'Ahlan Wa Sahlan' (Welcome) From Syria To My Inaugural Post!

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February 28th 2011
Published: March 1st 2011
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Aleppo Citadel Kids Eating up the Camera!Aleppo Citadel Kids Eating up the Camera!Aleppo Citadel Kids Eating up the Camera!

(The girl in the middle is the pint-sized but formidable leader of the group :)
It's not often I get those "pinch myself" moments, where I'm engulfed by a sense of pure wonderment and awe at being in a particular place and having met particular people in that very place. But I've already experienced two of such moments in my two weeks spent so far here in Syria. I think my lack of "pure wonderment" moments is because, as a frequent traveller, sometimes I get caught up in the regular traveller/tourist routine of: book onward transport, peruse map to find my way, check into a hotel, see the main recommended sights, take photos, find a place to eat, hopefully try to meet a combo of locals and foreigners to talk to, write an email to Mum, crawl into hotel bed and do it all again. And in doing all these necessary things on one's own in a foreign country, on the move all the time, it's easy to forget to appreciate such things as: the journey you've taken to be in a country - how many kilometres from home are you? Did you take an aeroplane to get here? How long would it have taken a traveller 100 years ago, or even 60 years ago, to travel from Melbourne, Australia (my hometown) to Aleppo, Syria? Sharni, how lucky you are to be able to transport yourself so quickly/easily to be amongst the people of Syria in their country, to experience their culture that has absorbed influences from so many empires over the years (Hittites, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, French, to name as many as I can think of)! So, here's the first of two occasions I have felt such appreciation in Syria so far:

1: Aleppo, Syria, on Thursday February 24th, 2011

Strolling through the streets of the UNESCO-listed Old City of Aleppo, I marvelled at how relaxed I felt walking through this city with the bright winter sunshine beaming down from an unblemished blue sky. Marvelled, because everything around me was so 'exotic' and different from home, normally this would have made me feel like I'd uncomfortably 'stand out' as a foreigner tourist who didn't fit in, and wouldn't be able to mix freely amongst the people without being hassled or otherwise treated differently. (Background note: when I say 'normally', I mean as in based on my experience during 1 week spent in the mostly rainy grey capital Damascus earlier on, where I felt painfully aware of my 'foreign-ness', because vendors would often get verbally aggressive and follow me if I refused to go into their shop to buy something from them in the Old City).

But no, I felt so comfortable in Aleppo: in the cavernous, snaking, tunnel-like historic souks (markets), sharing the dirt path floor with sweaty keffieh-wearing (a chequed scarf that men wear in Arab countries as a symbol of Arab identity, usually red-and-white or black-and-white in colour, but can be in black-with-bright-colours as well) leather-faced men, yelling "Y'allah!" (Make way!) as they push their heaving produce on wheelie-movers to their store. Comfortable as nimble tea-tray-carrying young boys balance the many glasses of steaming tea on their copper platters, as they duck and weave from the splintered donkey and horse-drawn carts rattling down the narrow arched aisles. Comfortable as multitudinous caged birds sing stridently from their position at the top of every store; and women, their whole bodies and faces swathed in a loose black opaque gown and hood, no doubt smile at me I presume, as I wonder whether they can possibly see anything through their face veils (I found out later that yes, they can see through their veils...the area of the veil around the face is made from a very thin mesh, so that the wearer can see out, but her onlookers cannot see anything of her). Still I felt comfortable walking alongside buxom, plump, stern-faced middle-aged Muslim women deftly carrying large crates of goods on their heads; and beside a 'wandering portable-tea-vendor' man, who clashes a tiny set of cymbals to a merry tune to get customers' attention, and then dispenses cups of tea to an appreciative clientale via a huge copper traditional-style teapot that he has strapped to his back, and which towers over him like the spire of La Tour Eiffel.

And the reason I felt so at ease? Well, the reason is, because quite simply, Aleppines do not just live for tourists; instead, daily life goes on in the streets and souks of the Old City as it has for centuries. I can barely explain how refreshing that is: it gives the Old City of Aleppo such a vibrance, such an authenticity, such a living sense of history, and such a colourful and bustling array of local people...that I think no one can avoid falling in love with the place and feeling relieved that they can mix with the locals in their daily life (and, as crass as this may sound...without being treated like a walking-ATM!). I say this because, so many Old Towns of other cities of the world virtually entirely convert themselves over to tourism....so certainly, the places sure do look pretty in photos, but due to the Old Town being abandoned by locals, there's often a museum-like 'dead relic' lack of atmosphere to such cities...you can't feel the sense of living history all around you, like you can in intoxicating Aleppo. (NB: I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of tourists in Aleppo...indeed there are...and naturally there are a few restaurants outside major sights that have jacked-up prices obviously geared towards tourists. But these few blights are the exception, rather than the rule/trend. Instead, the rule in the Old City of Aleppo's ongoing maintenance by UNESCO, is to keep the Old City as a thriving centre for Aleppines to continue living in their historic Arabic courtyard homes, worshipping in its stately mosques, and doing business via mostly Syrian-sourced merchants in the old souks. Also, to improve amenities for people without damaging the precious architecture, so that the residents will remain in the Old City and not desert it for the modern city). Long may that reign, I say!

So I was already all abuzz when I decided to ascent the dramatic hilltop citadel of Aleppo. The citadel sits perched atop a high man-made mound, with a (dried up) moat surrounding it; it was originally built circa 340 BC by the Seleucids, but most of its current structures are from around 1200-1300 AD, while under Mamluk rule. Once I passed through the imposing entrance gate, up many stairs forming the bridge over the moat, I was faced with a panorama of remains almost forming a little city in itself: a restored hammam (bath-house), a mosque, an amphitheatre, a fort, a palace and tall watch-towers et al. I was so struck by this (I had been expecting to see just a bare, abandoned fort in ruins), and the many maze-like rocky pathways within which to explore the site, that I wandered around goggle-eyed for a long time. All was quiet with very few people, and I especially enjoyed mounting the tallest tower, to make like a a proud Arab Muslim watchmen from 800 years ago, keeping a look-out for marauding Christian Crusader invaders.

After all this exploring for about 2 hours, I eventually sat down on one of the upper benches of the modest but fine-looking amphitheatre, to take a rest and replenish myself with a sugary drink. But then suddenly, a cacophonous sea of dozens of (predominantly) royal-blue clad primary-aged schoolchildren flooded the bathed-in-sun cream-hued theatre. It was 1pm on a Thursday: schoolchildren finish school early on Thursdays, since the weekend in majority-Muslim countries like Syria is on Fridays...so perhaps the teachers thought to bring the kids to the citadel to keep them occupied until their parents came home from work. Anyway, I was happily gazing down at this flurry of activity at the foot of the amphitheatre, when all of a sudden, a group of about 15 schoolkids came up behind me, giving me a surprise! They were all excitedly speaking in Arabic to me at the same time (I didn't know who to focus my attention on...they were all scrambling over one another to talk to me!), until a pint-sized ragamuffin-looking girl, who was the obvious leader of the gang of friends, pushed through to the front and proudly reeled off in English "Hello, Miss! How are you? Where are you from? What is your name?". I answered, but she didn't understand, as she'd obviously memorised these expressions through rote learning. As soon as she finished speaking, the clamour for my attention resumed, with the most confident of the boys and girls putting their arms around my neck, pulling my arm, eyeing off the camera in my lap, gripping my hands, and all yelling "Ana, ana, ana! Soura, soura, soura!" ('Me, me, me! Photo, photo, photo!' in Arabic). Slow-witted me finally got the message that they were desperate to have their photos taken...

So I started snapping them, and the children totally ate up the camera! I then showed them how to use the camera, and they took turns taking photos of each other. Every single time a photo was taken, most of the kids would cluster around the camera, and upon viewing the photo of themselves or their schoolmates, would burst into raucous laughter! The children seemed to have a competition going, of who could pull the cheekiest/silliest face for the photo! Their effervescent laughter echoed across the whole amphitheatre, and out of the corner of my eye I spied an ethnic Asian fellow tourist smiling broadly as he watched the above antics from a short distance away. Eventually, in a combo of English, very bad basic Arabic and demonstrative hand gestures, I got the message across to the kids that I myself wanted to be in a photo with them. They loved this, and even the more shy kids who had not been so boisterous like the others (they'd been hanging at the back of group, quietly observing me), wanted to get in the photo(s) with me. Many of the kids had amazing, unusual vivid-green or hazel-coloured eyes that totally lit up the shots. I was having such a good time with these beautiful, inquisitive children...but then abruptly, came the vexed, shrill calls of their teachers for the kids to return to order. And, just as suddenly as they'd come, the children hurriedly descended the amphitheatre benches, lined up two-by-two upon instruction, and disappeared down the main entrance stairs of the citadel, and back down into the streets of the Old City of Aleppo. All was silent atop the citadel once again, acutely bereft of the bubbling laughter of children that had given it such life only moments before.

As I sat in the same spot at the crest of the theatre, still stunned at the impromptu departure of my young friends, two middle-aged men walked up to me; the taller of the two, with unusual pale north-Slavic-looking features, introduced himself and his companion in English as Heysam and Khaled, both local Aleppine Syrians. Then Heysam asked me "We were both wondering - what do you think of Syria? Do you like it here in Aleppo? Do you feel comfortable? Have our people been kind to you?". With so many positive emotions running through me, but none of them forming into eloquent speech at that moment, I simply rapidly spluttered something like "Why, yes of course I feel comfortable here! The Syrians I've met have been so very kind to me...I couldn't ask for anything better! I'm very happy here in Aleppo!'. Heysam and Khaled both smiled serenely; Khaled wishing me "Ahlan Wa Sahlan, Habibti" ('You are welcome, my dear' in Arabic), and Heysam heartfeltedly offering in English "You are most welcome in Syria. We are honoured to have you as a guest in our country. Enjoy yourself". And with that, they were gone.

A buoyant sense of joy and contentment washed over me, as I spent the following 45 mins in reflection atop the citadel. I thought "Now THESE are the days that every traveller yearns for!". Those days when one feels humbled by the sheer awesomeness (sic 😊 of the locals. Those days when one is overcome by an evocative sense of place and history. Those days when something entirely unexpected happens. Those days when one feels so privileged to be wholly welcomed, without having given anything in return. In short, those days where one appreciates the beauty of (the traveller's) life, and all its myriad soul-enriching encounters along the way.

P.S. Stay tuned for Encounter 2 of "pure awesomeness" moment in Syria, coming up in next post 😊. Also, more importantly, I'd love any feedback on my first ever proper travel blog post; if I'm not too incoherent, cliche or boring, I may just start blogging regularly!

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


Me on Aleppo Rooftop SunsetMe on Aleppo Rooftop Sunset
Me on Aleppo Rooftop Sunset

I was invited in to see a local Aleppine's beautiful traditional Arabic courtyard house, replete with an iwan (ornate archway), fountain, fruit trees and ornate wood carvings and tile-work. However, the MOST beautiful thing about these houses, in my opinion, are their spectacular rooftop close views of the Old City all around you :)

2nd March 2011

Feedback? Another awesome update Sharni. :) You should definitely do more of them, if not for others then at least for yourself, while it's still fresh in your mind. I had already seen the photos of the kids but your vivid description really brought the experience to life even better. I already had Syria up there at the top of my Middle-Eastern countries to visit but you've really sold it to me all the same. :) Oh by the way, I noticed that you were dressed in fairly western clothes in some of your photos in Syria, they aren't so uptight about that?
2nd March 2011

Hey Dave! Thanks for the encouragement - it means a lot to me, my friend! And yes, you're right, there's no excuses to not visit Syria: incredible landscapes/ruins, awe-inspiring history, nice welcoming people, easy-visa-on-arrival for Aussies for AUD $75, and it's very cheap in this country as well (e.g. your own room with bathroom in a budget hotel in centre of town AUD $12-16, felafel street food AUD 0.60 cents, sit-down meal in an eatery frequented by locals AUD $6, for every hour of bus travel AUD $1). The only thing not cheap about Syria are the flights to get to this country :-(. Therefore, many travellers I met said that they got a cheap flight to a Turkish airport from Europe, and then took a bus down to Aleppo from there. Re your clothing comments: people are completely free in Syria to dress as they please...there are local girls in the Christian Quarter of Aleppo wearing knee-high boots, painted-on jeans, tight tops and a ton of make-up (reminiscent of Beirut)...in the Old City of Aleppo, the Muslims tend to dress very conservatively (MUCH more conservative attire than in Iran...but more on that later...) with women often being if not fully veiled than frequently just showing their eyes under their loose black robes, and men wearing their own type of long robes or Kurdish-style baggy pants and keffieh on their heads. And often with the women, there's an amusing mix between the two styles, in that a young Muslim woman will be dutifully covering every strand of her hair with her headscarf and have long sleeves, BUT she'll be wearing a short top that shows off her bottom hugged by her skintight jeans and high boots! Or the other example is a Syrian Muslim woman wearing headscarf and long loose coat, but she'll have donned a short skirt that showcases her bare legs! So my point is, that many people wear Western clothes in Syria - it's not frowned upon. The only definite public no-no I've found is cleavage! (Which is why I've taken to draping a scarf around my neck, lol). I mean, since it's cold-ish weather in the time I'm here, I can't say how the local people of Syria dress in the summertime e.g. whether tank tops, short shorts or singlet tops are normal to wear in public. I'm sure skimpy clothing such as that would be fine in liberal Mediterranean Lattakia...but in other parts of Syria, I'm not sure. NB: For anyone reading this who is not Australian, the AUD (Australian dollar) is on a par with/virtually the same as the US dollar :-). This makes me very happy, as I remember well the days of travelling back in 2008, where 1 Australian dollar was woefully worth only 0.55-0.65 US cents!

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