"What was that like?" is the first reaction.
In a world, wonderful. The cities, the sites, but most of all, the people, were all wonderful. It felt like the entire country came out to welcome us every day. "Welcome to Syria!" was an endless refrain.
We felt it was home to the friendliest people on the planet.
Here's one story.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2007
Sometimes being right in the middle of something, it can be difficult to see the truth for what it is. But as I go through our photos of the past one hundred days, I remember the son from the bed and breakfast in south Italy, and I see this as if it were someone else’s experience. It’s a reminder of what an opportunity we have, our good fortune of being born somewhere that allows for (or perhaps guards) a standard of living that makes a trip like this possible. Matthew wakes up and sees me on the computer, and he comes and sits close to me. I wrap my arm around him as I look through more photos. Papa, I can’t breathe, he says.
Abu al-Nawas provides a second straight day of breakfast goodness, then we discover that someone moved the Citadel in the middle of the night, so I need to ask for directions. We are so lost that the young man I talk to does not know what I’m talking about. He takes us to his home, introduces us to his elderly mother, then gets on his cell phone. Mom brings us a jug of water and four glasses, and a basket full of mandarin oranges. We have a conversation in sign language, and learn that the young man is her second-oldest of five children. She points back and forth between the two of us. Yes, we are married, these are our two boys. Canada. She smiles softly. The kindness in her eyes reminds me of the donkey-woman from Chios.
The son puts the cell phone in his pocket, and says something to his mother. Looks like it’s time to go. We thank the mom for the hospitality, then the son leads us on a dizzying path through slender back alleys. It is a couple minutes before we make our way out onto a road big enough for a vehicle. He points west, and there it is. We came from the west, then passed the Citadel by a good half mile. I don’t think we could have walked a straight line in any direction and be further away than we are now. I offer Jonas the position of head navigator.
We thank the young man for his kindness. Shukran. He puts his hands together, leans forward a tiny bit, and says, “Afwan,” all in one smooth motion, then turns and walks in the opposite direction. I watch him for a moment, and wonder all sorts of things.
A teenager walking towards us spots blond-haired Jonas from a block away. “Oh,” he says, with much drama. As he gets closer, he says, “Oh!” again, like he’s admiring a piece of art. He walks up, puts both hands on Jonas’ face, and kisses him on the cheek. “Oh!” he says, continuing on down the street.
The guidebook says the Citadel is impressive from the outside, but mostly ruins on the inside. Well, from our perspective, it’s impressive on the outside and astonishing on the inside. The gate itself is worth the six bucks (total) we pay to get in. The next doorway we go through leads down to a dungeon. A real dungeon. There are no chains on the walls, no mannequins laying about, but we can easily imagine the real thing.
There is a restored theatre, a mosque, and a tower providing a great view of Aleppo. While we stand at a distance, admiring the tower, a school group walks down the stairs, singing a song and waving to us. There are numerous people working to restore the castle, and Jonas has a conversation with one of them, an archeologist. Unfortunately, the archeologist only speaks Arabic, so it’s a pretty one-sided conversation. “Throne room,” was the one thing Jonas could understand.
Taking his navigator role seriously, Jonas takes us directly to the throne room. It is the one spot that has been completely restored. Pristine marble floors, wood-panelled walls, and an intricately carved wooden ceiling. A marvellous space.
An archeology student guides us around nearby Barmistan Arghan. A hospital for the mentally ill, it was established in the middle of the 1300s. It was renowned for its treatment techniques that included lots of music therapy, an open ceiling to provide natural light, a large central fountain providing the soothing sound of running water, access to doctors. It seemed far more humane that what was being done in Canada even forty years ago.
An old man bent over a centuries-old cart full of much fresher pistachios calls out to us. He stands at the far entrance to a gateway, silhouetted against the light behind him. Light reflects off the rough hewn cobblestones on the road. It’s a scene from an undiscovered Rembrandt, I’m certain. He names a price and I hand him the money, then he gives us a bag that almost blows out of my hand from the indiscernible breeze in the alley. The pistachios are very good, easily the best I’ve ever tasted, but c’mon man, that’s a pretty small bag.
Just like the Christian Quarter, the meandering streets and alleys of Aleppo’s old town remind us of Tuscany’s hill towns, but older and bigger. A little grittier too, but not in a bad way. People who live here outnumber tourists about five thousand to one, which I suppose is the opposite of the Italian counterpart.
At the Church of the Forty Martyrs, the man overseeing the place gives us a lengthy treatise on the inner workings of the Armenian church, shows us pictures of what we guess are the equivalent to the Pope and cardinals (except these fellas wear cloaks and tall pointy hats that are thankfully jet black). Before Laura can get any ideas, he makes it very clear that women are not allowed on the altar. We go to his office for some literature, but just before he enters, he does this curious one step forward, pause, then two back, then a big jump through the open door. It sort of reminds me of a movie where someone is left on the space station by themselves for a bit too long.
One block from our hotel, in the middle of a city of four million people, there is a store selling tires of all sizes. The front window is filled with tractor tires taller than me.
Matthew so enjoyed all the tea in Turkey’s carpet shops that he bought an apple tea mix, like kool-aid powder, at the Dia grocery store. Tonight, while we sit and relax in the hotel courtyard, he produces a bottle of water, and mixes four glasses of apple tea.
POSTED BY REY AT 11:23 PM