Archive for syria
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?
The Levant: Part Six
The closest I came to gunfire was just after we crossed the border into Syria. They told me it was dangerous, but I thought it would come from the cities, from the police, from around the crowds, and not on the road that cut up from Beirut through the mountains and back down again toward Damascus, Ash-Sham.
Leaving Lebanon at Masn‘aa, we would first reach Haloua, the town whose name means “sweet”. I had passed through each country’s checkpoint without an issue, accepted into Syria without knowing my destination, with nothing but my visa and tempered American smiles.
I sat in the back of the taxi. Just me, and the driver’s fat friend in the passenger seat. They had gained interest in me with the altitude, but lost it quickly when I told them that I wasn’t at all ethnically Lebanese. We entered into Syria and the fat friend lent me his phone, or rather rented it, fidgeting angrily when I had spent too long trying to make out my friend’s directions to a meeting point. Tension mounted as he demanded eight thousand lira, almost six dollars, for a five minute call. The scruffy driver took his friend’s side. Pressure.
The day after the United States began to evacuate “non-essential” staff from its Embassy in Damascus, I too bought a ticket out of Syria. Except to use that ticket I’d first have to fly in the other direction — I wasn’t even there yet.
I spoke to my parents from the 3:00 am bus leaving Abu Dhabi for an airport three hours away in the north of the UAE. “Do you hear the birds?” they asked. It was May in the suburbs. “Do you hear the air conditioning?” I asked back. While the next week never ceased to the vacation I needed it to be, it felt at first and at moments like a sprint towards a fire. I flew to the Levant to thaw from the sterility of the Emirates. Sure, fire can burn, but it warms until the bite.
So there I was, heading to the places my mother had never wanted me to go, at the times when the world said it was worst to go to them. And it was two days before Mothers’ Day.