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Published: April 17th 2008
Syria is fast becoming one of my favourite countries as it possesses the four ingredients that make for memorable travel: attractions, culture, food and people. The splendours of Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra awakened me to the first two of these ingredients, but for the final two, I needed to plunge into the cities of Aleppo and Damascus.
Aleppo reminded me of a smaller version of Cairo - though cleaner and without perfume sellers shadowing my every step. Here was a city proud of its heritage and of its food - I tasted scrumptious shwarmas
from street sellers, for they mixed the typically cooked chicken with a selection of northern Syrian spices and chillies that made the one dollar I paid for each shwarma
seem an incredible bargain. There was also the opportunity to indulge in the rich Syrian desserts. I thought that some of the desserts I concoct in my kitchen were rich in taste, but when compared to their Syrian counterparts they are mere pretenders. The ultimate is one called halawat al-jibn
, a soft pastry filled with an equally soft cheese, drowned in syrup and then served hot - even my sweetened teeth had difficulties finishing only one
The Aleppo souq was one of the most memorable as it is still used by local people to purchase produce and products, and as it was not geared towards tourists, it retained a charm that is lacking in many other Middle Eastern markets. Aleppo exuded a warmth that had me stopping frequently to answer questions from curious locals as to my heritage and my opinion of their country and their city. It was in Aleppo that I met an economics student called Kamal - and he invited me to his home to partake in dinner with his family. I travelled with him on a decrepit mini-bus and we subsequently walked through the unpaved streets and stark concrete buildings to his home.
I sat amongst the cushions on the floor and responded to numerous questions about Australia, Syria, Christianity, Islam and Taoism. Being a male, it meant that the only people I spoke to were other males - the only indication that anyone of the female gender resided in the house was the occasional cheeky interruptions by two very young girls who kept peering through the door at the foreigner present in their home. The meal I
was served sitting on the floor was absolutely delicious - lamb mince with vegetables - with the addition of rice and Syrian bread. And as is the custom here, we ate everything with our hands. The men of the house all devoured the dish with a delight equal to mine, and it was obvious that the faceless females of this household had mastered the art of cooking. After several hours of discussions that involved discourses of complex concepts in the simplest of English language, it was time to depart. Kamal led me through the benighted streets where children played football in the gloom, onto another mini-bus and back to the centre of Aleppo.
Kamal’s kindness was not the only instance of generosity I encountered from the Syrians. Once in a taxi, I commented favourably on the traditional Syrian music the taxi driver was playing in his car, so he insisted on giving me the CD. On another occasion, when visiting the spectacular Roman theatre at Bosra, the lateness of the bus meant that I only had 50 minutes to enjoy the site. A pharmacy student called Yahea, who I befriended on the bus, dashed off to borrow a motorcycle
so that he could drive me to the theatre and back, as he knew I was pressed for time.
But this kindness was not just restricted to similar instances of male bonding. Whilst sightseeing with Reiko (the solo Japanese traveller mentioned in the previous blog) at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, a squat elderly lady with deep furrows on her brow and dressed in a pale full-length cloak approached Reiko. The lady spoke quickly, but her sparkling eyes and countenance indicated that she meant no harm. Reiko looked bemused as the lady pressed her hand against Reiko’s face before kissing her gently on each cheek and forehead. The lady then waddled off with a generous farewell of the hand, leaving us both feeling as if this was yet another instance of the love the Syrians show to their foreign visitors.
The journey to Syria ended here in Damascus, where visits to the Azem Palace and the enormous souq al-Hamidiyya (and its adjoining souqs including souq Al Bozoreia) were amongst the highlights. Though the souq was grander than the one at Aleppo, it was too geared for the tourist and had lost the intimate charm of the Aleppo counterpart.
However, the undisputed star of Damascus was the Umayyad mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, where I sat for several hours in the magnificent marble courtyard that presented a passing passage of pilgrims. Also buried within the confines of the mosque’s grounds was Salah-ad-Din, the revered Muslin leader who battled against the Crusaders in the 12th century, and who was the most chivalrous fighter that the Crusaders never had.
The final night in Syria saw me enjoy one of the finest dining experiences of all my travels. I happened upon the Naranj restaurant in the Old City of Damascus, a cavernous restaurant with ample wood panelling and a gleaming white and silver kitchen that could be viewed through the large windows facing the diners. Nestled comfortably near a corner, I enjoyed a magnificently grilled chicken and lamb, followed by yet more of those sickly-sweet Syrian desserts. The evening concluded with a sheesha smoking session of strawberry tobacco that saw me blowing smoke from various facial orifices. It was a most humorous manner with which to finish the incredible two week journey through this country.
The impression one has of Syria is far different to the reality.
The simplistic stereotype of Syria painted by certain simplistic world leaders unfortunately forms a perception of the country that is plainly fallacious. The Syrian people are most grieved that Western countries harbour such a negative impression of them, and it is difficult to explain to the Syrians that ignorance, assisted by certain political leaders and sections of the media, are the reason for this misunderstanding.
Syria is one of the most incredible countries I have every visited as it surpassed every expectation. It is inevitable that one day I will return in order to gaze at the ruins for a second time, to once more enjoy the culture, to further savour the delicious food, and most importantly, to again mingle with the Syrians, who are some of the gentlest and friendliest people of the Middle East.
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