Friday, February 13, 2009
For someone who works in a school of diplomacy, I got off to an amateurish start. ‘I’m sorry I took so long! They questioned me so much at immigration. Do you know my housemate was interrogated in Cairo by the Mukhabarat and…ouch!’. My friend SK, whom I had travelled to Damascus to visit, pinched me quietly and hard, looking straight ahead as we settled into the backseat of her hired car for the long drive into the city. ‘Don’t talk about the Mukhabarat in Syria’, she said firmly later on, referring to the dreaded intelligence agency that is a standard feature of the political landscape in authoritarian Middle Eastern states. ‘I don’t know what my driver’s sympathies are. And don’t use the ‘I’ word here.’ ‘The ‘I’ word?’, I ask puzzled. ‘India?’ SK shakes her head. ‘Iran? Iraq?’ SK rolls her eyes, exasperated. ‘Israel, you idiot’, she hisses. ‘Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine?’, I recalled my visa form asking, as a penny dropped somewhere in the inner recesses of my naïve brain. In a few days I would become good at this, deriving much pleasure in taking caution to ridiculous lengths as SK and I communicated through notes (to evade the bugging equipment in her flat, we told ourselves), making sure that our astute analyses of the day’s events were shredded before they settled into the bottom of her kitchen waste. The truth is that Syria, evil axis membership notwithstanding, is an astonishingly safe and welcoming place—if you have no political agenda.
SK worked her contacts to arrange a guide to help me find my bearings in Damascus. I waited nervously at the rendezvous point, trying hard to look unobtrusive and casual despite the numerous security personnel whom I was convinced were glaring at me as they walked past. The trouble is that hanging out in Syria feels a bit like being in a Cold War movie. There is a decidedly Second World feel to the place, evident most particularly in the models of cars on the roads and the big Soviet-style concrete monstrosities that line the main boulevards, many adorned with pictures of the former President Hafez al-Assad or his ophthalmologist son Bashar, the current incumbent.
Every visitor to Damascus is told that it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and because we’re sluts for superlatives, everybody tends to head for the oldest part of this oldest city. The grandest way to enter the old city is via Souk Hamidiye, a long two-storey high covered arcade, whose ceiling is pockmarked with tiny holes. Irregular sunbeams intersect with solid shafts of light streaming in from the upper windows to produce an effect that is very beautiful, but if you look up you will be flattened by the crowds. The souk culminates in a great square, within which stands the magnificent Umayyad mosque, on a site that has been considered sacred for over three thousand years. One half of a gigantic triangular stone pediment sitting on three columns hints at the presence of the Roman temple to Jupiter that once stood here. The mosque itself is an oasis of calm at the very heart of the otherwise frenzied old city, an architectural symphony of marbled courtyards, Corinthian columns and golden mosaics.
Directly behind the Umayyad in a line of shops selling carpets, antiques and everything else that people come to Middle Eastern bazaars for, sits Al Nawfara. It calls itself a coffee shop, but Damascenes will tell you that it is a great deal more. Frequented by locals, expats and tourists alike, Nawfara is where you go when you have no plan in the old city. SK has a European diplomat friend, who is something of a fixture in the place (she thinks he is a spy). He either has a lot of time on his hands, or Nawfara is where everything is transacted. The tables are packed close and the walls feature an assortment of kitsch—Arabic calligraphy, David Beckham, Syrian tourism posters, Bashar, a man in a sombrero serenading a woman in a flouncy tinsel gown. On one of the many evenings I found myself sipping dark Arabic coffee here, a stern-looking storyteller wearing a red fez cap sat on a high chair and read out of a sombre book (the Arabian Nights, I was later told). He raised his voice now and then and suddenly slammed a sword I had not noticed down on the arms of his chair. I didn’t understand a word he said, but he made the children laugh.
In Aleppo I decided to stay at the Baron Hotel, for no other reason than the fact that T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Agatha Christie and a string of other celebrities had once been its guests. If hotels had twinning programmes, the Baron’s partner would be a decrepit colonial club in India. It features that deeply familiar combination of lovely dark wood furniture and cheap plastic ketchup bottles and napkin holders. Here too the colonials have left behind unpaid bills that the postcolonials have dutifully framed in glass. The staff run the place with an air of deep condescension, as if they were performing a public service. And you will need to take your own 60 watt bulbs. A vintage poster in the corridor outside my room advertises a journey from London to Baghdad in eight days on the Simplon Orient Express & Taurus Express, whose watchwords are, apparently, ‘Safety, Rapidity, Economy.’
If the Umayyad is the centrepiece of Damascus, the citadel is the unmistakable heart of Aleppo. It is a spectacular structure, rising high above the city on a mound, surrounded by a deep moat and impressive fortifications. The drawbridge stands on a series of dizzyingly high, narrow arches of gradually increasing height, and leads into a set of twisting passages fitted with gigantic doors at every turn. This is clever because it means that there is no single door facing the moat that might have presented an easy target for a good battering ram. The citadel contains some impressive sights, the most breathtaking of which is the throne room with its ornate ceiling and inlaid chandeliers set in an octagonal dome with stained glass windows. Don’t miss the holes in the floor, through which soldiers would have been able to pour boiling oil onto invading armies trying to make their way in through the impossible passages below.
The prettiest part of Aleppo is Jdaide, the old Christian and Armenian quarter. Unlike in neighbouring Turkey, the Armenian church here can fearlessly commemorate that community’s genocide. The nearby Maronite church with its distinctive green steeples testifies to the diverse confessional mosaic of this city. Jdaide is also home to Aleppo’s hippest restaurants and boutique hotels. It was while I was walking through its narrow walled streets that I was accosted by Mr. Iskender. He appeared quite suddenly as I studied a map, and asked if I needed help. Before I had a chance to refuse he was walking me around Jdaide, pointing out the best places to buy the famed Aleppo sweets and soaps. Round, middle-aged, with a Hercule Poirot moustache, he spoke very good English. He had studied something in Brighton for a couple of months many years ago and was pleased to have encountered in me, a visitor from England. But he had also travelled extensively in Eastern Europe. Learning languages seems to have been something of a hobby, for he spoke Russian and Polish (the latter learnt in two ten-month stints in Poland). And intriguingly, he seemed to want to talk about politics. First he talked about the Americans in Iraq, then the troubles in Lebanon, and slowly, very slowly, as if he were circling cautiously around the difficult subjects that were closest to his heart, testing the waters, seeing how I would react, he began to bemoan the fact that Arab dictators held on to power for too long and only ever handed over to their sons. ‘You know how it is…’ he trailed off vaguely. I was intrigued, but wary. Who was this man? Where was his shop? Did he have a shop? Was he some sort of government minder trying to test me? Or a dissident, trying to make conversation with a ‘safe’ person? I would never know. But SK had trained me well and my paranoia antennae were on full alert. ‘Where do you get your news?’ I asked noncommittally. As our little tour came to an end, I was preparing for the inevitable demand for some outlandish fee. But Mr. Iskender merely pointed out where the best cafes were, wished me well with a quick handshake and melted back into the by-lanes of Jdaide.
On my last morning in the Baron as I breakfasted alone in its gloomy splendour, a man walked up to me and said very confidently, ‘I am on page 339 of your guidebook and I can take you to the Dead Cities.’ The excursion proved to be an excellent way to end my trip to Aleppo. The monastery of St. Simeon is a perfect ruin—derelict enough to look historically genuine, but preserved enough to give visitors a good sense of what fifth century Byzantine architecture might have looked like. At its centre stands the rump of what was once a pillar on which, legend has it, the ascetic St. Simeon spent the last forty two years of his life. On a clear day when the sky is an azure blue, you can look out across the dry scrub valleys over a landscape that can only be described as biblical.
When I was there, people said Disneyland to refer to the unmentionable I.
I need to get my passport replaced ASAP, so I can ask the Syrian embassy for visa no. 4.