Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Syria before Mordor - Part 2
Khaled whips out his mobile telephone to proudly show off pictures of his children eating ice-creams, two charming little girls. His wife, he tells us with dejection, wears the Hijab because it is custom. She works as well, teaching school to boys under the age of eleven from their home in the village. He explains that women working out of doors is not allowed.
He drives us around the city, darting about through the monstrous traffic, joining in the rhythmic ebb and flow of vehicles as they amazingly avoid crashing into each other… How they do this is a mystery. We peer through the cab windows in awe as a huge Mercedes truck vies for space next to us on the bustling road while a three-wheeled- lawn-mower-engine contraption attempts to overtake. Khaled announces ‘Syrian Car’!
No one bumps or hits anyone on the road, not that you would notice. A myriad of twenty year old Mercedes dash between Toyotas and Hyundais. We spot a brand-new Land Rover at the neon traffic lights, signals that count down from thirty seconds like a digital clock. Green for Go and red for Stop, like the colours of Aleppo, largely faded by the sun. Car horns beep loudly, people are shouting, pedestrians trying to cross the street. It could be an alternative New York City, with its hundred yellow cabs and “Do you speak any English?” drivers.
The time machine had stopped for a moment as Khaled jumps out at a corner to ask a friend for directions. They say people are the same where ever you go. Perhaps this is true, if people are open, friendly, and willing to help strangers. This was, on the most part, our experience as we recalled our first impressions from earlier in the week.
We laughed about Muhammad and the cigar smoking Syrian Arab who completed our money exchange transaction by swapping Dollars for Syrian Pounds using an empty Kleenex box. We felt like millionaires for a second or two before remembering that one thousand Syrian Pounds are the equivalent of a couple of Euros. But they were more than enough to get us where we wanted to go.
Our destination was The Citadel, one of the oldest medieval fortresses in the world. We headed for the curb-side on foot, bemused we looked in all directions. Mohammad called out to us, “You can walk there, no need for a taxi”. “Really, it’s that close?” We quizzed him from across the street. He pointed east and there it was, just visible over the tower blocks. It’s outer wall towering above a grimy cityscape, a hint of majesty through the haze of the sun. It startled us from a distance, like Fire Mountain (Mount Doom) of The Lord of the Rings fame. It was our goal, our quest. We needed to get there and it didn’t seem all that far away after all.
We began our walk just as the midday sun beat down, ensuring we’d always remember the way next time we ventured east. It was thirty-six degrees in the shade, dry, and the air was filled with a pungent aroma of cinnamon and exhaust fumes. Decomposing fruit, mingled with a waft of the Hookah smoke emanating from coffee shops and doorways of dusty buildings that had seen better days.
This was the thing about Aleppo. You could literally see it, feel it, those ‘better days’. If you looked close enough, rubbed your finger into the dust, you would reveal the layers beneath, hinting at better times.
Once, all of this was new; the rust was gilded, the blues were shining copper, the intricate stone work gleaming, and the dull marble was effervescent. Now it was all covered in a fine layer of yellowish dust, an orangey tone, a hue of brown. To find the bright vibrant colour you had to look underneath, inside the ‘souk’, where artificial light and draft strips away the dirt, and the truth leaps out at you from the covered market stalls hidden beneath the grimy city streets.
An archway beckoned us to venture further inside, the mouth of an endless tunnel, where crowds of people jostled and poked, and some prodded us, as we pushed passed them. A woman mumbled, someone shouted what could have been abuse, a man spat near our feet. We were quickly signalled to turn down a different route in the souk to avoid the butcher carving up the carcass of a sheep.
It was their territory and we were doing what all Westerners have done for centuries, invading theirs. We attempted to purchase their goods and test our haggling skills, and we tried not to show disrespect for their religion, infidels that we were, clueless tourists loving every minute of our ‘adventure’. Stall holders looked at us and turned to each other laughing. What a sight we must have been.