(see slideshow of photos at the bottom of this piece)
How can you find words to describe this hell on earth that is Syria today? I can’t. Yesterday at seven, I wandered bleary-eyed in my pjs into the breakfast room of the Boma (I’m taking a rest in Entebbe). The familiar pips from BBC World News caught my attention and I perched on the sofa underneath the TV screen, mug of tea in my hands. Images of Aleppo were all over the screen. The city I visited several times when I lived in Syria between 2008 and 2012, in ruins; the people and buildings alike pulverised by the relentless and – it seems – unstoppable bombing and shelling these past few years. The green Chinese buses I used to ride, both there and in Damascus, were shown at the ready to evacuate civilians.
I can’t find words right now. But I have other words I wrote dating between eight years and four years ago, from happy times, infused with such beauty that it hurts to remember. The magnificent medieval Al-Madina souq – UNESCO world heritage site – the Mamluk “Great” Ummayad Mosque, and surrounding buildings are destroyed. I wonder if any of the old factories making traditional Aleppo soap from olive and laurel oils have survived. I have several bars of it still that I hold on to like gold. The worst destruction, of course, is the brutal and indiscriminate killing of civilians, orchestrated and facilitated in the main by the Syrian regime with the help of foreign governments, but also committed by some rebel forces. The rule of law is eroded. Accountability nil it would appear.
I happen to have some of my Syria journals with me in Africa. I’ve been trying forever (“min zeman” in Syrian Arabic) to write something from them, and have a pile of mostly unedited “vignettes”. But I am often unable to bear re-reading them because of the personal grief intertwined in the pages, and am blocked by a mean, needling “who wants to know? ” voice. I also have the many photos I took in Syria saved on multiple memory sticks. So as a kind of personal tribute to the grand city of Aleppo, to the courage and dignity of her people, and her immense hospitality to me in times past, I will write an edited version of some journal extracts of my sojourns there with various friends who came to visit me.
My friend Liz from Bath was the first to come in January 2009. Our visit to Aleppo was short but very sweet. The name of the modest B&B we stayed in is marked in either my Rough Guide or Bradt Guide to Syria which I don’t have to hand. But it was right in the middle of the old souq, off a side street, with its winter vines and blooms and array of traditional carpets draped over walls. It was cold and we enjoyed the hot street food on offer at every step through the souq, while we shopped for soap and other sundries (those particular photos seem to be lost, must ask Liz!). As in Lebanon, food was always everywhere in Syria. And it was damn good food, fresh and healthy and artisanal in its presentation. You could eat and eat and lose weight, and I did; even allowing for a fair share of cakes and sweets. The Citadel didn’t disappoint; a grand structure which you could survey at your leisure up close from one of the touristy cafés. In the evening we were regaled by musicians in the restaurant at 17th-century Beit Sissi off the historic Jdeideh Square, and tried to choose Aleppo specialties, like “Kebab Karaz”, kebabs made from minced lamb, cooked in a wild cherry sauce. The colours are spectacular, bleeding into the background of pale flatbread. Aleppo cuisine is among the best Syria has to offer (and the competition is fierce), with distinct Turkish and particularly Armenian influences.
By the time my (in those days) walking buddy from London, Joanna, arrived towards the end of May 2009, the souqs were offering shelter from the heat rather than the cold. We made the 4-hour coach journey straight up the vast highway (the “M-5”) from Damascus to Aleppo, stopping at Homs bus station on the way for what was effectively a great chip butty and conversation with Syrian fellow travellers. Our passports were closely scrutinized and recorded at every stage by the coach company staff, and passed on to the (not-always-so) secret police. No-one’s movements went un-tracked in Syria. It was (is) a police state par excellence. Still, as long as you kept your head below the political or human rights parapet, you could lead an exquisitely charmed life as an ex-pat – as I did – from your international wages and (for us) low cost of living. Public and private transport was dirt cheap and plentiful. Syrian people were gracious and tolerant. In Aleppo, we met up with my partner in crime from Damascus, Ludmila, who had two friends visiting from Switzerland. This time we sat outside Beit Sissi, taking a cold beer, before wending our way through the narrow back-streets to a superb restaurant in another restored Arab courtyard house called Kaser Al Wali. More obligatory Kebab Karaz and other mouth-watering meze and salads, all beautifully presented, washed down with some good Syrian red wine from the Orontes. The waiters were attentive and eager to please. The only down-side was the band playing “music for slitting your wrists to” (as Joanna put it).
Next morning, after a long breakfast al fresco of fresh strawberry juice, omelette, cappuccino, breads and pastries, we headed into the depths of the Citadel. It was delightful. I’d imagined a few rooms, but it turned out to be a whole spread of ruins: hammams, an amphitheatre, a (make-shift) roof terrace café with a wonderful view over the city. The whole place was steeped in romance, with young couples sneaking their hard-to-come-by trysts in every available corner in this conservative city.
As we wandered back through the souq, it was hard to make sense of our bare arms causing (male) tongues to hang out so much, when they were selling their brothel-like leather and latex underwear (for women of course) complete with zips, displayed for all to see. I tried to engage some of the young guys in conversation in my limited Arabic – certainly limited for this subject – trying to find out WHO buys this underwear, and for WHOM? What I understood was it was for private use “bil beit” (at home). Again, you had to use your imagination to envisage the women walking past us in their long, heavy coats and hijabs/niqabs, donning that leather/rubber underwear. Syria used to be famous for its raunchy underwear. Maybe still is. Like many ex-pats, I spent more than a few hilarious moments with various accomplices in the souqs in Damascus, being served by a poker-faced vendor listening to the Quran in the background, clapping his hands in order to make the battery-operated, lacy thong I’d be holding fall apart. These items even found their way into birthday and other gifts given to me along the way. Bitter-sweet memories that contribute to my writer’s block. I wonder if this tradition has survived the conflict.
Further exploration took us back to the Christian quarter and to the boutique hotel “Dar Zamaria Martini”. I had read they had a stunning rooftop restaurant, but apparently it was being refurbished. A slightly-built, camp young man in a bright purple shirt led us up to the roof. I nearly fell off when he spoke in a distinctly London accent, delivering a tirade against French tourists which had us in stitches. Abed swore he had never been outside Syria, but that he always got to meet “interesting people” in the souq. It didn’t take long to discover his passion for theatre. Against the majestic backdrop of the city and citadel, he recited for us his own poem – in English – about unrequited love. It was impressively long with rhyming couplets and triplets. Highly entertaining and also moving. I wonder where Abed is now – if he is still alive. So much senseless carnage. And it would seem that Assad has “won”.
Later we headed for the train station, where Joanna booked her ticket for the next morning for Latakia and Saladin’s Castle to the west on the Mediterranean coast (I was planning to head east with Ludmila and co). Aleppo railway station was striking in its grandeur of days gone by, with ostentatious golden chandeliers hanging from the high-ceilinged waiting room. It was the end station for Agatha Christie during the years she travelled down from London on the Orient Express to join her second husband, Max Mallowan (14 years her junior), who was doing archaeological work in the north-east of Syria
After another foray into the main souq, we exited via Bab (Gate) Antakya and took a taxi to the Baron Hotel to join Ludmila and friends for a colonial gin and tonic in the bar. Reputedly, Agatha Christie was a frequent guest there, as was T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). Contrary to the scathing write-ups in the travel guides, I found it atmospheric and charming, despite the kitsch. The guy on reception had allegedly worked there since 1975 and showed us a photo of him with Freya Stark in 1977.
Sadly, Joanna never got to make that most picturesque of Syrian rail trips from Aleppo to Latakia. When we returned to our hotel late that night, she received a call from home to say that her father had passed away earlier that day – while we were having our leisurely breakfast, she calculated. With the help of the receptionist at the Baron Hotel, we found a taxi to take us on the long drive south through the night back to Damascus. True to form, and in honour of her father, who had encouraged her adventurousness (and said if the men are behaving badly, THEY should be kept off the streets, not the women), she insisted we stop at the city of Hama on the way down, famous for its ancient wooden water wheels; and lest we forget, notorious for the massacre of tens of thousands of people in 1982, at the instigation of the father of the current President, Hafez al Assad. There were no instant internet or TV images in those days and it took days, even longer, for information to reach the outside world. How, in this age of instant communications do we ask Aleppo – and Syria – for forgiveness?