Once upon a time in Aleppo

For months now I’ve been wanting to say something about what’s happening in Syria, but words completely fail me. What could I possibly say about the suffering and the destruction? There were photos published on The Atlantic website last week that were completely devastating. Even if I hadn’t visited Syria before, I would have felt moved to tears, but the fact that I had been to Aleppo made those images even more heartbreaking. As I looked at those photos I wondered if I had walked those rubbled streets now strewn with bodies or visited the Armenian church which is now destroyed. I’m lucky that I visited Aleppo when I did because it will be years and years before tourists can go there again. Aside from the untold human cost of the horrific war, it’s almost unbelievable to see how easily an ancient city can be destroyed.

Friendly faces in Aleppo
Friendly faces in Aleppo

In thinking about what’s happening over there, I’ve published a short story called ‘Strangers in Syria‘ on an excellent storytelling website called Cowbird. I’ve written about an incident in Aleppo that’s one of my great moments in travel, because it completely changed the way I felt about being a tourist. The piece is based on a blog post I wrote at the time (June 2006), which I’m reproducing below. I’m also reproducing a response I received to it from a Syrian. The second last line of his comment is ‘There will be few changes on the way, we hope for the better.’ Tragically, that societal progress he hoped for is now further away than ever.

As it turned out, crossing over the border to Syria was totally painless, because we were lucky enough to have a Syrian businessman as a fellow passenger on board our bus. The process itself would have been so much worse if it wasn’t for him – he shepherded us from desk to desk at the border collecting signatures and stamps and changing money for us etc. So it wasn’t nearly as horrible as I feared it might be.

Aleppo was a challenging experience to say the least. For a start, it’s crowded, polluted, noisy and overwhelming. There were lots of ups and downs in the four days we were there, though on the whole it was a great learning experience and we were both amazed at the fact that we had unintentionally made it to the Middle East which is a world away from Turkey. For all the talk about a Muslim nation like Turkey joining the EU and how big a step forward it is, going to Syria made us realise that Turkey is much more European than it is Middle Eastern.

Syria is a very challenging place to travel as a woman, and I imagine it’s like that through most of the Middle East (except for cities like Beirut or countries like Israel, probably). In Aleppo I got stared at every moment I was out in public and it really got on my nerves at times. Sometimes I got the impression that it was because I looked Asian, but mostly it was because I was a foreign woman who wasn’t covered up. I got stared at quite a bit in India too but somehow it felt slightly more threatening in Syria though I don’t imagine that anything bad would have happened. I couldn’t help but feel that many of the women in Aleppo, covered up as they are from head to foot in black chadors, had been turned into walking sacks with little public personality. They didn’t smile much in public for one thing – I smiled at a lot of women and often only got a small half-smile at best. So you can imagine my surprise when I was approached by a group of women as we were hanging outside the Great Mosque shooting the breeze and watching people walk past one day. They had obviously never seen an Asian before or at least, in such close proximity, because they overcame their shyness and asked me what my name was. I was a bit taken aback by their forwardness but also immensely flattered too.

Some of the other highlights included the food which is generally much more tasty than it is in Turkey (though perhaps a bit less clean!?); the fantastic souk (market) where all kinds of amazing wares were on sale alongside animal guts and off-cuts of fabric; and it has some pretty features such as the Armenian quarter (Al-Jdeida), the Old City (where we visited a restored mental asylum from the Middle Ages) and an impressive citadel that looms over the city. We also did a half day trip to some nearby archaelogical sites including a famous one called Qalat Saaman – where a man named Simeon did a bizarre thing by living on top a column for a number of years and refusing to speak to women. Too f#$%ing strange by half – and stranger still that that pointless act turned him into a saint!!

And here’s a response I received…

I am sorry you did not enjoy EVERY minute in Aleppo, Syria. Firstly, I must admit that due to the long time isolation of the country, the people and infrastructure is not immensely tourist-friendly. I am originally from Aleppo, though I currently live in the USA. Secondly, Aleppo has one of the most conservative and traditionalist communities in Syria. However, the stares at you, albeit creates inhospitable environment at times, would almost NEVER subject you to harm. The stares are for foreigners and not for being without a cover. There are a significant number, may be 50% or more, of Woman in Aleppo, specially the young are not covered as you describe. With the right guide, you could have gone to the social and sport clubs where the women are in their Bikinis. Note that the Citadel area in Aleppo, and the Souk are the oldest most tradional places in Aleppo, and thus, you are at the heart of the most conservative areas. It is extremely beneficial to visit Syria with a guide who can really show you the endless social diversities, one of the often ignored and unpublished qualities about the Middle East. Also, in Aleppo, as in many of the oldest inhabited cities in the Middle East, the oldest most historically important places have been neglected terribly, for the urban sprawl. Over time, these areas became infested with all of society’s problems, and became a ghettos for the impoverished and indigents. There will be few changes on the way, we hope for the better. Good luck with your travels!

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