Feature: Part IV – Inside Syria

Hajar Ali

After a much anticipated break, Jaunt Magazine is proud to present, Middle East Feature: Part IV of Hajar Ali’s escape to Syria (and Lebanon). Hajar Ali is the Singapore-based owner and operator of urbane nomads, a bespoke travel tour operator.

Part IV – Inside Syria

We arrived in Syria at a friend of a friend’s house which, we were told, was indeed ‘like a museum’ and had been visited by the likes of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain when they were in town. We were picked up from the hotel by their butler, shown around the house with the Damascene courtyard and treated to lovely singing by the hostess.

As per the afternoon, Syrian and regional politics were the subject of discussion, the future of Syria in the global order of things, with some excitement about a possible Sacred Music Festival organized by the very urbane First Lady. The next day was spent around the souks of Aleppo, where banners extolling the virtues of Assad and Syria in multiple languages lined the bazaars.

Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad

I passed a (seemingly harmless) comment on the banners but was chided by one of my travel companions, saying in a low voice that ‘it was unsafe to discuss politics in public’. That was the first time during my journey where I felt like I was in a police state. Later, we witnessed a minor scuffle on the outskirts of the bazaar, with a man resisting arrest by the police. There was a crowd gathering around, passively watching, no one saying anything, no one interfering. Once the man was driven away by the truck, one of the ladies asked the driver, who had accompanied us throughout, what the whole thing was about. ‘The man’s just trying to make a living and selling some tissue. He has no license’. I asked what was going to happen to the man to which the rejoinder was: ‘Nothing. He’d be taken to the police station, warned and then fined’. I remembered the man to have put up quite a struggle, pointed to some boys selling tissue and asked why these boys weren’t similarly dragged by the police. Apparently, the police chose the man to make an example of because he was ‘the biggest operator’.  I left it at that.

We went exploring the city’s boutique hotels, one of which was next to a restaurant and an underground bar which, the waiter insisted, was a way for the house’s original residents to connect to the Citadel during the multiple sieges laid on the city.

Byblos, Lebanon

I’d made my way to an internet café later that night, desirous of somewhat reconnecting with the world again, and there I met another traveller I’d encountered in Lebanon. Over a lunch buffet of fresh seafood and crisp salads in the seaside town of Byblos, he’d confided in me his admiration of my Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, declaring how ‘famous’ the man and his book was in China before sharing with me his personal theory of how all countries with a Chinese majority should ‘return’ under China’s rule. ‘But Singapore’s constitutional language is Malay’, I rejoined. I must have looked shocked when he narrated his Pax Sinica ideals to me, but I’d like to think he looked more shocked at the thought of an alternative history to a country than the one he’d imagined. ‘Go back and Google it if you don’t believe me’, I told him.

So, as fate would have it, our next chance encounter was within the setting of the internet café. He came over and told me a Google search had indeed confirmed that Malay was the constitutional language of Singapore, but that he was still incredulous that a country with a Chinese majority could have a different constitutional language. Another Google search would have answered his questions, but I didn’t think his incredulity necessarily translated into questions he’d wanted an answer to.  I learnt he was staying in the Baron Hotel as well, that he’d arrive in Aleppo earlier this afternoon and we’d agreed to go for dinner after.

We went to one of the streetside cafes, grabbed a kebab and orange juice, sat down and he asked if there were any clubs to go to for a night out in Syria. I screwed up my nose and said, “Why couldn’t you have gone in Beirut?”  That was one of the points that came up during the course of the conversation in the home of the lovely couple a night earlier. The hostess, having found out I was in Beirut before crossing over to Syria, asked how I’d liked the two countries. I said I liked both to which she cooed, “But they’re so different! Beirut is where the young people have fun and Syria is all about culture and history.” I (still) liked both, although I enjoyed Aleppo more than I did Damascus.

The Baron Hotel - Syria

I also remembered that underground club with a ‘pathway to the Citadel’ from earlier this afternoon and volunteered that piece of information to him. I agreed to bring him there except that I (wasn’t) going to stay long given than I was going in Walid’s  car to explore St. Simeon and the Dead Cities early next morning. I told him I had to freshen up and, waiting at the lobby, he later grumbled about how long I’d taken to freshen up. “I had to pray for five minutes too,” I added. He instantly looked sheepish and apologized, as if he’d shown an unhealthy intolerance.

There was an Asian man sitting down in the hotel lobby, discussing business with a Syrian. He was one of many Asian faces I’d seen in the Hotel Lobby of late and I asked my fellow traveller why there were so many Chinese in Syria. ‘How do you know he’s Chinese?’ he said coolly. ‘Isn’t he? He looks Chinese’. ‘No- he’s North Korean. I heard them talking while waiting for you.’ I laughed  nervously, my turn being sheepish, having been outed as the one unable to discern between various nationalities, having broadly categorized them as ‘Chinese’.  ‘There are actually a lot of North Koreans in Syria. I saw a statue of Assad and Kim Jong Il in the main square just now’, he continued. That was the second time where I’d felt like I was in the ‘junior axis of evil’; states forced into dealing with each other due to their status in the international order of things.

St. Simeon - Syrian Ruins

The next two days were spent exploring St. Simeon and the surrounding Dead Cities, the Hammam Yaboulga Nassri and the nearby souks. We’d visited St Simeon, named eponymously after the saint who had tried to escape the madding crowds, devoting himself to ascetic meditation by living on top of the pillars you’d witness in St Simeon – a progression of pillars erected by St Simeon’s devotees that built increasingly higher than the next.  St Simeon is also the site for what was once the largest monastery in the world. As the conversation with the local couple would have it, the First Lady of Syria was planning for a Sacred Music Festival using St Simeon as a locality. No internet searches nor checks with local sources  were able to  validate that it’s actually happened or would happen in the near future.

The Dead Cities – desolate places where I’d encountered  the occasional domestic horse belying signs of life nearby, contained warren-like holes which, if I’d understood the guide right, is the burial chamber for the area’s royalty.

A visit to the Hammam Yaboulga Nassri came highly recommended  and my visit so coincided with one of the ‘ladies’ days’ – a day when the hammam is converted to a preserve for women to come and socialize and receive a hammam treatment.  Women packed lunch boxes to eat in the humid conditions of the hammam, brought drums to strike spontaneous tunes to around a circle of women dancing, children were running around a precariously slippery floor and women were comfortably lounging around in various states of undress; less an image after Orientalist paintings than it is an expression of women being comfortable with their own bodies for it was a scene where women were exposed to what ‘real’ women looked like for women from all ages and sizes gathered as part of an ancient bonding ritual in the hammam, trading gossip over treatments, teenagers striking a spontaneous tune in another (foreigners are invariably invited to join the circle and dance) and the children playing by the water sources in another corner.

The scrubdown at the hammam must have done me good for as I made my way through the cold winter of Aleppo through the souks I’d noticed, rather, sensed greater male attention coming my way – unfortunately resulting in a rather unpleasant experience – the only time I’d felt threatened throughout my journey in Lebanon and Syria, where a young storekeeper , having brought me to another store on the pretext of finding more stock, came  up too close for me to possibly be comfortable. The actual owner of the store came back, fortunately, and the kid scampered off.  Whatever effect the treatments at the hammam had on me must have disappeared by morning – I was the ragged tourist once again, saying goodbye to the staff of Baron Hotel and making my way overland to Amman, eager for a dinner appointment at NoodAsia on yet another quest to find chic in the Middle East.

Syrian Restaurant - Kan Zaman

Further fact checks into the authenticity of the claim that the underground bar (Taverna, Beit Wakil Hotel), did lead to a ‘miniature warren of caves and passages’, with one stairway mentioned as being ‘slippery’ and leading to ‘a dead end’ but no mention of its supposed direct access to Aleppo’s Citadel.

For those looking for ‘entertainment’ in Aleppo, there’s also the Kan Zaman, off Haret Al-Yasmin St with its own set of underground caves.

Make sure to read the earlier posts in the Syria series under ‘Middle East Travel’ and, for more Syrian Hotel suggestions and quality tours, contact Hajar Ali. We also found boutique Syrian Hotels and cheap insider Syrian Hotels (where some hotels may not be listed or have websites) here: http://syria-hotels.blogspot.com/2009_01_01_archive.html

Rustic warning alert… some of these hotel buildings are from the 17th century, but hey… that’s why you’re heading to Syria, right?

By Hajar Ali

Source: Ivan Mannheim, Syria and Lebanon, The Travel Guide

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