Aleppo. It is August, 2008, and nearly all of the buildings are the color of old dusty gold as though sandblasted.”
Early daylight streaming pale blue through the bedroom window. Faint voices, songs, from the eastern curve of the earth have drawn us from sleep. Suddenly, a deep, rich baritone chant of the muezzin from the mosque a few streets over crackles amplified and rings through the neighborhood: the predawn Farj. Call to prayer lasts three to four minutes, rising and falling notes woven into drawn out phrases. Gregorian chant comes close to describing what we hear, ancient, haunting, powerful, and after an exhausting previous twenty-four hours, we find our local muezzin soothing our lagging souls in our first morning in Aleppo, Syria.
We’d left JFK for the long flight through Jordan to reach this Near Eastern land. Flying into Amman, our cramped bodies and sleep-deprived senses found dawn had fled west without us, was now dusting the dune grasses of Cape Cod, unveiling the Manhattan skyline. To pass the four-hour layover in Amman’s airport, my wife plays Sudoku, I stroll through the duty-free shops, Johnny Walker, cigarettes, Oprah Book Club picks, then pick up my guitar, a cherished Martin acoustic, and play. Children wander up to listen. Women pass by, some in modern dress, some colorful headscarves, others wearing traditional hijab—full face showing; eyes and nose showing; merely the eyes; or fully veiled in black and drifting like ghosts.
An elderly, bearded man from Saudi Arabia, in full regalia, kneels near me and hushes his grandchildren as I play. I finish, and he smiles wide, shakes my hand, and asks in English where I’m from.
“California,” I say.
Darkness has bled into our day when we leave Jordan for Aleppo’s airport. On the shuttle bus from the plane to the airport a man in three-piece suit and briefcase comes up to me and says “We very much enjoyed your beautiful, romantic and quiet playing!”
Touching down and deplaning, we feel the muggy Syria night. Going through airport customs is a drawn out affair. Multiple soldiers appear to make a show of officially examining our passports. Each confers with the other. Finally, we pay for our visas, are escorted back to the small wooden desk of an official we passed not ten minutes before. He proceeds not to pound visa stamps in our booklets but to tear off actually stamps, lick them, and paste them in. Each stamp curls at the edges, so he dampens them again with a finger applied to a dirty sponge.
Speeding on a dark highway, our driver points out pods of families huddled on curbs, on the meridian in road as we speed past in an old, ragged Volvo. We arrive in our apartment, and sleep until the muezzin nudges us awake….
Aleppo. It is August, 2008, and nearly all of the buildings are the color of old dusty gold as though sandblasted. Few are taller than four or five stories. Balconies jut out like square chins. The windows of all apartments are effectively shuttered always, even on the top floor. Inside, florescent lights the entombed space. It is within that the women disrobe the night black wrappings and lounge in colorful fashion: they dress for their husbands (they believe Western women dress up for strangers out on the city streets, then repose in sweats for the men they supposedly love and desire solely to attract).
The city’s dry tawny color whirls by and defies lasting impressions. On the streets, taxis and other small cars and trucks also whirl by. The movement of traffic here, so seemingly random and chaotic, reminds me of schools of fish or flights of birds. When Syrians get behind the wheel, self-interest transforms them. They will run red lights. Drivers will angle their car in the smallest wedge space between you and the car in front waiting at the light. See a space, fill a space. When they emerge from their cars, the possession leaves them, and they are kind, hospitable.
Traffic pours into circles round a fountain, or a large coffee urn, or the horseback leaping statue of Bassel Assad, brother of Bashar, who died in a car accident speeding to the airport (some of my students smelled malfeasance: the son of the wealthy reigning family falls victim to faulty wheel mysteriously unhinging?). With these roundabout ornaments we orient ourselves, because the streets in Aleppo spread through the city like tangles of yarn after a cat has finished a wild playing.
Huge bins stand at odd angles on side streets, but garbage will be left in bags on the street. Pickup seems spotty at best. Stray cats prey on the bundles, which then are torn open and the rotting contents and plastic debris strewn across the gutter. Flies hover and feast. Walking to school one day, our neighbor and fellow teacher from Colorado sniffs, then asks aloud, “Is that mint or is that garbage?” which I thought an apt title for a memoir, should she even pen one. A hot gust scoops up the lighter trash and sends crumpled paper fluttering on the wind.
Beneath this reclaimed land is desert, rock and scrub and burned under the sun, and Aleppo is concrete and brown and dusty.
Beneath this reclaimed land is desert, rock and scrub and burned under the sun . . . “
With these roundabout ornaments we orient ourselves, because the streets in Aleppo spread through the city like tangles of yarn after a cat has finished a wild playing. “
We lunched early that first afternoon with the other new teachers in a traditional Syrian restaurant in the Jedidah (Arabic for “new”), the oldest part of Aleppo right beneath the Citadel. The ceilings in the main room were very high. Open stone windows from other chambers hung below the roof, and pale green vines snaked from these dark inner windows and reached down. Hummus, tahini, flatbread, fresh cucumber, mint and tomato salad, grilled lamb kabobs, chicken kabobs, beef sausages, baba ganoush, garlic and olive oil whipped to a creamy froth for dipping, ground raw spiced meats, sweet deep-fried delicate falafel balls with spiced raisin and lamb and pine nuts within, stuffed grape leaves feathered with olive oil. Finish with sweet orange-fleshed Persian melons, juicy watermelon, and fresh figs. All washed down with tall cans of Efes, a Turkish pilsner. The hookah pipes were then escorted for the daring (I was not one of them). Hot coals of the tobacco were placed on a tray, and the long hookah hose was drawn to the mouth. Each puffer had his or her own plastic tip. The smoke drifting was sweet, flowery, and not unpleasant. Peach and mint.
Evening, hushed and blue, filters into Aleppo as the bus drops us at school, and we walk back to our apartment. Right on time, the muzzein’s call to prayer, the sunset Maghrib. I step out onto the sidewalk to listen. Our neighborhood mosque is across a park and along Damascus highway, the same route old Saul walked thousands of years ago when the flash of light knocked him down. A proud, full moon at twilight lingers behind the bright green lights atop the minaret, and the crescent moon symbol stands upon the domed roof below. The faithful in white are streaming in through the doors. Our landlord, Faroud, stands on the sidewalk, sees me and walks over. He has a small round loaf of bread cupped in his hands, traditional light sweet bread had on Fridays, he later explained. “Is there a problem?” he asks, ever concerned that we are comfortable and at home in his building. Not at all, I say, even though we’d had trouble with both the water and power shutting off. I just came out to listen, and nod toward the mosque. The ancient songs rise from across the city to fill the air, a litany of blessings curving over the whole world. Faroud smiles. “Do you like?” The call to prayer is beautiful, I say. Faroud smiles, then takes the small loaf of bread and tears it in two. He then turns both hands to one another and rubs his thumbs together gently, gliding one along the other, then back. “Muslims, Jews, and Christians,” he says, “we worship the same God.” With one hand holding his share of bread he points up into the blue night sky. “One God,” he repeats. He then offers me a broken share. I raise the bread to my mouth and eat.
The backyard patio in our apartment is a pale yellow walled enclosure. Stray cats perch in the sun atop the twelve-foot stone, and doves promenade. Although we lack the spacious light and air that blessed our backyard in California—vegetable and herb garden, apricot and apple trees—our Aleppo patio offers a narrow raised stone soil bed lining the wall’s base. Long ago planted thrive are two orange trees, a lemon, mandarin, and a mystery fruit tree at patio’s end that looks like either a pomegranate, or an angry puffed grapefruit, or resembling a soft-skinned apple crossed haphazardly with cherimoya. Fruit is plentiful on these trees, and delicious. Eating an orange right off the tree each morning; at lunch we nibble juicy mandarins; they hang scattered like deeply rich orange stars in a leafy heaven. The morning sun has just scaled our eastern wall and softly dusts the lemon’s branches. Small birds dart across the rays. We don’t often enough notice these quiet gifts, for we’re both out the door by 7:15 walking to school. Days are cooler now, but autumn lingers long here in Syria.
And I linger, gazing on the patio. Now is our winter break, a week long religious holiday, Eid al Adha. Lambs, goats, and sheep are slaughtered, often right on the street, to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God (satisfied, He intervened and substituted a lamb instead). A third of the fresh kill you keep, a third goes to friends and family (Muslim or non-Muslim), a third to the poor in the community. Eid occurs the day after the end of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken by Muslims worldwide. So we drive to Palmyra in the Syrian Desert, roughly four or five hours east toward Iraq, which holds some of the most extensive and impressive Roman ruins in the Middle East. The desert here is vast, and after a morning visit to the ruins of Rasafa, we got lost driving roads which forked off in two directions with no signs to guide us.
The desert here is vast, and after a morning visit to the ruins of Rasafa, we got lost driving roads which forked off in two directions with no signs to guide us.”
Days are cooler now, but autumn lingers long here in Syria.”
Palmyra is mentioned in records found at Mari near the Euphrates dating from 1800 BC, noting a desert fort near the Efqa spring, or oasis. We drive cross an endless desert expanse to suddenly come upon a few square miles of palm and date trees lushly green. Trade routes from ancient Antioch—then seat of Roman power—and the mighty kingdom of Parthia east of the Euphrates sliced through Palmyra. Silk and ebony, slaves and dried fruit, spices and herbs floated by for centuries. The present ruins, an embattled oasis, date from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Nero incorporated the Roman province of Syria into his reign (54-68 AD) and so established Palmyra as a garrison town. One of the city’s rulers, Odenathus, was assassinated in 267, and so his wife, Queen Zenobia, took the reins. She was reputed to be both beautiful and brave, courageously leading armies fighting Rome’s expansion in the East. Rome took off after her, and caught her as she was crossing the Euphrates, to be taken to Rome and paraded through the streets in chains, dying in custody. Our first night we toast the Queen.
We walked the ruins the morning after our arrival. The Temple of Bel (Babylonian for Baal, meaning “master”) was the site for sacrificial offerings and supplications to the god of the Palmyrenes, Bel, equal to the Greek Zeus. From the temple we wander west to the great colonnade, a three-city block road lined with tall pillars the whole way in varying states of disrepair. The road itself was never paved, so the camels carrying trade would have soft earth under their burdened feet. There is an ancient Greek-looking theater, an agora (walled vast courtyard for political discussion and commercial business), the Baths of Diocletian, and at the bottom of one bath I noted smooth tiles of dusty blue uncovered from the foot-high sands of ages deposited by the winds over time, and far in the distance the towering conical tomb monuments. Opposite the tombs stands a mountain with caves dug out of its heart. Inside, one of our party said she’d found age-dusted human bones. She thought about picking it up for closer inspection, but let the dead alone, wisely, I think.
Near sunset we drove up to the Arab fortress on the mountain peering down on the ruins of Palmyra. From here we survey the swath of date and palm trees set off against that endless desert. Turn around and the barren and dry hills undulate into a dust-misted distance, cupping a long valley that seems scraped from the earth. This desert land is Biblical, and I read from Psalms: “rock” and “temple” and the “dust of death” and “bones” and “crying in the wilderness” and here I was beholding the regions where these words were spoken and written and contemplated. As simple as water bubbles up into a spring to relieve the heat of the day, the Psalms here pulsate, shimmer to life.
That night we arranged to have dinner with the Bedouin, arranged by a local camel rider we met at the ruins. We drove miles out of the city to the large, windy tents of these nomadic people who haven’t altered their lives and work for thousands of years. For a fee they served us local fare, chicken and saffron and cinnamon-tinged rice, peas, tabouli, beer and tea, and sang traditional chants while we sat on pillows, cozy in the warm tent. Six or seven camels rested and dreamed outside the tent. The Bedouin had a disarming, genuine demeanor, eminently trusting, and smile at you with the sparkling eyes of a child. We departed under a near-full moon lighting up the desert.
Trade routes from ancient Antioch—then seat of Roman power—and the mighty kingdom of Parthia east of the Euphrates sliced through Palmyra. Silk and ebony, slaves and dried fruit, spices and herbs floated by for centuries.”
Found in the library and records room in this small kingdom were thousands of cuneiform clay tablets recording civil and administrative activities of this once thriving city-state, some of the earliest known writing in history . . .”
Many weekends have been spent driving hither and yon in search of Dead Cities and ruins. Serjilla, Ebla, Al Bara. In one regard many of these ruins are piles of rock strewn across a landscape of weeds. But others have inelegant buildings roughly intact: churches missing roofs but sustaining weathered stone archways, the familiar Byzantine cross symbol etched deeply in gray rock; small dwellings with shelves and fire pits carved in the walls; taverns and baths. In the recently uncovered Bronze Age ruins of Ebla on a scorched arid plain around 45 kilometers southwest of Aleppo, we wandered up a stone stairway once traversed by priests, pharaohs and queens who made sacrifices to the goddess Ishtar perhaps five thousand years ago. Found in the library and records room in this small kingdom were thousands of cuneiform clay tablets recording civil and administrative activities of this once thriving city-state, some of the earliest known writing in history (some of the tablets were displayed in a museum in a nearby town, Idleb). From the top of Ebla’s stone rooms you look far across and note rounded hills, walls surrounding the ruins in a long vast square, the centuries of blown dust and settled earth obscuring the stone ramparts. Our guide points to the gaps in all four corners where the hill abruptly falls away. One is Damascus Gate, for through it the road from Ebla to Damascus beckoned. Another is Aleppo Gate leading to the souks. Euphrates Gate directs your horses, camels and sandals beneath your dry and dusty feet to the great winding river far across the desert.
Other ruins we visit simply abide like patient ghosts alongside thriving villages. Take a right where the locals are pointing when they see pale faces and a beaten up Volvo cautiously approach the city center and a long winding road deposits our sputtering Volvo in the midst of olive orchards. The trees are thick and laden with sea-green fruit. We take a narrow dirt path toward toppled buildings and huge stones. The groves are peaceful. Following us are two young dirty-faced children out herding their six or seven long brown-haired goats up to graze. One boy looks to be eight years old, his younger brother four. The sky overhead is sunny and blue. The boys smile and wave. As we amble over a rock wall toward the dwellings, they follow. We take their picture, and in our broken Arabic we learn they live in the village we passed through. They smile again, and appear delighted when we tell them we’re from America. They know no English other than “Hi”. However, at a lull in the conversation the older boy turns to us and gives a 2008 thumbs-up exclaims “Obama!” The goats scramble up a stone pile and busily munch bushy leaves.
Superb in its weathered stone silence stands the sprawling Roman ruins of Serjilla. Miles from the present town, this village is a cluster of taverns, churches, government buildings, baths, and houses all connected by narrow lanes snaking through and around. The long hills as far as we can see are choppy gray dry rock. Dark black billowing clouds roll in, and the sun breaking through casts keen and crystal yellow light upon the old stone pillars and dusty tombs. We stop to chat with three young folks, two beautiful girls flashing sunglasses as though they’d just returned from a quick shopping spree on Rodeo Drive, and a thin snappily dressed young man just happy to stand in their shadow. They are students from Homs, a city halfway between Aleppo and Damascus, and speak decent English. We exchange small but lively talk, tell each other we’re glad we’ve met, then wander off in different directions. A few moments later one of the girls comes running up to Carrie (I’ve pulled ahead and am inspecting what looks to be a bathhouse; there are rounded and rectangle deep pits, and troughs crossing the floor). I walk back and hear the girls say that they don’t meet many foreigners, especially Americans, and nice ones at that. So they give us their phone numbers and tell us to please visit Homs anytime and they would happily show us around. I wonder, sadly, about them now.
So they give us their phone numbers and tell us to please visit Homs anytime and they would happily show us around.”
For religion here is earth and blood and light and air and bone and flesh and struggle and history.”
Aleppo is home to Muslim, Armenian, Christian, Kurdish, and Iraqi. I’ve not heard reference to hyphenated identities here, your Irish-American or African-American or Chinese-American. People will tell you they are Kurdish. Or Armenian. Or Syrian. Or they will tell you they are Kurdish, and love Syria. The cultural traditions which form their beliefs and histories and languages and experiences reach deep in time and across specific contours of land. One isn’t asked to give up ones traditions when coming to live in Syria, for instance. You are Syrian, yes. But you are also Armenian. This makes sense. Songs from deep in the hills of Appalachia have their roots in English and Irish ballads. Jazz originates from African slaves. When recommending a restaurant to us, one of the secretaries at school, Raghad, remarked that we should go early, as “the Christians arrive around 8pm.” She didn’t mean that there were designated times for peoples of differing beliefs to frequent restaurants, only that those sharing a faith constituted a community of people here, and tend to flock together. “The Muslims show up late,” she would add. Regarding your beliefs and heritage, you cannot be nothing here. You are Muslim, or Christian, or Jew for that matter. I suppose you could fancy yourself Buddhist, but that would seem odd. For religion here is earth and blood and light and air and bone and flesh and struggle and history. “Ingrained” seems to describe a conscious indoctrinating of tenets and beliefs, but that doesn’t speak to faith as lived in the dust and rock and salt for generations upon generations of forefathers and foremothers in the Levant. I prefer the sense of in-grained as speaking to planting, sowing, husbandry, of grains watered and harvested from the land. History shudders in the blood and dung, feathers the dust and lights upon Jordan’s milky green waters. Let me tell you about a night some time ago. My wife’s classroom assistant, Talar, invited us to her place for a small birthday celebration, her twenty-third. Talar is Armenian, a warm and long-giggling laugh, deep almond eyes and a kind way. She had a few friends over, also Armenian. Talar’s father is a collector of antiques, and the living room brimmed with religious icons, mosaic carpets on the walls, chests and boxes. One of Talar’s friends, Alig, works in the high school, and has helped me many a time search for books I needed for class. Alig loves wine, has a round, expressive and lovely face, and rich dark hair that falls in plumes down the front of her shoulders. High school boys tend to hover round her. I was sitting across her that evening, and as she put her wine glass down with one hand, she picked up an antique sheathed knife with the other. The handle ended with an ivory-carved head, expressionless, and the long grey blade was long dulled (how many tendons and sinews had it torn through?). She examined the knife expertly, as though with an archeological eye determining its time and regional origins. Turning it this way and that, she finally reached a conclusion. “No, this isn’t a Christian knife….”
One morning we walked to school in a distant white mist. The whiteness didn’t sing and billow like cool fog, didn’t drift, but hung dryly in an unquiet sky. We had no idea what it was, but it smelled faintly dirty. When my students arrived they remarked it was from a dust storm that probably blew in from Iraq. “It will rain tonight, it always does after this,” they said. The entire city, every table and chair and window and leaf was covered in a fine patina of powder. Our lungs were coated. But the white air morning was symbolic, too. Before the bell, one of the teachers asked if I’d heard from Bobbi. Bobbi Richards was the dynamic art teacher. She was the lively one in any function, always laughing, quick to ask after you. I remember a squad of teachers heading to the Baron Hotel bar one evening, an elegant dive and a landmark in Aleppo. Agatha Christie wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express here. Lawrence of Arabia frequented the bar during lulls in his adventures. Feeling out of sorts that night, I went out on the balcony, as it was too smoky in the bar. Suddenly, I notice Bobbi had softly wandered up next to me, and gazed out on the same busy street … No, I replied, I hadn’t heard from her. We later learned Bobbi had died inside her apartment over the weekend. Heart failure. Early fifties. So now the white and hushed sky whispered another tune. I looked out my window and imagined a vast empty canvas, which Bobbi would have appreciated. So this is how the world will end, with neither a bang nor a whimper, but eminently less dramatic. God will simply tire and lose inspiration, paintbrush held aloft crookedly, and the canvas of creation will fall away into an empty white spray, a long unfinished morning trembling in heavenly peace.
History shudders in the blood and dung, feathers the dust and lights upon Jordan’s milky green waters.”