Syrian make-up & underwear vendors, Aleppo cherry kebab, dancing through traffic & the divisiveness of Iran opinions...

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March 7th 2011
Published: March 7th 2011
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Over the last few afternoons in Aleppo, I've whiled away a couple of hours in a lovely coffeeshop/restaurant called Ahlildar. It has an unbeatable location in an elegant renovated traditional Arabic courtyard house, with an upstairs terrace overlooking the entrance/courtyard/garden of the Great Mosque, and the main street of the Old City leading up to the citadel standing high on hill in the near distance. So I sit there on the terrace in the late afternoon sun, listening to sensuous Arabic pop music playing from the TV (music which my Italian friend but current Beirut resident Tommy dubs 'habibi shawarma music', because 98% of Arabic popular songs feature the word 'habibi' *my love* at least once, if not several times, and because shawarma is the equally ubiquitous fast food of the Middle East, virtually identical to doner kebab wrapped in pita bread).

I sample delicious Levantine cuisine like m'tabbal (a dip made of eggplant, tahini, garlic and lemon juice), hummus with pine nuts and sesame seeds, cherry kebab (an Aleppine specialty - meatballs cooked in a thick sour cherry sauce) and shanklish cheese balls rolled in thyme, red pepper and chilli powder. After gorging myself like a glutton on such fine food, I pull out my book and hold it upright in one hand to read, and in the other hand I smoke a nargileh (water pipe), the wafting plumes of smoke and flavour of which somehow relax me.

The book is 'Iran Awakening', about the life of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning, determined and dedicated Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi. You see, wherever I go, Iran is never far from my thoughts, whether it's: devouring Iranian cinema either in my home or at the Melbourne International Film Festival (and subsequently meeting Iranian expats in the audience, who promptly invite me to their home for dinner, in true Iranian style!); reading as many books about Iran as I can; pricking up my ears when I hear Farsi spoken in public, and striking up a conversation with the Iranian, student of Farsi or person who has an Iranian spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend; or lastly, when people ask me questions about my travels to Iran.

On that last point: I truly feel like I am a walking, talking guidebook or unofficial ambassador for travel to Iran! Whenever people find out that I've been to Iran, I typically get one of two reactions. Reaction 1) an incredulous look, followed by a frown and a glare of suspicion and contempt, and a tirade going something like this: "Why would you want to go to IRAN, you're crazy!", "They don't respect women there - you could be raped and stoned to death!", "Why on earth would you go to a country where you can't have any fun because all the people are fundamentalists?", "It's so unsafe and dangerous there", or "Iranians are not like us". Reaction 2) a wide-eyed look of curiosity, followed by an excited expression and an inquisitive multitude of questions, going something like: "Wow, that's so cool that you've been to Iran, I've always wanted to go there!", "What's it like in Iran? Tell me EVERYTHING!", "I'll be going there soon as a single female - is it safe there for me? Do I need to take any special precautions?", "I'm so interested in learning about Iran - are any of the news portrayals really true?".

During the occasions of Reaction 2), I feel like I am treated as the most illustrious sage on the subject of Iran, because the people are usually leaning in really close to me, often surrounding me, drinking up every word I say as if it were Gospel! By contrast, during Reaction 1) occasions, I am dumbfounded by the belligerent stance of my interlocutor...and indeed, it's even a stretch to call them an interlocutor, since when I calmly but bitingly replied, I could tell that my words were not being acknowledged even a smidgeon....these people do not wish to learn, they seem to just wish to use me as a sounding board to vent their existing ignorant picture of the world. And naturally, tellingly, ALL the people of Reaction 1) have NEVER EVEN ONCE BEEN TO IRAN.

But for all the people who I speak to about Iran, I nearly always end our discussion with a more condensed version of the following: "Just GO to Iran to see for yourself! Iran is one of those places that evokes so much hot-headed division and strong opinions from all and sundry, no one can wholly believe me until they simply go to the country themselves, no matter how much I wax lyrical about it until I'm blue in the face. I'm not saying that there aren't hardships, problems, contradictions and frustrations in Iran - of course there are - but go to Iran, come back and then tell me whether you think the same about it as before you left. I bet the experience would have moved you so profoundly, that you'll immediately become a part of Reaction 3), (that I forgot to mention previously), which is: people who have also been to Iran, and can't stop talking about it with other iranophiles - about the open-minded, generous, intelligent and exceptionally friendly Iranians; the yummy home-cooked food and in-depth discussions at endless invitations to lunch and dinner at locals' homes; the amusing 'faux-pas' incidents of culture clash, usually laughed away by relaxed Iranians (including policeman and mullahs, at times!); how we feel safer walking the streets of Iran at night than in our home countries; and the incredible scope of history and empires of Persia/Iran, strewn across magnificent contrasting landscapes over this vast land."

Ok, transport back to the Ahlildar restaurant in Aleppo, Syria. So before I immerse myself in my book, I always spend a long time gazing down at the scenes below me, the composition and colours of which change every few minutes as the sun sets and people come and go. There's the street vendors spread out along the cobbled street, selling anything from: bright red chillies piled high on a small wooden cart, as the vendor's small son proudly helps his father push the cart along; annoyingly shrill wind-up toys that block people's path, or bubble-blowers that send a stream of bubbles flying over the flurry of people variously browsing or rushing past; large, green, fan-like vine leaves stacked up on the ground, as the bored vendor man chain smokes, leaning against the gate of the Grand Mosque; pungent ochre-coloured spices and trademark Aleppine strongly-scented soap made of laurel, olive and bayleaf (no one can recount a story of Aleppo without mentioning its scents...smells are all-engulfing in this city!); moustachioed, middle-aged men selling make-up and women's underwear (vendors in Syria are exclusively male..I've yet to see one female seller anywhere), causing me to chuckle to myself as I imagine going up to one of the portly men as a woman, to ask "Excuse me, what bra size do you think I am?", "Can I be measured for a bra?", "What eyeshadow suits my skin tone?", "Is this foundation breathable?", wondering what reaction I'd get!

My cheeky demeanor also couldn't help being amused one day as I spotted a large group of middle-aged female European-looking (I suspect French or Italian) tourists making a spectacle of themselves at the entrance to the Grand Mosque. Now, as (almost!) everyone knows, all women have to cover their hair and dress in long, conservative clothes in order to enter a mosque...and naturally these tourists weren't wearing appropriate clothes, so they had to don the floral, sheet-like garments given to them on loan at the door. But rather than just accepting this, putting on the clothes and entering the mosque without any fuss, these 20-odd women proceeded to argue and animatedly confer with each other at length before dressing themselves in these mosque-appropriate garments. And when they finally did reach a consensus that yes, it was acceptable for all of them to don the strange clothes because this mosque was worth seeing, they did so in such a comical manner: all 20 or so women were blocking the entrance to the mosque, completely oblivious to the Muslims who actually wanted to enter the mosque to pray, and who had to snake around this gaggle of women. The Europeans giggled and fussed about how seemingly preposterous they thought such garments were...holding up the loose baggy pants to fully scan them quizzically before tripping over their own feet to put them on, accidentally tying their headscarves over their eyes, so getting help from others to tie it properly, and all of them commenting on each others' new look. But most amusing of all was the crowd of Syrians who stood watching these women a short distance away from the entrance courtyard of the mosque: the locals were taking photos of the bevy of Continental women, laughing and some were pointing...the tourists had become the attraction! I almost felt like giving the women a round of applause once they finally entered the mosque after approx 25 mins, as though I was an audience member watching a jaunty operetta from a balcony booth in a theatre/opera house.

I also love taking in the arched, Venetian-style window frames; the old second-storey wooden bay windows that jut out to overlook the street below (a local told me that these traditional wooden structures were made for the kept women of a household, so that the women could have a glimpse of the outside world through the gaps in the wooden slats, but no one on the outside could see them); flocks of pigeons dip and swirl high in the sky; the citadel commands your gaze as the ancient fortress guardian of Aleppo, from its perch on a dark green hill; there's the flat rooftops of people's cream-coloured Arabic courtyard homes punctuated with satellite dishes, contrasted with the grey round domes and soaring minaret of the Grand Mosque....and all of these buildings are glowing a soft peachy-golden hue as the sun's setting rays casts its last glimmer of warmth over the city for the day. Once darkness falls, the street vendors pack up and desert the main marketplace street, and the customers file into the labyrinthine covered souks instead; alas, I do not have a view of the crowded and colorful activity within the warrens of Aleppo's 12 km of souks from my comfortable restaurant terrace! So I muse for a bit about all the myriad of humanity I've observed below me these few afternoons, I pray that I haven't been exhibiting Orientalism in my thoughts or writings (causing my dearly respected Edward Said to rap me over the head from on high 😊, and I lower my eyes back to my book, carrying myself away from Aleppo, and into the world of Tehran's recent past.

P.S. Does anyone have any suggestions for a good book about Syria? I've found and read heaps of books on Lebanon, Iran and Palestine, but precious little with Syria as the setting! I've almost finished 'Iran Awakening', so I'd really like to read something on Syria: I don't mind whether it be (auto)biography, novel, short story, poetry anthology or history account. Any recommendations are very welcome!

P.P.S. Announcement: yesterday I achieved something that I hadn't been able to do in all my 26 years, 7 months and 1 week prior....*drumroll*...I crossed a busy street of traffic without even once freaking out, hesitating or repeatedly murmuring "I'm gonna die!, I'm gonna die!". (Anyone who's met me in person will know how comically timid I am at crossing ANY street...I have a major phobia for street-crossing!). And I didn't cross just any old street - I crossed one of the busiest streets in Aleppo, Sharia al-Mutanabi, a chaotic four lane main road with cars perpetually hurtling down it, a road that one has to cross to get from the main budget hotel district near the historic Clock Tower to the Old City.

Now, as anyone who's been to the Middle East would well know (and I've heard this is common in many other parts of the world, too), traffic rules are universally flouted/ignored. Particularly in Iran, one's car is considered one's castle of freedom, where one feels that he/she can do whatever he/she likes with (relative) impunity. And even though drivers in Lebanon and Syria (the only other Middle Eastern countries I can speak about from experience, apart from Turkey and the UAE) don't have as much excuse as Iranians for wanting to experience moments of abandon in their vehicles, (that Iranians can't easily experience anywhere else due to their government's laws), they still drive just as crazily, erratically and rapidly! Also, there is a chronic shortage of traffic lights to help pedestrians to cross roads, and zebra crossings are naturally ignored. Therefore, as a pedestrian, you just have to firstly make eye contact with the oncoming drivers (or at least keep your head up, looking towards them), then purposefully set out into the road, walking quickly but calmly, and the cars will either weave around you or slow down/stop in a seemingly impossiblly fast timeframe from their former gung-ho racing-car speed. The key is: don't run suddenly, dart around, panic or hesitate like a stunned deer in the headlights.

Because I thought this impossible to achieve up to the inaugural abovementioned moment, I had instead been using that tried-and-true traveller/foreigner method of: wait for a local person to arrive, stand next to them, and cross when they cross. But on the glorious day of my successful crossing, upon reaching the edge of the intersection of Sharia al-Mutanabi, I was somehow able to instinctually time my movements, to calculate the distance between the four speedily oncoming cars at the front of the numerous vehicles, to confidently stride out by myself and purposefully walk calmly across the street, knowing when to slightly pause between the cars and when to continue to the other side. It's like a dance, really - the key is to make eye contact with your partner(s), just feel the environment in that very moment and forget about any distractions, don't overthink it or panic, and simply flow with and complement the movements of your dancing partner(s), being careful to not step on their toes or bump into them.

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