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 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]

Syria unrest: will there be another massacre in Hama?

Syria, Hama, Syria unrestSyrian army tanks ‘moving towards Hama’.

Just another headline about unrest in the Middle East. I’ve read so many, but this one made me shudder. One thing travel does for you is make the world more than just a headline. I’ve been to Hama.

I visited Syria back in 1994 as a young college graduate with a backpack, a bit of Arabic, and no responsibilities. I spent a month exploring archaeological sites, chatting in smoky cafes, and debating religion in the cool shade of mosque courtyards. Syria is a fascinating and welcoming place, and if the regime of Bashar al-Assad gets ousted and peace returns, I highly recommend you go.

I marveled at the beautiful Umayyad Mosque in Damascus before going to a nearby cafe to listen to a hakawati, a traditional storyteller, recite his tales to a rapt audience. I looked out over the green hills of Lebanon from the turrets of Crac des Chevaliers castle and took a dusty bus ride to the oasis of Palmyra. And for two days I stayed in Hama to see the famous noria, or waterwheels, as seen here in this Wikimedia Commons photo.

There was something strange about Hama. It was supposed to be an old city yet most of the buildings looked new. Plus the tourist map on the wall of my hotel lobby was wrong. I’d copied parts of it into my notebook to help me get around but soon found the names of the streets had changed. Even their layout had changed. It was like a map of a different city.

Then I saw the same map in the lobby of another hotel, and in an antique shop. One night I asked the manager what was going on. He looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot and whispered, “This map shows Hama before the massacre.”I’d heard of that. The Muslim Brotherhood had been fighting against the Syrian government for several years and Hama was their main base. They attacked government targets and the government hauled away anyone who seemed suspicious. Most victims were innocent people caught in the crossfire.

One night in 1982 a Syrian army patrol discovered the local Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and a firefight broke out. The Brotherhood called for a general uprising. Fighting flared up all over the city. Hafez al-Assad, then Prime Minister and father of the current Prime Minister, ordered the armed forces to surround Hama. The air force dropped bombs while tanks and artillery shelled the city. Then the troops went in, shooting anything that moved. Nobody knows how many people died. Estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000, and all sources agree that most were civilians.

Now the Syrian army is moving towards Hama again. The son is continuing the work of his father.

This morning I flipped through my old travel diary, reliving the time I spent in Hama and Syria: the conversations, the hikes, the sense of wonder of a young man on his first year-long travel adventure. One thing that struck me was that of all the Syrians that diary mentions, none of them have entirely faded from my memory.

I remember the kindly old man who nursed me back to health after my first bad case of food poisoning. And the artist who drew a sketch of me that I still have. Then there was that wisecracking tailor who changed money at black market rates, building a nest egg of hard currency for reasons he’d never divulge. And the metalheads who introduced me to Syria’s underground music scene. It’s strange to think of those headbangers as forty-something fathers, but I suppose, like me, they are.

Or maybe they’ve been slaughtered.

None of those people liked the regime. The business owners hung a picture of Hafez al-Assad on the walls, just like they have a picture of Bashar nowadays. In a dictatorship that’s the price of doing business. But once the customers left and it was just us in a back room chatting over tea, their voices would lower and they’d complain about how the al-Assad family had a stranglehold on power.

The metalheads were louder in their protests and suffered regular police harassment. Since even their concerts were illegal they felt they had nothing to lose. They wanted to live life the way they chose. A few beatings and nights in jail was the price of a few hours of freedom.

I traveled all over the Middle East back then–Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Iran–and heard the same stories of frustration and anger in dozens of cities. The only thing that surprised me about the so-called Arab Revolution of 2011 was that it took so long.

In some places it’s succeeded; in Syria it looks like it will fail. Syria doesn’t have much oil so besides a few feeble sanctions, it’s doubtful the West will do much. Bashar al-Assad will imprison or kill anyone who speaks out against him and the protests will be suppressed.

Hama may be leveled again. Thousands may die–they may already be dying–and the city destroyed. After a time new shops and new hotels will open. Their owners will grit their teeth and hang a photo of Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad behind the counter. Then, I hope, they’ll pull out a worn old map of Hama the way it looked before 1982, and hang it right next to him.