Conversations In Aleppo

I was born a citizen of the world, and my inclination led me into all scenes where my knowledge of mankind could be enlarged.
―Rob Roy


EDITOR'S NOTE: I censored this chapter and the following to protect my friends. Please email me for the full versions.

I spent ten days in Aleppo, and most of that talking. I talked with travelers (Syria calls more interesting vagabonds than Paris or Greece) about the politics of the region and of their own country, about places worth seeing and experiences had. Far from television and Internet, we summarized new films and Youtube videos and Wikipedia articles—a less solitary, if also less accurate, path to culture. We gossiped about girls and other people in the hotel. I spoke with the Arabs over gifted tea, welcomed into conversation about my religion, politics, and non-profession, and received more good will as an interesting foreigner than many Arabs show their neighbors—not blamed for the faults of America, for every Arab can distinguish between a person and a country, strange as their own nations are.

The Arabs revel in dialog, rhetoric, and oratory; the love of language is part of their culture, as much as bartering and family values. They are generally better informed on political issues than other races, perhaps because global politics influence the Arab world so profoundly. Here in the Levant, just as it always has, East meets West, America competes for resources with China, states find themselves divided between theocracy and secularism, politics of conflict, and people, sundered by wars, demand peace and liberty.

Before leaving Cappadocia, I walked through Red Valley and Rose Valley to Ortahisar. I woke up early to see the balloons fire up. I hung out with a motley cast and crew of Aussies, Kiwis, an old Brit, and one Argentinian girl—Argentina had captivated my attention ever since I found out that country is the world's foremost consumer of steak. Some few of this group intended to go on to Syria as I did. One was a girl named Pia, traveling alone, who had to go back to Ankara to get her visa.

Just before I left, Janna bought a carpet she had been eying, a locally-made silk and cotton one. She showed it off back at the hostel, where one of the Turks working there, Suleiman, saw it. Asked Suleiman, “Where did you get it? How much?” “300,” said Janna. “Hmm.” “Is that too much?” “I could have gotten it for less.” See what I mean by Turkish frankness?

Janna exhibited the carpet for Suleiman's expertise, which cannily lifted the tag and read aloud, “Made in China. Nylon.” A pregnant pause. “It's nice though,” we all said. “Will look very good on a bed or wooden floor.”

“Yeah,” said Janna.

On the way to Antakya, in the Caesarea Otogar, on a Friday evening, I met a portly Australian traveling alone. Rob, or Skip, was retired from positions as a hippy, a sailor on private boats, including Silvia Burlusoni's yacht, and the hostel in Surfer's Paradise that the tips from those maritime jobs were enough to fund. His good business sense, kind, outgoing, involving nature, and the Cadillac convertible he drove to the bus station turned Trekker's into a chain, but the programme of costumed swimming and drinking contests spoiled when good ratings on HostelWorld and high placement in Lonely Planet brought in droves of German and Swiss and French couples looking for serious, adult, boring fun.

On retiring from the business and selling his hostels, for he had expanded into a total of three, he told me his grateful staffers and long-term lodgers held a reunion. Hundreds of them came to London to thank Skip for his impact on their lives―from showing them how to run an ethical business, to increasing their openness and confidence, to introducing them to future husbands. "I'm not normally a teary guy," he said, "but there I got a little emotional."

Skip retired with a large estate, with hangars for his 60 cars, half of them Peugeots―“A German car like a BMW or a Porsche drives itself. It's boring. But in a Peugeot, you feel like you're flying.” His other inheritance included a divorce, two adult children, a loathing of superficial Western culture, and a youthful exuberance to defy actual age—all of which sent him the long way 'round to Siwa Oasis in Egypt. He had intended to be there on October 1st, to rent a house and see about starting a smaller, quieter hostel, but good times and business opportunities in Göreme had staggered his well-planned trip.

Now Skip was on his way to Damascus, that dreamed of city. He had his Syrian visa—I did not have one—and was only spending a night in Antakya before leaving. Skip had a guide book, and I didn't know where I was staying, so we went together to a recommended hotel, split a double since the singles were full, and split. I went into town to taste spicy Adana kebab from the region of its birth, drink the fruit juice that is fresh and cheap in Arab countries, and visit the mosaic museum, the painted tiles preserved by the desert's dryness. I climbed up to Saint Paul's first church but did not pay to enter the cave.

Skip and I went to dinner at a cafeteria, and for coffee at some modern cafe he'd found. “After a year on the road,” said Skip when I told him about my trip, “something just clicks, where you become a traveler. You can't go back and settle down with a job and a wife and kids. That's too boring,” he said. “I have to tell you, the first time I left home I didn't go back for ten years.”

Skip asked if he could come to Aleppo with me, and I told the old man, Sure.

Entering Syria is difficult if you are an American—though much easier than entering America if you are a Syrian. Officially, American citizens must go to Washington DC and spend $131 and several hours completing a visa for a specific period of time. Unofficially, we can get the visa at the border crossing, though this requires a five or seven hour wait while the Syrians fax the Yankee's request to Damascus and the Damascenes call America to make sure the applicant is an upright citizen.

At the Antakyan otogar Skip and I asked someone officious-looking about Reyhanlı or Cilvegözü. He first pointed us to a bus going there, and then, having second thoughts, led us toward a taxi and said the bus was broken. I got mad and went back to the bus, which took us all the way to the border. Between the Turkish and Syrian gates was a two kilometer No Man's Land, which costs 20 lira to cross by taxi, so we chose to cross by tractor trailer truck. Our driver became held up in a line of semis awaiting processing, and cast us out in the road to walk and be harassed by a hawk-faced Turkish lieutenant. Luckily this officer drove off when his attempts at hitching us a ride failed as miserably as ours, and he left us with an untranslated threat of some kind.

A mustache with a lanky man attached, one of the Turkish truck drivers I think, approached us and led us down the road on the other side of the line of trucks, so Lieutenant Hawk could not see us, to a large metal structure that straddled the highway. This was the actual border, and the Syrians couldn't care less if we walked down the other side, which we did all the way to a complex of buildings.

The customs office was a warehouse of desks and bulletproof glass. Here we entered a back room with old leather sofas. A fan shook its head at us, and an officer sat behind a wood desk with a well-dressed man in front of him. “Oh, American,” he said on seeing my passport. He had me tell him the names of my parents, my profession, and where I was staying in Syria, and wrote it all down in Arabic, then faxed the lot to Damascus. I went to read and wait.

I went back once to check on the status, and was told only to wait for the fax. As two officials followed me down the hall, I heard a blurb of speech interrupted by an understandable, “American.” “American,” I said in automatic response, and turning around saw one of the officials brandishing his hand in the air as if throwing a javelin at me or plunging a knife. Then I looked away.

In a few more hours, and after running between different desks to complete the Herculean paperwork required to enter Syria, I received a stamp in my passport. This was not the end of the process. We walked to the final station, where five officers sat about smoking and enjoying the desert view. One got up to check my passport and became very confused by it, so that he got on the phone and eventually had one of the other officers drive it back to the police headquarters on a motorcycle with a tassled sheep's hide thrown across the back.

Eventually we were permitted to escape into the desert, and bargained with a taxi driver who received Turkish lira to take us to Aleppo. He had a small DVD player on his dash, and put on a video recorded in a provincial Syrian dance hall, of women interrupted in their uninspired dancing by a camera man who received curious looks in response. “No sex,” he assured us, which was perhaps more disturbing, as it suggested a strange fetish or lack of experience with the world on his part.

We drove through a dusty world unchanged by time, and at the border of urban Aleppo, near a monolithic mosque, the grapefruit moon full and low between the minarets, we pulled over so our driver could yell at someone on the phone. It became apparent that he was asking for directions, when he started asking random passer-bys to help. One of these was a government worker named Feisal, who our driver invited into the back seat to guide us in toward the Al-Gawaher Hotel. Feisal was short and slight with thin hair and an inquiring expression. He had a black garbage bag slung over his back, bulging with something blocky, and wore a casual collared shirt and slacks.

He had the cabbie drop us off under a neon casino near the clock tower, and we checked our map like tourists and found our hotel. Feisal followed and helped us. I asked him, “Do you live near here?” and he said, “I live in Ebla,” or some town I can't remember, “but am here for a few days, living alone just down the street. You can come stay with me if you want. There is no one else.” He looked offended when I refused, though I did so politely—I trusted that he was genuine, but genuinely did not want to impose. There's an East-West divide for you, Reader.

The Al-Gawaher Hotel, traveler hotbed, increases in interest and complexity the longer you stay there, like Scotch whisky or a rotting corpse. We checked in and got a room, and the manager Ahmad's first impression of me was, Asshole. In the lobby, Skip and I sat down and met Santiago, a student who taught English to Arabic students and had opened an Arabic school for English-speakers in Aleppo, and he taught us a few words. Skip complained about the wait at the border, and Santiago replied, “What about us. You think we can get a ticket to America or Australia or Britain, and wait there for three or five or ten hours, and be let in? It is impossible for us to go there.”

Mister Chicken served greasy, spicy schwarma, and a strange, disingenuous little Egyptian man led us to a juice bar and a bank, then asked for a backsheesh tip so that he might drink beer. I saw women in burkas with sunglasses on, or with black sheets over their faces, and soon after women in skimpy outfits emerging from saccharine hotel lobbies, and grew very incensed at these men who veiled their wives and mothers and tipped their harlots.

An hour of sucking on a water pipe and reading the verbal flourishes of Lolita had me in better spirits, and I walked back tasting apple on my lips past the Sheraton fortress and the neon clock tower and the juice street, which smoked with a kebab barbecue. Twilit Aleppo howled lustily as a Hollywood city, with horns and sirens, shouts and violent crashes, chatter and footsteps. Her streets crawled wild with Arabs in Arab garb and in jeans and pointed shoes, and Christian women in Western dress and whores with little on at all. The alleys reeked with trash and barbecued meat and ripe fruit.

I turn, as I will at many times in the Arabian Levant, to the account of TE Lawrence for aid in explaining what is to a stranger in this strange land unknowable. Now it is rude to bring someone into a conversation without first introducing that lecturer, so in that regard Lawrence was a deeply troubled genius, unfocused, self-loathing, homosexual, and marrying strangely an insane cunning and exhausted temperance. I admire him for his flaws and shattered ideals, and for his observations, as true now as when he made them eighty years ago, while indirectly leading, with as much feminine guile as Lady Macbeth, the Arab Revolt that took the Turk out of the first World War, and transformed the peninsula into an Allied province. He wrote of Syria:
The people, even the best-taught, showed a curious blindness to the unimportance of their country, and a misconception of the selfishness of great powers whose normal course was to consider their own interests before those of unarmed races. Some cried aloud for an Arab kingdom. These were usually Moslems; and the Catholic Christians would counter them by demanding European protection of a thelemic order, conferring privileges without obligation. Both proposals were, of course, far from the hearts of the national groups, who cried for autonomy for Syria, having a knowledge of what autonomy was, but not knowing Syria; for in Arabic there was no such name, nor any name for all the country any of them meant. The verbal poverty of their Rome-borrowed name indicated a political disintegration. Between town and town, village and village, family and family, creed and creed, existed intimate jealousies sedulously fostered by the Turks.

Aleppo was a great city in Syria, but not of it, nor of Anatolia, nor of Mesopotamia. There the races, creeds, and tongues of the Ottoman Empire met and knew one another in a spirit of compromise. The clash of characteristics, which made its streets a kaleidoscope, imbued the Aleppine with a lewd thoughtfulness which corrected in him what was blatant in the Damascene. Aleppo had shared in all the civilizations which turned about it: the result seemed to be a lack of zest in its people's belief. Even so, they surpassed the rest of Syria. They fought and traded more; were more fanatical and vicious; and made most beautiful things: but all with a dearth of conviction which rendered barren their multitudinous strength.

Well said.

In the morning we checked out of the room, volunteered for the roof as a party of Slovenes was to fill up Al-Gawaher, and invited a Frenchman to come wander. Parisian Jean had worked odd jobs since studying cinema a decade ago―driver for Afrikaner rugby fans and Saudi elites and American Indian nouveau riche, tank electrician, cable-repairman. His mother was half Chinese, half Japanese, and the cheerful work ethic of the latter gene has inspired him to attain a TEFL certificate and Japanese work visa, so that he might meet a girl of that ideal race. On the way to Nippon he has ridden a 125cc Yamaha from Paris down through Bulgaria and the Turkic coast to Syria, and had been in Aleppo for three days already, driving out to visit small cities and sites, recommended in surprisingly good English for a Francophone.

Our intention was to walk to the Museum for a map, then through the Souk to the Citadel. We almost made it. Map in hand, we took off through the warren of merchantmen and craftsmen and mosques and bathhouses, which reeked a thousand oriental scents, an Arab perfume, a balmy feast for the nose and a painted splendor for the eyes. A butcher saw us looking at his cubicle and opened a freezer to show us the black camel head inside, tongue lolling, ready for the grill. Little Isuzu trucks honked against the stream, without slowing their careen, momentum fed by the carpets and paint buckets in their beds. We emerged as expected on the site of the impenetrable Citadel atop its great round dome. We sat in the shade at a cafe or restaurant and ordered plates of dips and salad and hummus and bowls of a chickpea soup called ful and cups of tea and coffee drinks.

Little of interest occurred, except that we feasted and drank and chatted like Arabs about cars and politics and girls and the world, and had a cute Syrian girl, seated with her mother at a table neighboring ours, speak to us. We found this openness remarkable in a world of covered flesh and learned habibi―my love! repeated ad nauseum in Syrian pop―and she laughed at our pronunciation and asked us if we were Christian and believed in Issa and Mariam and all that. The girl and her family were there all day eating and drinking and smoking shishas, and we did the same. We sat there for eight hours until the Citadel closed its gates and the arches of the rampway lit up with shifting colors and the walls with floodlights, Syria's arid swelter dimmed to a pleasant cool, and we walked back through the dimming Souk under a full moon and asked in hammams the price for a bath. How hard life is.

We ate schwarma and on the way to a place with hookahs where Jean had seen a lot of cute Syrian girls the night before, but a street cleaner drove by and sprayed soapy water all over the road, and the cars and ankles that lined it. We retreated from this barrage behind a wall and started talking with a bearded Moslem there who wore a long white robe and a keffiyeh turned back at the edges. Hossein was a Kuwaiti, and a happy one, and invited us to sit with him and his cousins, Ali from Kuwait and a Saudi Arab, for tea.

Now we continued in our long day of discourse, a strange group of white tourists with maniac hair and Kuwaitis in traditional dress, talking and laughing. Hossein, reclining in perfect contentment, soon showed himself to be a really cool dude: 43-years-old and retired from his job engineering warplanes, enjoying his retirement playing golf with American friends. His cousins had taken this two week road trip to Syria and southeast Turkey―though the gas there was certainly expensive―and Hossein tagged along, to escape the universal burden of work and wife. He explained to us that no, not all Muslims are polygamists (and seemed in general very defensive, or at least anticipated our misinformation), and this led to a discussion of Syrian girls, French girls, and American girls, including Hossein's crazy-jealous Texan girlfriend.

We talked about politics and religion. Hossein asked us if we were Christians, and seemed intent on converting us to the Mohammedan faith, making it clear that Mohammed was the Prophet following our Jesus and that the Koran was a sort of sequel to the Gospel―we only had two parts of the trilogy! Islam, Hossein told us, demands that people treat each other with respect, unlike, in his experience, Christianity. With a good-humored smile, he told us this story:

When living in London, Hossein and his family had for a neighbor a callous old bag who continually called the police on the interloping Arabs, and reported them for running over cats or leaving their dog out in the cold. Hossein asked her, “Why are you doing this?” “Because I don't like you Arabs,” was the vicious reply. Now there came a day when this old Margaret slipped and fell in the tub. She called her sons, daughters, brothers, ex-husband, boyfriend, girlfriends, who were all sorry but very busy, and, in the last resort, called her neighbor. It would have been unseemly for Hossein to see her, so his wife helped the poor lady dress, and Hossein drove her to the hospital, where he was arrested on suspicion of causing her distress, to spend the night in jail.

Two weeks later, fresh from the hospital, Ms. Crusader came calling at the door, weeping, apologizing, asking how he could have helped her after all that happened. “I am your neighbor,” he said. “Of course I help you.” Ms. Reformed invited the Hossein family to visit the Christian church, where a cousin confronted them, and said, “This is a House of God! If I can't get into a mosque, you shouldn't be allowed here.” Hossein corrected the man quietly and attended the curious service of those who eat their own God, who is three and not one.

I said to Hossein that we Christians were supposed to love our neighbor, and treat others as we wanted them to treat us, but that these messages often lost themselves in winding corridors of hate and prejudice and polemics. Despite our differences, we came to a verdict of peaceful cohabitation, under a universal God.

As for politics, can there ever be such a unity? Ali, in black garb with a trimmed beard, told us very passionately of the American Empire, of how much they wanted wanted Afghanistan and Iraq before finding excuses to take them, of how the Persian Gulf had been made an American protectorate, of how America signed a deal every decade to provide Kuwait with two defensive bases against Iraqi or Iranian enemies in exchange for oil. Our bases are all over the world, arranged like Risk pieces for rapid movements, for threats, to protect American corporate interests. We are an Empire of the Bank, an Empire of the Mind. How could I deny any of this, to ones who live under the American aegis in the principal sphere of its economic interest?

Finally Ali closed the discussion. “We should not talk about this,” he said. “There is someone listening.” (You will see no police in Syria, and that's the way they want it.)

The Kuwaitis caught a cab back to the hotel a short while later, having to wake up early for the morning call to prayer, and Jean and Jon proceeded to our intended water pipe place as Skip went back to snore. There weren't any girls, but we sat there chattering until the place closed. The city still rumbled with a fraction of life, and comforted us with this, as does the rise and fall of a chest, the stir of breath, in one who would otherwise look dead.

Back in front of Al-Gawaher, we squatted in the street in front of Ahmad and another Arab, both well-dressed and looking sour. The manager wore a faint beard and a stronger goatee on his clay face, with sensitive glasses and stylish slicked-back hair. “Those Slovenes came,” Ahmad told us. His voice approached a lisp but sounded more like he was punched in the lip the day before. “Some fucking travel agent told them he was booking a four or five star hotel, and then made the booking at Al-Gawaher. They were fucking pissed. They had me change all the sheets. I told them, 'They are clean,' but they said, 'We want to see you do it.'” His friend laughed and Ahmad snapped, “It's funny for you! You weren't here!”

Jean beat his own brow and said, “We were out talking geopolitical strategy when there were all these Slovenian girls here. We are such nerds.”

I agreed, but were the valkyries still roused? “No,” said Ahmad. “They were on the roof for a while drinking whiskey and asked me to join them, but I didn't want to. They were such jerks.”

Eventually we decided to Get Beer, and after Chasing Girls walked back toward the clock tower. We saw a dark silhouette down the avenue. “Is that N—?” asked Ahmad [name withheld]. “N—!” he called.

Mr. N— came strolling towards us, arms out in a dance, a song on his Slavic lips. He was a stocky, blocky sort of Arab, with buzzed hair and a scarred brow. He wore a polo shirt―one of the hundred-thousand Dutch Boy replicas he sent to Moscow and Dubai to make his second fortune, after losing the first millions to the Russian mafia―and gym shorts. He immediately fell into a boisterous joke, “Jean, my Remy, where is your bike? You ride a Yamaha halfway across the world, and sometimes carry it on your shoulder. Ah―,” seeing me. “Who is this? Jon? Jean Valjean?”

We four proceeded noisily to a street that smoked with grilled vegetables, to the liquor store, which remained open long enough only to give us what we sought, and while Ahmad and Jean bargained for peanuts at a man's cart, I talked with N—, who told me of his business. We took our beers out onto the roof and cracked their seals, much to the distress of the two prissy English girls and the foppish boy sleeping up there until a 4 a.m. bus to Istanbul. N— had a Russian passport and was obsessed with Ukrainian women, enough to marry a few. When Jean asked, “You seem to like Ukrainian women a lot. Do you have to pay them?” the Arab scoffed. “Of course you pay them. The more you pay, the more they love you.” One of the English girls lifted her head, cowled by Saxon locks, to say in Arabic, “There are girls up here.”

This is N—'s style: N— goes into a Beirut super-club. They call him the Tiger. He gets a table by himself, and orders a whiskey. He sees Ukrainian girls, distant apparitions in the back, shifting absently with the beat. A shuffled dance carries him close to a trinity. “Hey baby,” says this Arab gentleman in his English, “I love you. You are most beautiful. You shine like angel in this room.”

The tall Ukrainian he arduously sweet-talks turns to her two friends and says in her own language, “Look at this stupid nigger Arabic donkey.”

“I love you more than your friends do,” N— continues. “They are fools. But I like them, too.”

“What a motherfucking rooster,” says Ukrainian girl number one. “He wants to fuck all of us.”

“I will love you forever baby. We will make happy time if you will be mine.”

“I'll make so much money off this black donkey fucker.”

“Hey,” says N— in perfect Ukrainian, “I speak Ukrainian perfect, and you three will meet me at my hotel tonight, or I will tell your boss what you said. I will pay you.”―Now N— interrupts Jean, who is telling this story, and says, “Now I take them to my room and I speak, 'You three will take off those dresses and do a sexy dance! We will make sexy time!'” He shivered with laughter like a rabbit.

“You should have seen N— at this night club,” said Ahmad. “He was crying. He went up to this girl and started crying, 'Baby, please, don't leave me. I need you.'”

N— laughed with a shaking, grinning chuckle. He kept us entertained by proclaiming his love alternately for prostitutes and money and Las Vegas, until the focus shifted to Ahmad. The Kuwaiti had come to Syria with his father and turned the Al-Gawaher into the city's best traveler's hotel, both by good management and seductive charisma. X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.

Now traveling girls are often very libertine in their ways. X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.

Ahmad boasted a great many stories―X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.

X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.

Once a girl complained about the old man at the front desk, whom she found creepy. When that creepy elder later came up to Ahmad, to say something to his son, Ahmad said, “No that is not my father. He works for me. He is very poor, so I let him work here.”―“Like I said, sometimes you must cheat.” X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.

X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.

Ahmad's father owned the Al-Gawaher, had invested all his savings from Kuwait into it, but the son managed it and made it popular. His spirit, his energy, and his knowledge of the city made staying there a joy, for men looking for a good time, and for women looking for love. He was a skilled businessman, but one to prefer autonomy to wealth, who consistently and abusively turned down exploitative offers from Damascus travel agencies, who insulted tour guides or travelers he thought were rude. His hotel was listed second in Lonely Planet, and he liked it that way, since it meant fewer of the hard-planning German and Dutch couples would come there and unpack their contemptuous severity. The hotel was his love, his passion, his dream job; while his siblings went to school, he opted for this strange world of the Al-Gawaher.

By this time we had finished the Efes beer and the Johnny Walker, and so Ahmad called his driver to pick up more beer. This is the man he calls for beverages, food, or condoms, to slip under the door when the Manager needs them, and he arrived at the clock tower a few minutes later with a bag full of Egyptian Sakara beer.

Conversation shifts, the puritanical reader can be grateful, from sex to war. Ahmad and N— rose to help one of the sleepless English girls find her phone―“My phone, my phone,” chanted the girl―and spent an hour so occupied until the girl found the treasure right in her bag. (This same girl had earlier rammed into the generator shed with a zombie walk, attempting to breach the doorway on the opposite side of the roof, and was engaged to marry a Damascene in a few weeks―God help the poor Arab!) When we rejoined, N— asked Jean what he thought about the Arabs.

Syria is oppressed! said Jean. Westerners can come here, but you can't go there. They control you.

Ahmad and N— resisted this. People are doing well, they said.

And what of the man we bought peanuts from, said Jean. Is he also doing well?

“The peanut salesman?” said Ahmad in a triumph of rhetoric. “I know this man! He has a factory out of town, which makes T-shirts. He makes good money!” In my observation, the wealth divide in Syria is not extreme. Nobody starves, and nobody is doing so well to warrant a great mansion. There is work and food and oil, and that great word Plenty, for this sad shorn nation, wedged between great powers and their proxies.

N— pointed this out in a fit of passion, without any of his earlier humor. “Turkey, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Israel.” He mapped these countries on the table with symbolic items―napkins, plastic bags, a water bottle. Syria, a beer can, he put in the center. “They are all around us. And in the middle, Syria is crushed,” as the beer can was in his meaty fist.

“That's my beer, man,” said Jean.

They are not the enemy, said Ahmad, and he added, X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.

X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X. N— had family who died to Israeli bombers, X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X, and was a Christian, he lied (X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X); he had Russian and Lebanese citizenship, “But first I am an Arab, first I am a Syrian. I can't tell this to Western or US people, because they won't understand our problems.”

X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X: “First, there are seven-thousand Syrians on the border with Iraq watching for terrorists. We speak George Bush, we speak Condoleeza Rice, send us technology so we can stop them, but get nothing. Second,” said Mr. N—, “Israel took four-thousand kilometers of our land. We want that four-thousand kilometers back to Syria. Third, there should be no more fighting. I don't care about Israel or America.”

“X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X?” raised Amad.

“X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X! Jon, you are American, but you see, we are friends. We are the same. We both have eyes and heart and soul—and ass. It's our presidents, our governments, our armies that have problem. It is not our business.”

“X X X X X X X X X X X X X X,” said Ahmad. “X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X.”

There were protests! cried Jean and Jon. Demonstrations! The West did not stand idly by! Yet how can we criticize, when the Land of the Free made those weapons the Israelis used, and donated to them the money they needed to buy bombs?

“I don't like anybody dead,” said N—. “I want peace. Whoever will do this for me, I will respect him.”

“What is your dream, N—?” asked Ahmad.

Then it falls away, and he is N—. He smiled. “I am in Al-Kesser's [Caesar's] Palace. Third floor, with all the rich people. I play poker. I have royal flush. There is cigar in my mouth. I say, [around the cigar, and as he folds his hand out to release his cards and envelop the stack of winnings] 'Groial flush.' And here have Claudia Schiffer, and here Brooke Shields, and here [in his lap] Ukrainian geerl. Ah, Las Vegas!”

Comments

  1. ''conversations In Aleppo'' is really nice to read .According to me every one should read it once.I really like the story of the person and his experiences es in that city.

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