Memories Of Aleppo, Syria

Aleppo, Syria
I pulled into Aleppo, Syria, on January 10, 1994, and had a hard time caring that I was in one of the most historic cities of the Arab world. I was in the grip of a bad flu courtesy of a combination of a desert hike and an air-conditioned bus ride. I barely looked at the sleek minarets, medieval citadel and bustling markets. All I wanted was a bed, medicine and solitude.

Grumpy and harassed, I elbowed my way through the crowd of Russian prostitutes and smugglers who seemed to dominate the neighborhood around the bus station. Hotel after hotel was full. I was feeling weaker by the minute. Then I came to the Hotel Syria and was greeted by the manager Sali, a thin man with excellent English, graying hair and a ready smile. He took one look at me and tut-tutted.

“You shouldn’t be traveling in this condition. Come in and I’ll get you tea.”

“All I need is sleep,” I replied.

“Rest, I’ll bring you tea.”

I remember nothing of the room I collapsed in, or indeed anything else about the Hotel Syria. All I remember is Sali. Bringing me tea. Bringing fruit form the market. Bringing me medicine from the pharmacy without my asking.

“No, keep your money. You are a guest. Not like those Russians. They spend four days on the bus to come here and only cause trouble. I’m going to buy some disinfectant and spray them when they come through the door.”

%Gallery-168005%I was soon on the mend and out exploring Aleppo. From the citadel I could see the city spread out to all horizons, minarets pointing to the sky and chemical factories belching poison in the distance. In the evenings I’d return and sit with Sali drinking tea and recounting my day.

The best days were spent in the famous souk, once the western terminus of the Silk Road and one of the best preserved in the world. I wrote in my journal that it was “everything Westerners think of when they think of bazaars. A low roof arches over smoky stalls selling spices. Trucks and donkeys jockey for position in crowded alleys. Everything is for sale here: spices, clothing, sweets, all kinds of fruit, shoes, rope, gold jewelry, silk, dishes, pipes, toys, cigarettes, nuts, tea sets, gravestones, tiles, soap, leather, perfume, brooms, combs, juice, wedding dresses, etc. I saw no tourists.”

As I wandered down one of the little streets, two men in a tiny silk stall on a corner called out to me, “Where are you from?”

“Canada.” I replied.

One of them brought up two fingers in front of his eyes and brought them together, saying, “I crush you.” A “Kids in the Hall” reference in Syria?

I had found the famous Mohammed brothers. I’d heard about them a month ago in Turkey from other travelers. These nine brothers were the queens of the souk, flamboyantly propositioning passersby and grilling foreigners for pickup lines and dirty words that they carefully entered into a little black book.

They weren’t really gay (I think) they just found it fun. As we sat in their stall drinking tea they told me, “You nice, but no gay. Want to go to Turkish bath?”

“I think I’ll pass.”

“Too bad,” one said, then turned to the crowd to call out in English, “I love you! You nice!”

An old guy tottered past. One of the Mohammeds turned to me.

“He not nice, maybe 50 years ago.”

Back in those days no tourist made it through Aleppo without meeting these guys. They had a constantly growing photo album of their guests, including pictures of people I’d met weeks before. The whole Mohammed family owned eight shops (“we’re mafia”) and basically ran the street. That didn’t stop them from occasionally getting in trouble from Syrians who didn’t like their queer routine.

Now their shops have burned to the ground along with the rest of the souk, victims of the fighting between insurgents and soldiers of the Assad regime. The Mohammed brothers can no longer sit behind piles of silk propositioning Arabs in English and expanding their dirty vocabulary with the help of a steady stream of bemused foreign guests.

What happened to them? Are they hiding in their homes waiting for the storm to pass? Are they among the crowds of refugees fleeing to Turkey? Or did their sense of fun finally catch up with them and they fell victim to the Islamists who have joined the ranks of the insurgency? And what happened to Sali? He was old enough that he might have mercifully died before his world fell apart. If he still lives he’s in his 70s, and a war zone is pitiless on the elderly.

One of the affects of travel is that these places are no longer abstract images on the news. They’re real, with real people who are suffering real hardship. Perhaps if Sali had nursed Obama and Romney back to health, or if the two candidates had sat for a time sharing tea and dirty jokes with the Mohammed brothers, the sufferings of millions of Syrians would be a burning issue in this election.

Perhaps our leaders should get out of their political bubble and travel more.

[Photo courtesy Luigi Guarino]

How Could An Ancient City Survive In The Desert?

ancient city, Palmyra, Syra
The drive through the Syrian desert to the ancient city of Palmyra makes you wonder how anyone lived out here 2000 years ago. For hours you speed east from Damascus along a dusty desert road, the only sights being a few dull concrete buildings, Bedouin with their herds and a thick black telephone line snaking along the ground next to the highway.

Once you get to Palmyra, you find a lush little oasis with splendid ruins nearby. It was here that a thriving civilization acted as the center of trade from east to west. But how did this city, which some scholars estimate had a population of 100,000, support itself? The oasis is nowhere near big enough, and the rocky, barren desert doesn’t look capable of supporting more than a few skinny goats.

Now a team of Syrian and Norwegian archaeologists has found the answer. With a combination of satellite imagery and boots on the ground, they’ve explored the region around the ancient city and discovered several ancient villages to the north. Through the clever use of dams and cisterns, the villagers were able to collect the uncommon but not rare rainfall in the region and put it to best use.

Also, tough grass lies just below the surface, its web of roots ready to capture any rain and immediately burst forth with shoots. The Bedouin would graze their flocks there, fertilizing the fields and trading with the locals.

So through an understanding of nature, an efficient use of resources and cooperating with their neighbors, the Palmyrenes brought forth a thriving civilization in the middle of the desert.

Looks like we could learn something from them.

[Photo courtesy Arian Zwegers]

Ancient city of Palmyra under threat from Syrian army

Palmyra

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra may become the latest victim of the ongoing violence in Syria, according to a Global Heritage Fund report.

Palmyra, an ancient oasis city in the desert northeast of Damascus, remained untouched by the conflict until last month, when the Syrian army moved in. According to several reports by refugees since then, units from the army have taken up position at the medieval citadel overlooking ancient and modern Palmyra and have been shooting at anything that moves. Both machine guns and tanks are being used. One can imagine what a few tank shells can do to a 2000-year-old city.

Little is known about damage to this or other historic sites in Syria. Given the government’s eagerness to level modern cities such as Homs, it’s doubtful they’re showing any care for their national heritage. Sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have all suffered irreparable damage during recent conflicts.Palmyra is one of the most impressive of Syria’s archaeological treasures. I visited it back in 1994 and the memories of wandering the Roman streets and temples, the sandy outskirts with their distinctive pre-Roman tower-tombs, and climbing up to the Arab citadel remain vivid. I also remember a local hotel owner who sat with me watching Syrian music videos and discussing the relative, um, “merits” of the female singers. I also remember the cheesy hustler who tried to sell me a “real Roman coin” made out of aluminum. He had the good grace, when I laughed in his face, to laugh along with me.

Are those two guys still alive? Is the hotel still there? Is every single one of my memories of a month’s travel going to be blackened by an evil dictator while world leaders dither and make sympathetic noises?

Yeah, probably.

Palmyra

[Photo of citadel courtesy Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Photo of Roman ruins courtesy Franco Pecchio.]

Syria memories: grieving for a dictator

Syria
The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il has led to some very strange television–the Dear Leader lying in state, throngs of North Koreans weeping uncontrollably, even rumors of miracles such as grieving birds.

The images coming out of North Korea led to a discussion with some of my Facebook friends over whether or not the outpouring of grief was genuine or staged. I lean towards staged, since the only news we’re getting is from the state media, which has tried to raise Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung to the status of demigods. Then again, in the cloistered lives the North Koreans live, perhaps they do feel a sense of loss. Even the BBC discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that we can’t know for sure.

SyriaThe whole thing made me remember my trip to Syria back in 1994. Pictures of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family were everywhere–in shops, on the streets, in the front rooms of private homes–as you can see in this photo of what looks like a hotel lobby with portraits of Hafez and his son Bashar, courtesy flickr user Bombardier. Bashar now rules Syria (perhaps not for long) but it was his older brother Bassel who was supposed to take over. When I was there it was common to see photos of Bassel and Hafez side by side, and most Syrians assumed he’d rule Syria one day.

In Syria in those days, if you kept your nose clean the authorities generally left you alone. If you stood up against the government, they leveled your city. So Syrians toted the line in public. In private, however, many quietly told me how much they hated the regime. One admitted he’d never say such things to a fellow Syrian for fear that he may be a member of the secret police. In Syria, there are lots of secret police.

Then, on 22 January 1994, Bassel died in a car accident. I’ll never forget the grim military music that played on the state radio and television for several days afterwards, and the constant coverage the state media gave to his life and unexpected death. As soon as the news broke that first day I went out onto the streets of Damascus. Shops were closed and there were far more soldiers and police on the streets than usual. A rally was already forming in one of the main squares.The rally wasn’t very big, just a few dozen young men chanting slogans in support of the regime. There was no counter demonstration. Strangely, the cops seemed to be trying to calm the most vocal supporters. One young man got onto the shoulders of another to be more visible and started loudly chanting the praises of Hafez al-Assad. The cop made him get down and stop. It seemed that any outspoken statement, even one in support of the government, was viewed with suspicion.

The government declared several days of national mourning. All shops were to remain closed. I had befriended a shopkeeper near my hotel, a friendly fellow with good English who changed money at a black market rate for a steady stream of backpackers. Let’s call him Samir. I won’t tell you his real name or occupation for obvious reasons.

Samir lived frugally. I got the impression all that hard currency was going somewhere else. A nest egg? Support for extended family? I never asked. He was like many such people I’ve met in my travels in that he enjoyed talking to foreigners as much as he enjoyed making money off of them. I changed money with him only a few times, but every day we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea and having long conversations about everything except politics. Samir never discussed politics, not even on January 22.

In fact, all Syrians were silent with me on the subject of Bassel’s death. While they didn’t look choked up about it, they didn’t want to risk saying anything about the dead son of the dictator, not even to a foreigner. I saw no evidence of grief, not even at that rally. Those young men in the square only seemed to be doing some very public brown nosing. The rest of the people of Damascus just went about their day-to-day lives and kept quiet.

The days of mourning were declared over and Samir reopened his shop. I was just about to enter for our morning tea when a cop showed up. He told Samir that the mourning period was still on, and demanded to know why the shop was open. Samir cringed and pleaded that the radio said the mourning period was over. The cop told him that was wrong (it turned out they’d extended it at the last minute) and that he better close his store quick. Then the cop left. He could have hauled Samir before a judge, or demanded a bribe to keep him out of jail. Instead he just walked away. Perhaps he wasn’t fond of the al-Assad family either.

It was the least mournful period of national mourning I’ve ever seen.

So are the tears for Kim Jong-il genuine? If Syria is anything to judge by, they aren’t, but Syria and North Korea are two very different cultures and Syrians were never as cut off from the world as the North Koreans. So, as usual with the world’s most isolated country, we once again have to shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Kim Jong-il’s death, besides the political instability, is that the passing that same week of Václav Havel has not received the attention it deserves. Havel was a dissident playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia who refused to stop making his art despite being repeatedly imprisoned by the government. In 1989, Communism fell and he became president, helping to lead his country’s transition to democracy. He did it with no bloodshed and a minimum of ill-will. And then he went back to his writing. Check out this obituary of Václav Havel to learn more about a leader whose death really does deserve tears.

Ancient city of Mari in Syria under threat

Syria, MariLast month we reported that the Biblical city of Nineveh is falling apart due to the ongoing war in Iraq. Now it turns out another ancient Mesopotamian city is in danger of being lost.

Mari, in Syria, was one of the great cities of Mesopotamia. It was a trading center on the Euphrates River and was founded some 7,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered the giant palace of a Sumerian ruler, a temple to Ishtar, and a huge library with more than 25,000 clay tablets written in Akkadian cuneiform.

Now Popular Archaeology magazine reports that erosion and neglect are returning the city to the earth. The people of Mari built with fired mud brick, using clay that was cheap and plentiful along the banks of the Euphrates. Wind and rain have been picking away at the bricks for thousands of years, and it doesn’t help that more walls have been exposed by archaeologists. Dust to dust.

The Global Heritage Fund released a report on Syria’s endangered heritage sites that lists Mari as the one in most need of help.

I visited Mari in the 1990s and it was one of the biggest archaeological orgasms of my life. To walk through a Mesopotamian palace, to visit one of the ancient world’s biggest libraries, and to stand atop a ziggurat all in the same afternoon is something you can’t do anywhere else outside of Iraq. It’s one of many outstanding archaeological treasures in Syria that are in desperate need of protection and conservation. Crac de Chevaliers, one of the ten toughest castles in the world, is also in danger.

Sadly, with the Syrian government more interested in killing their own people, I don’t think protecting the world’s heritage is very high on their “to do” list.

[Photo courtesy peuplier via flickr]