May 5, 2008

Aleppo, Syria

When I arrived in Aleppo with full body cover, ankle length jeans and a long sleeve shift dress, I felt pretty darn close to naked. This beat my one-piece bathing suit at the Dead Sea among a large group of school girls taking a dip in their pants and jackets. Aleppo was the first city I traveled to in the Middle East where a majority of women were covered in either only-eyes-peering-out or no-face-showing-at-all hijab (Islamic dress of beyond floor and wrist length black dress, black veil and black gloves). In other cities, with a mixture of tourists, Christians and moderately dressed Muslim, I have felt as though I have blended in with the human terrain, but here I felt like a fluorescent bulb in a sea full of black ghosts and it absolutely fascinated me. Coming from a western culture where a person’s character is so often judged by what they wear and how attractive they are, it was intriguing to think of moving through public so anonymously. And interesting too was the contrast between mother and young daughter, who until the age of 12 or 13, can enjoy all the western style short sleeve shirts, rhinestone denim jeans and mini skirts and sparkly headbands her heart desires. I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side; I am sure that most of these women would welcome the freedom of choice and self expression with outward style whereas, growing up with this opportunity, the thought of having a rest from the everyday decision making process of what to wear or how to fix your hair seems strangely refreshing. Often though, when we make an effort to reveal the mysteries that exist under the surface, we may find ourselves surprised with the discoveries. There are many risqué lingerie shops lining the streets of Aleppo that would put Victoria Secret to shame and the word on the street is that the majority of customers are from some of the most culturally conservative countries such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, leaving one to wonder what is really being expressed under those Abayas (black dress of the Hijab) and behind closed doors.
With all this female intrigue happening in my head, it must have triggered my reproductive system into action because I got my monthly call of nature the second day there. I needed to get some products so I went to the pharmacy where I was greeted by three old and smoky Syrian men who had very confused and blank looks on their faces when I tried to explain what a tampon was in we-don’t-speak-the-same-language hand signals. It became quite comical and after one man was about to hand me something that looked like a pregnancy test, an obvious miscommunication of sign language, I decided to try my luck elsewhere where I eventually found an English speaking pharmacist.
Aleppo as a city holds much of the same curiosity and contrast as the predominant female dress code and once the laminate is pried it is an exciting place to explore. For instance, I met a Syrian importer of modern Parisian and Italian furniture brands such as Roche Bobois and Natuzzi in a bar in the Muslim section of Old City. That whole sentence seems to spell contradictions – modern furniture in old city at a bar in the Muslim part of town. Much like the push for modern galleries among all the remaining antiquity. My first day there I visited the Citadel, which sits on the highest hill overlooking the city and beyond and hosts a balanced mix of tourists and locals making it an especially relaxing place to visit toward sunset when the day’s heat has subsided. Getting terribly but happily lost on the streets, passing from the maze-like district of the Christian quarter to the open- air marketplaces of the city, gives a good, albeit tiring, glance of the high voltage energy of everyday life. I entertained my palate by Kebab hopping, since Aleppo is home of the world famous Arabic invention, and after walking into many men-only restaurants and passing through the initial all-eyes-on-me moment, I proved I could stuff my face just like them.
The surrounding landscape is equally inspiring and full of activities from visiting the famous St. Simeon Basciilica where some crazy monk preached on a pillar for forty years and traveling through natural limestone covered hills filled with the scattered ruins of those building frenzied Romans, called “Dead Cities”, to picnicking among the olive tree farms by Lake Assad which was created from a dam at the Euphrates river.
I felt prematurely nostalgic on my way out of the country and when it looked as though the border guards weren’t going to let me leave I was momentarily excited for my involuntary confinement. I left a trail of sights to still see and coupled with my new Syrian friends I will always have good reason to return.

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