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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.
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.
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.
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.
The next two days were spent exploring St. Simeon and the surrounding Dead Cities, the Hammam Yaboulga Nassriand 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.
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.
She’s back and badder than ever. Hitting up hamams and swigging Pepsi in Petra, resident Jaunt Contributor, Victoria Yanakos Korosi, is flinging some flair from here to the Middle East (and everywhere).
I feel fairly certain that those black gloves were meant to exfoliate – not draw blood. But with the (not insubstantial) weight of a jovial singing Arabic woman behind them, whose bosom easily doubled the size of my torso- they took on a persona closer to Brillo pads.
In a hamam (bathhouse) dating back to 940ish AD, and still as opulent and awe inspiring as I suspect it was then, I spent the better part of yesterday getting a whole new view- literally- of the local customs in Syria.
To summarize the experience, there was a lot of public nakedness and being given obscure instructions in Arabic (many of which I suspect were related to my lack of toughness), an exfoliating rub down, massage, sauna, jacuzzi, and getting about as close to being violated as possible without caring.
Joking aside, never have I felt more welcome or absolutely captivated with a culture as I did in that hamam. There is something undeniably intriguing about these Arabic women.
To sit completely revealed together singing old chants that echo in the intimate interior cave of the hamam, and then later leave, all covered head-to-toe, ankle-to-wrist, mild in manner, back into the rush of the souq; The dichotomy of their lives is captivating.
And while, as a Western woman, I struggle to accept this, to experience their warmth and hear their stories firsthand I know my view is at least broader than when I started – and my skin excessively softer. In a bit of a haze after an irresponsibly late night out in Damascus, I rolled through passport control in Jordan this morning generally unscathed (which for me is always an accomplishment) and ready for a rapid fire round two.
Currently sitting (at the time of writing this) with my pack on the side of the highway, I am fairly confident that the bus driver and I have had a bit of miscommunication as to where I was headed. And for once it is an actual destination.
(Really exfoliated) V: 1
Woman with black gloves: 2
If I traveled with a guide book, I would request that the following Arabic phrases be included for my benefit.
“Is 6am too early to discuss women’s rights?
“I appreciate that you’ve already tossed my pack from the bus but I don’t think this deserted stretch of highway is my stop. Yes, I can see that you disagree.”
“No really, I’m full.”
“Sure you can practice your English with me. Oh wait, no, I have no idea what an auxiliary verb is”
“I only smoke when I travel. And I can’t keep up if we’re going to chain smoke – but don’t try me because I’m competitive.”
“Can I get a lift?”
I was fortunate enough to spend my last night in Syria with Jawad’s family (and should have known better than to eat that day). It is a rare gift as a traveler to meet a family like theirs; to have the opportunity to ask openly (and with endless curiosity) my questions about culture and religion and be met with such receptive and thoughtful conversation.
And apparently no, breakfast is not too early to discuss women’s rights.
I travel the way I do with the sole purpose of being impacted. To each their own when it comes to this, but for me, the only true discovery of others and myself happens when you get out of what’s comfortable. And this trip has been just that – in a huge way. And for that, I win.
Pepsi and cigarettes seem to be the currency in Jordan. Since arriving I’ve been “offered” (because of course you can never decline) both with spectacular frequency. Suffice it to say, my 3 hours crowded into a bus with locals left me both light headed and hopped up on sugar for my visit to Petra.
It is a rarity at best that I sightsee. Ever. And perhaps even that is being generous. Unless, of course, we are going to count the inside of public buses a matter of national treasure. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the concept (or the antiquity) but the act itself is predictable, and safe, and not consistent with my motivations for travel.
But I will make worthy exceptions and when I do invariably find a way to escape the tour groups and make the experience my own (and probably offend some devout sightseers in the process. Win win).
For those of you who followed my monologue through Cambodia you can appreciate my propensity for climbing up things that appear to be stairs – and my always novel discovery that I am afraid of heights. Well, perhaps less “afraid” so much as aware of my general lack of agility and the inherent risk this poses when not lying flat on the ground.
Climbing to the top of one mountain or another on the grounds of Petra I discovered stunning views (and that no one will stop you if you appear to know where you are going), and a rare isolated moment to lie unbothered in the sun. My decent, or rather my really coordinated tumble through the sand, elicited a good laugh from an on- looking Bedouin family. The simple fact that that they didn’t try to sell me a carpet afterward made Petra just a touch more real.
And yes, the remains of this ancient city are stunning. Awe inspiring at every turn. But short of the fleeting early (early) morning hours when I had Petra to myself, the sight is far too overrun to hold my interest. But there were a few moments, before the persistent French with their cameras or the American elderly in their capris descended, when Petra was all mine.
Wandering the winding caverns that conceal the suddenly massive Treasury was an inspiring journey that rocked even me. Sitting in silence outside the towering turrets of the ancient tomb I found myself daydreaming as to what this city must have been before… the tour groups arrive and the moment is lost.
Back in Amman, I attempt to escape into some shisha before I cross back over into Syria. I’ve amassed a group of 4 minimum at my table. For traveling alone in the Middle East it is amazing how infrequently you are ever actually alone.
And how much I will miss that when I leave.
Watching V tumble head first in the dunes: better
Fresh from the press! Part III of Singapore-based Contributor, Hajar Ali’s series on Syria.
When I left Damascus for Palmyra, I was told by the helpful doorman that traveling by bus was a comfortable, cheap alternative. I immediately grabbed a ticket.
Air-conditioned and, indeed, comfortable, the best part of the trip had to be the dates passed around in wooden boxes with mother-of-pearl inlay. If I remember correctly, they were also screening a Hindi movie.
Arriving in Palmyra, I’d stayed at a hotel highly recommended by Lonely Planet (The Cham Palace remains the closest to luxury accommodation available in Palmyra). There was a group of Italian tourists checking into the hotel at the same time and I spent a part of my first night in Palmyra in fear as I overheard two Italian ladies whispering in the hotel corridor. My first introduction to giallo, a type of slasher horror flick typified by a developing background romance and spectacular sceneries of the Italian countryside, was Pupi Avati’s ‘Casa dalle finestre che ridono’, revolving around the creatively sadistic plots by two Italian sisters to entrap their latest torture victim. Hearing two female voices whispering in Italian brought to mind certain scenes of the movie.
The next morning (and evening) was spent touring the ruins of Palmyra where I encountered a guide who spoke, among other languages, Aramaic, a language spoken by Jesus and is still spoken in ‘isolated pockets of Syria’ in Ma’aloula. A veritable source of information on the ruins of Palmyra, he approached me while I was walking around near the entrance of the ruins. A morning (or evening) spent touring the ruins of Palmyra with him was well spent, never mind what the other guides tell you. I encountered another group of Italian tourists who’d asked their Italian-speaking guide to ask my English-speaking guide why I was travelling on my own. It was the same kind of concern the Italian ladies I’d met at the Lebanese-Syrian border and travelled around with in Syria had shown. Palmyra, Syria
Why was I travelling alone? Wouldn’t it be better to travel with friends or parents? Well, sometimes, you just have to go it alone. Nights in Palmyra were uneventful, spent going through the tourist stores selling armor suits, old rings and porcelain pieces. The bus from Palmyra to Aleppo the next morning was nothing like the Damascus-Palmyra transfer. I took the bus with a few men – and goats – in an older bus with windows bearing a cobweb-like pattern from being hit by errant pebbles. We encountered little children on the journey practicing their shots by throwing little pebbles against the bus windows which, in retrospect, felt just a little like an earlier scene in the movie, Syriana, where an American lady travelling on a tourist bus was accidentally shot by a child practicing his shots on a rifle. I tried not to imagine these film recollections were ‘signs.’
Arriving in Aleppo, you’re immediately cognizant of a deep, rich history. A capital city that contests Damascus’ claim to being the ‘oldest continuously inhabited city in the world’ with a complex, intriguing history. Staying at the Baron Hotel (instantly recognizable by every local – particularly useful if you’re wont to getting lost), I was to spend my next few days in Aleppo exploring the citadel, locating an underground bar in the pedestrianized streets of Aleppo which the waiter insists was a way for the house’s original inhabitants to connect to the citadel during the multiple sieges laid on the city and experienced an authentic hammam session. Underground Bar in Aleppo, Syria
Checking into the historic Hotel Baron, walking through the same hallowed hallways and reveling in its faded glamour, one can feel the cozy, family-like nature of the hotel management. From the receptionist to the waiter, who serves you breakfast every morning, everyone seems to have worked in that hotel for the longest time. I found my first room to be ‘too noisy’ , the second one which they’d suggested (and moved my bags to) ‘too creepy’ as it involved walking past an unlit hallway with unused furniture.
I was then shown another room- with a beautiful Juliet balcony lit by fairy lights. The balcony overlooks the busy main road, no doubt, but I figured by then that the hotel does have a road frontage and was won over by the balcony. I could see the brightly-lit stores across the street and the constant stream of alternately-honking traffic from my balcony.
Solitary moments in balconies with a view, even in cities I felt ill-at-ease (which Aleppo certainly was not!), make up some of my best memories in hotels I’d stayed in. My room at the Laleh Hotel in Tehran (what used to be the Intercontinental pre-1979) had a small balcony overlooking the garden and I spent, figuratively, my brightest moments on this balcony in a city I’d felt overwhelmed by.
The traffic on the streets of Aleppo must have ceased by a certain time as I was usually woken up in the mornings by the sound of birds near my heater grilles and the sound of traffic, increasing in both its frequency and loudness. My first day in Aleppo was spent with the Italian ladies, visiting Aleppo’s Citadel and capping off a visit accompanied by a most informative guide, with a chat with friends of the Italian ladies whom we’d met in the café opposite the citadel. We’d made an appointment (or rather, they made an appointment and I tagged along) to meet again that night at a friend’s house, which, the Italian ladies tell me, is beautiful, tasteful, and ‘like a museum.’