Crossing the Border to Aleppo – early to mid-August 2004

Crossing the Border:
Crossing the border into Syria was somewhat of an experience. I always get a little bit nervous each time we cross the border into a different country, but this was different. This time, one of the first things we saw was a busload of women dressed exclusively in the black chador. They were all waiting outside the customs office, with only their eyes showing. I had taken care to completely cover myself, including my hair, before we came to the border crossing, but I still stuck out like a sore thumb. There was a large group of men in the customs office, and I was the only woman who had to go inside, while the black-clad women waited in a cluster outside. It made me a bit anxious. I had expected this in Iran, but not in Syria. There were men wearing the traditional Arabic red-checkered scarf around their head, but it was the women in black that made me nervous.

Biking south towards Aleppo, we saw a lot of three-wheeled vehicles as we passed through the town of Aazaz – a sort of motorbike with a wagon attached behind it. Also, pick-up trucks and motorbikes. The object seemed to be to pile as many people on top without falling over. One family of six stopped us beside the road to talk. They had all managed to climb on top of the two-seater bike, the mother in back holding the smallest child off the side of the bike. As they prepared to leave, the bike tipped over and sent everyone tumbling.

My first impressions of Syria can be summed up by the women in black, the men in the checkered head scarves (which reminded me both of the nomadic Bedouin moving across the desert by camel and also of Yasser Arafat), and also of the first Syrian man we met when we reached Aleppo. He was in his early twenties and working in Dubai, and when we tried to thank him for his help, he responded, “Don’t thank me. It’s my duty – my responsibility – to welcome you, to help you, to show you that Syria is not full of terrorists.”

2 1/2 Weeks in Aleppo:

The People:
I had slept in a bad position at Mustafa’s house, just before reaching Syria, and ended up with bad pain in my neck and head. By our second day in Aleppo, I was in severe pain. Very severe. Abdul, our guardian angel in Aleppo, took me to see a physical therapist at a mosque, who saw me during men’s hours and for free because I was a foreigner. His recommendations: “no massage, no wind.” He called the condition “acute something.” I think he must have meant acute pain. I took all sorts of medicine and muscle relaxer creams for a week without any change in condition, so Sharif from our hostel took me to the hospital. The second doctor only took my heartbeat – refused to even look at my neck! He prescribed antibiotics and intramuscular vitamin injections. Imbecile. I wore a brace for two miserable days in 110 F degree heat, and then went to see a specialist. He prescribed another whole bag of medicines, plus exercises to do. Said it might take months to heal, but biking should be no problem, as long as I protected my neck from the wind. So we spent almost three weeks in Aleppo, with tortuous neck pain, heat migraines, and a protracted stomach virus.

Thank God for Abdul-Hamid, because without him, the whole stay would have been nightmarish. In fact, we had met Abdul just after arriving in Aleppo, while we were looking for a hotel. He asked us to stay with him for several nights, which we did willingly, and he treated us like royalty.

Abdul-Hamid was a 28-year old cycling champion, extremely hospitable and generous. “Anything you need, just ask me,” he kept saying. He was always one step ahead of us. We moved to a hotel after the first couple of nights because we didn’t know how long we might stay in the city with my neck injury. He visited us every night after work and on all his days off (Fridays). It was crazy the way he insisted on paying for everything, and how everyone seemed to be in conspiracy with him. We would offer our money to the taxi drivers and to the restaurants at the same time as Abdul, but they would always take Abdul’s money. Without exception. And if we would be quicker than Abdul, they would wait for his money. One time, Abdul dared us: “Okay, you offer your money, and I’ll offer mine, and we’ll see whose they take.” He was right, of course. It was very generous, but a bit embarrassing and frustrating because he works long hours and doesn’t make a lot of money and is saving up to get married. It’s okay for a day or two, but after 2 weeks!!! We couldn’t get him to change his mind.

We visited with his friends Ali and Mohammed Nour. Ali was dark with rugged good looks. He is a butcher and dinner at his house was a real affair. We feasted on liver, kidney, lungs, grilled meat, sheep patty with tomato and mint sauce, and tomato, cucumber, and mint salad. There was tons of food. “Eat, eat,” they kept saying. After dinner, out came the biggest platter of fruit I’ve ever seen. Bananas, apples, and peaches stacked sky high. The apples were the biggest I’ve ever seen, and the peaches weighed over 1 lb.! Ali’s wife prepared the food, but because of strict segregation rules between men and women, did not eat with us.

Dinner at Nour’s house was similar in the types of food offered and also the fact that his mother prepared the food, but the women did not eat with us. The oldest of six children, Nour was very handsome with beautiful blue eyes. He had a very open face, a good and honest face. I spoke mostly with his mother and 16-year old sister in the drawing room while Stephane stayed on the balcony with the men and brothers. Nour spent a fair amount of time in between the men and women. He and his family were about the only people we met who didn’t talk about how they hate Americans and Jews. They were open-minded and curious, and we talked and listened to each other with a mutual respect.
As we walked home from Nour’s house in the early morning hours, the streets were crowded with people walking and sitting in chairs along the streets. Women sat in groups with their children, covered in black, while men sat in little groups smoking the fruit-flavored water pipe. Children rode their bicycles and played. It’s no surprise that the streets are so busy at night. It’s the only time of day when it isn’t unbearably hot.

We watched TV a bit while Abdul-Hamid was at work. We saw Syrian soap operas, which featured camels and men with campy mustaches and beards wearing turbans. We saw “Top Gun”, minus the love scene between Charlie and Pete Mitchell. Strange, because in other TV movies and in advertisements, they don’t seem to mind showing naked women and a lot of very hardcore pornography. Surprising in a country that covers up its women and hides them away.

The City:
When my stomach and my neck would permit, we would try to get out and explore the city a bit. Aleppo vies with Damascus for the title of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It is at least 5000 years old. Like in Istanbul, different streets or parts of streets are reserved for one thing: tires, pumps, bicycles, bookshops, etc. The Christian quarter is especially nice with its narrow alleyways and charming streets. It is quite lively at night. Young people hang out on the streets, dressed in European-style clothing, the women with bare heads and shoulders. It is the only part of Aleppo where you will see mixed groups male and female friends.

Things that I didn’t like about Aleppo were the mountains of trash that filled the streets and parks, the horn-happy drivers whose sole purpose in life seem to be to deafen everyone around them, and the never-ending politics.

What I loved were the souqs (covered markets). Covering several hectares and running a distance of 10 km., they were by far the most interesting part of Aleppo. Parts of the souq date to the 13th century, but most of it was built during the Ottoman period. Once inside, under the vaulted stone ceilings, you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to another world – as if time has stood still and things are continuing much the same as they have for hundreds of years (except for a few motorcycles and cell phones). Donkeys laden with goods still walk among the shops.

The markets can be either traditional or modern. Some typical handicrafts include textiles, handprinted cloth, brocades, local silk, carpets, rugs, ceramic, pottery, brass, gold jewellery, leather products, and woodcarvings inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Again, as in Istanbul, each street or corner had their specialty: olive oil soap in huge blocks (a specialty of Aleppo), scissors, buttons, threads, rope, fabric, material, wedding dresses, jewellery, spices, nuts, caramel, cumin, figs, scarves, sandals, silver.

Among the souqs are many khans, which date from medieval times and provided for the merchant. Khans have been described as a “motel, warehouse, and shopping center rolled into one.” It is the equivalent of the caravanserai in Turkey, and almost every other building in the old souq of Aleppo is a khan. They still provide warehousing and sales space for today’s merchants.

The Old City of Aleppo has been classified as a UNESCO site. To learn more about the cultural heritage of Aleppo, please click on the section entitled “UNESCO sites” under the Syrian flag.