touch a nerve, (lol)

    Dont take offense just some points on syria I think you shold know. (just chat)

    Iam a syrian, but born raised and educated in england and see were your coming from I really do because I have seen so many tourist like your self and claire in aleppo and always in the same places doing the same things, the majority of tourist visiting syria will always opt for cheap accommidation and do the normal touristy thing ie cittedal, souks etc, belive me when I say these hotels offered to tourist would not even be suitable for the majority of syrians to stay in. Converting western currencies any westerner or south african (as it is a first world country) should be able to afford to stay in 4 or 5 star acommadation as compared to other countrys its still very cheap, your buying your luxury, but staying were you stayed you cant expect luxury, as i can opt to stay in any youth hositle I would not expect to find a 5 star service, you know just for information purposes Iam not (being rude or getting at you) but feel I have an obligation to tell you, house prices in syria rivel any western country beit france england newyork etc and this is a fact the street I live on in syria when visiting, (the new shabat) dont even think about buying in the old shabat, every other house is valued a $ 2 million dollars thats *2 million*, and the most expensive house in the city is worth $10 million and thats aleppo you can double that for damascus and belive me there are no morgages or money lenders in syria thats cash to buy, I live in england and people have 25 to 50 year morgages, land prices in syria are astronomical. An S class mercedes car in england is $100,000 us dollars, in syria because cars are so highly taxed an S class mercedes is $300,000 us dollars and belive me luxery cars are EVERYWERE, come to my area in allepo and see for your self I mean everywere, when you make a judement on a city you have to see the whole city, not just the souks or a dirty old coffee shops, you visited.

    dont know about jassem but I recently had my wedding in syria and it cost $40,000 us dollars and that was only ok by standards, which kind of shocked me as i thought i was going all out living in england and all, the bawabt al shabat resterant cost $10 million us dollars, thats a big differnce to the coffee shops or the donkey draw falafel cart you saw, an expresso there will cost you $4 us dollars not 10 cents, as for women try keeping mine she wont go out in the same dress or shoes twice and she was born and raised in syria, and as for her voiceing her opinion well, no comment very hard work if you know what I mean, finally syria is statisticly the third safeist country in the world, and is only not the first beacuse we couldnt have a arab country as the first could we (so called axis of evil and all that),as for wealth as a whole syria is the only country in the world which is not in debt to the world bank, not bad for a third world coutry. Any time you wolud like to visit syria again (if you do) call me first i'll tell you were to go and what to see and maybe you would have a different opinion. all the best.

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