The Levant: Part Eleven, the Last
The narrow streets of the old city smell like soap or raw meat or wet stone — every hundred meters shops shift in their inventory: spice markets, then tailors, then piles and piles of green and brown soaps. Shop owners dispatch their young kids to relay or fetch or give directions, but only when approached. For that composure, Aleppo is different from Fez, where display racks breathe and squeeze in from the walls, but the look is the same: always dim in the channels between old buildings, just wide enough for a pickup to honk its way past, just the same every day of the week. In these oldest of Old Cities, a dozen odd shops sell the same selection of keffiyahs — how does anyone get by?
Early morning at the Hammam Al-Nahassin, downhill from the Citadel towards (Aleppo’s) Umayyad Mosque, a few guys sit around not really waiting for customers. It was expensive by Syrian standards, but this was the place — it even had an arrow at the end of the street. Stairs lead down under an archway, revealing a vaulted wooden chamber half-underground and hidden from the world but for the one door. For $12 (or $7 at a good spot in Damascus), you can spend the day washing and lounging, commanding tea and shisha or coffee or kebabs, reclining on pillows set up in separate boxes along the wall. Another door leads from the hall to the hammam — all intricate stone and tile, infinitely steamy, letting daylight in and steam out through patterns of circular holes in domes along the ceiling. One room has metal and marble basins to fill with warm or freezing water; another blasts the hottest vapor from a pipe on the floor, mildly musky, but like armor for the lungs. In the center of the hammam on knee-high cement walls is a long tile surface that burns to touch for more than a second. My hammam mentor tapped the tile: “Lie down”.
“What’s under there?
But after a few pails of icy water, the hard tiles are for a moment cool enough to lie on, sometimes strangely both warm and cold, cooking through your muscles with intense hotness. The one other man in the hammam motioned from a afar. In an American gym, I’d leave that guy alone — farther afar — but this loofa-toting chum was there and on duty to very happily scrub away layers of skin I didn’t need. (Though just three days after an equally brutal and revitalizing scouring in Damascus, I parted with some skin I would’ve liked to have kept.) Then wet robes were replaced with drying robes, which were soon traded for lounging robes and a cloth tied around the head. And with that, they serve tea.
Or, if you lived 25 miles west or 40 miles south, it was the Friday of Silks, and demonstrations were about to begin. Demonstrations are christened anew every week — “Homeland Protector” for the national army, “Friday of Freedom” to honor Syrian Kurds, “Great Friday” when Good Friday wasn’t good enough. This week, the government had for the first time promised not to shoot protestors — something they’d never done before anyway and who told you that, they said.
Thursday night from the ramparts of the Citadel, we watched lightning strike at the fringes of this city, shooting between clouds, lunging at steeples and minarets and smokestacks. The Citadel hill in the center of the old city has seen rulers rise and fall for millennia: Ottomans ousted Mongols and Mamluks who expelled Crusaders who deposed Muslim invaders who booted Byzantines who sacked Romans who bagged the Greeks who, at the sword of Alexander the Great, wrested Aleppo from whoever was there before and who likely did the same to those that came before them, all the way back to Abraham, who, Wikipedia also says, is said to have milked sheep on that very hill.
But as with cows, sometimes it is easier to go up than to come back down. The next afternoon, cries came from within the empire — shouting for new and better leadership from among their own. Now that Aleppo was more than just one hill, and the country much more than one city, these were not cries an army could answer. There was no flag to capture, no territory to claim, only rules in need of emendation.
In Syria, protests begin late by Middle Eastern standards: typically near one-thirty, after the congregational friday prayer, Salat al-Jumu’ah. Until the emergency law was rescinded on April 21, it was the only time more than five Syrians were legally allowed to congregate without a government supervisor. We bought fresh juice from Yahiya and Ghazu at a stand outside near the Armenian quarter at one o’clock. Like alarm bells, the skies opened up — zero to wrath-of-God-hailstones and torrential rains in an instant. The overflow of men praying outside a full nearby mosque ran for cover, or ran into the rain, or ran just anywhere. For twenty minutes chaos was in Aleppo. Afterwards, there was only news.
By late afternoon, Al Jazeera began to report the day’s first casualties. Cellphone videos showed chanting and organized protest in the streets of Hama, Homs, Qamishli far in the east, and in suburbs Damascus. Anchors narrated the information they had, barely polishing eyewitness accounts and Tweets and YouTube clips.
Syrian state coverage is intriguing, provocative, artful. Two channels down on Syria News, videos cycled through looping clips of major cities proving life was the same as it ever was, denying the protests and their dead and injured until the next day’s paper could blame terrorist activity. The art, of course, is deception: In Idleb, where protests were getting started, a few men made bread and threw pitas from an oven. In Damascus, cars drove in traffic. In Homs, people looked like they might be gathering, but very, very far away, down an empty street. In Aleppo it was pouring rain, as it had been hours earlier.
Every city had passersby eager to crowd around the camera to tell it what it wanted to hear. Every Friday the interviews were the same, the faces hardly different: “Praise God, everything is fine. Nothing is happening.” Cut to a flock of tiny children spearheaded by the largest six year-old girl among them, who gave a vigorous speech and declared, “No better country!”
The success is undeniable: cab drivers, young men in the street or on TV, Antonia in the cafe in Maaloula — they all said the same thing: “Mafi shi.” There is nothing. They are by no means the overwhelming majority in this country where citizens take to the streets every day, lives on the line to prove a point and to sustain conviction. But still some sit and soak up Syria News, perhaps because their TVs don’t get other channels, or they don’t trust other channels, or the news on other channels is less appealing.
A woman recites aphorisms and allegory with the poise of a trained actor. She is a guest on a news roundup and there is artistry in her delivery, but she gleans empty lessons from her own stories: don’t change anything, don’t protest anything, don’t do anything.
Later, I looked for newspapers in little shops, in the souq, anywhere: nothing. I asked and people stared blankly or thought for a moment and shook their heads. I asked a policeman in a booth who snapped without looking me in the eye — of course there are no newspapers here, he could have said.
As would be the case in every Saturday paper, the government would report how many were killed by militant groups, which terrorists confessed to attacking civilians, how the weather was still hot in Damascus. Even in the airport there was no news, and no place past the taxi stand to spend Syrian money.
Syria is like a delicious processed cheese, if there is such a thing: perfectly geometric, controlled, and the product of years of careful adjustments. Syria is beautiful to experience, to see and taste, to understand and to be a part of. But if you have ever tried to grill processed cheese, you’ll know it takes a long time — the innards of processed cheese are such that it melts very slowly, breaking into clean chunks, softening like a military general after years on the field.
Syria keeps what is in in, and what is out mostly out, but the product is two things: once the cheese has softened, you bite into a grilled cheese that tastes somehow perfect, exactly how it should be, what centuries of tradition have told you is right. This is the Syria I visited, the Damascus I saw, and the Aleppo in which I had a chubby man exfoliate me. There is also the knowledge of the processed cheese’s process, and the ingredients you’d rather not know. Syria, too, has the Added Water of a nearly 20% youth unemployment rate, the Milk Solids of stubborn politicians, the Stabilizers of military rule, and the Natural Color E160b of its daily news. Both sides of the cheese exist in Syria — whether you can appreciate the former with passive knowledge of the latter is a matter of the most personal preference.
The plane taxied onto the runway in Aleppo. My iPod shuffled to Trav’lin Light at random. The man next to me was so incredibly tall and wide that I was stunned he’d surrendered himself to airplane legroom. We crossed our arms tightly and took turns uncrossing them because there wasn’t space for both. In accordance with an unspoken charter, silently keeping time and heeding the other’s discomfort, we crossed, uncrossed; crossed, uncrossed.
See more of Syria here.