Under the Tarboush 09.21.05

Day 2 though Day 8 5:29AM

Fun stuff, concerning I haven’t put together a legitimate travel log for the past 7 days, no?

Well, it depends on your definition of “fun.” If such a definition means sleeping away nearly half of the day at a time, then yes: I am having a lot of fun. Damn fun stuff. It just occurred to me that this might fly over the heads of some cats, so let me rectify the situation with a little bit of exposition.

Dating back to the Ummayyad Dynasty’s stay in Spain back around the time of the crusades, there exist many vestiges from that time period; castles, names of islands between Spain and Morocco, and in our case, the siesta. Yes friends, this is a siesta in the most orthodox manner. Every day since we’ve arrived in Aleppo, we’ve slept half of the day with no interruption at all concerning it. Everyday roughly between 1-2PM, the entire country (region?) adjourns it’s affairs -be it business or personal- and takes a nap until about 5 or 6. For anybody coming from Spain or other like-folkway’d places, this may not be a problem. But when you’re coming from a society that prioritizes the work day in all of it’s facets, where the 40-hour work-week is unbreakable and un-liftable for all but the most extenuating circumstances, this creates a grave incompatibility. Even a week after, and I haven’t been able to adapt sufficiently. Heck- that’s why I’m writing this around 5:30am!!!

Regardless of this, what we’ve seen of Aleppo is remarkable in many facets of the word. From my previous visit 12 years ago, it appears much has changed. However, before I delve into the changes, let me briefly gloss over what has apparently been unchanged:

  • When it comes to building construction, cement gets the cold shoulder as using stone gets love. And I’m not talking about a 25-75 split. For the sake of a conservative estimate, I’d guess that 98 percent of the buildings here are made of stone. This is as far as the eye can see in any given direction, and is somewhat eerie given the elapsed number of years from 1993. However, I guess they have the old saying too where if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • Like any other major population center (Aleppo has a population of 4 million; Damascus is the capitol with ??? – I’ll look this up later), there is a geographical split between residential areas and the business district. What’s interesting to note, though, is that directly under the 2nd story building I’m currently staying in (French system of level division i.e First Level, Second level = “Lobby” followed by “First Level) there are no less than about 10 independent businesses at the bases of residential buildings in view. Allocated 1-2 a piece, I’ve visited 4 of them; a local tailor with my cousin, two thrift stores, and one cell-phone store- the last one directly across a competing store on the other side of the street. Capitalism is alive and well.
  • Taxis. Lots of them. I’ll try to get more photographic evidence in the meantime to substantiate the claim, but there are lots of these guys. Enough to wager a guess that about half of the cars here in Aleppo are indeed Taxis. Speaking from an ethnocentric/economic view, one could guess that this is because of the prohibitive cost of a private car- especially when one costs around half of to 2 million Syrian pounds (10,000 to 40,000 USD).

This is by no means an expansive list. I’ll revisit as warranted.

The number of things that have changed is rather interesting.

  • While the amount of Taxis on the road is overwhelming, the proliferation of private vehicles looks to have expanded. From scant memory of a BBCNews.co.uk posting a while back, this is probably attributable to the lift on the importation of newer cars. Up until 2000 (before Hafez Al-As ad’s death), an importation ban had existed that rendered the overwhelming majority of cars in Syria around 20-30 years old. The lifting of this ban in 2000 has put a lot more private cars in circulation. As confirmation, one of the first things my uncle remarked was about the age of his new Mazda: 2 days old. He also mentioned a 500,000 pound price break as well.
  • Ice Cream flavor proliferation. File this one under “youthful musings :)”. During my last trip about 12 years ago, we stayed Homs as well as Aleppo. During the three-week trip, I had seen only one Ice Cream vendor in the premiere, and offered three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio. This time around, we had mango and mixed-fruit flavored ice cream, in addition to the orthodox flavors, during the first 4 nights we were here. Progress indeed!!!
  • Cell-phone usage. The mobile phone, while I would assume would be expensive for the layman, has taken the place by storm. As mentioned earlier, I am currently residing beside two such outlets which both offer services from the two local competing companies: Syriatel and 94 Syria. Their pre-paid SIM Card programs, named يا هالة (“ya hala) and انا (“ana”) respectively (the first is a term of endearment used for addressing a loved one while the latter is a direct translation of “I” or “me” in English) are competitively priced, and you can’t walk more than two blocks without finding an outlet. “For the service center nearest you” thus appears to be a moot point. What’s also interesting to note is their adaptation of Western-style marketing, as both are replete with مراكز الخدمات (Service Centers) ready to address any qualm you may have. At the behest of my cousin, I’m currently using “Ana.”
  • For the first time ever, as this caught my Dad’s eye, American cars are beginning to be sold here in Syria. No SUVs mind ya- but if you want a Ford Focus or a smaller GMC sedan (not an oxymoron!), some cats can set you up.
  • Perhaps as a result of the World Trade Center/Pentagon attack, wealthy Saudi Arabians have had to find a destination spot other than the US (from what I understand, tourism from the Kingdom has fallen harshly). Looks like Syria is that particular destination spot. What prompted this observation, and only because my Dad remarked about it, is that there were a lot of women in their full cover braving the Syrian heat (it’s damn hot here). The last time I was here, there weren’t nearly as many dressed like this. It was my Dad yesterday that remarked that they were probably vacationing Saudis. In an anecdotal manner, he caught a linguistic difference when a said-dressed female patron was in a shoe store and confirmed the price of thirty Syrian pounds as ثلاثين (“thalatheen”); which is how a number is referred to when it’s part of describing a direct object, and closer to written Qur’anic Arabic than the local way of saying it, ثلاثون , which is used when referring to a number with a noun.

This isn’t an exhaustive list either. I’ll add across entries as needed.

And what events to speak of? Nothing all too remarkable, minus the trips downtown. The phrase ‘downtown’ has been translated twice differently since I’ve been here: once by a street sign as “the center of the city” (المركز المدينة) and “the middle of the city” (الوصط المدينة) by my uncle. It could be a religious difference in pronunciation. I digress, however…

Downtown has played host to many of our outings. We’ve picked up “foreign” incarnations of soda cans from certain HUGE, RED-DOMINANT LOGO’D MANUFACTURES (can you guess what كوكا كهلا means?) as well as going to the local Syrian Orthodox Church this past Sunday and other outings. We’ve so far visited the حديقة العام (public garden) in Aleppo, complete with a Versailles-esque stair path, as well as the Aleppo “Trane” Station (المحاة القطار الحلب). We’ve also paid visits to the post office, and stood outside the local bank, which was complete with… well, I can’t ruin the surprise just yet 🙂

All other times have been occupied indoors, as the heat here is immense in the daytime (you can probably chain this to the ‘siesta’ paragraph earlier for some neuron-flying postulation). My uncle and his family across the street, as well as my grandmother here, have apparently made it their personal mission to inundate all of us with as much food as can be prepared, which only adds credence to the national siesta. Some of it, in my opinion, is great. Some -again, in my opinion- I don’t care for. But I’m not the only one in the family. So the variety is appreciated.

For the future, however, we’re hoping to hit up the Aleppo Museum, as well as (I hope) a citadel from the Crusades and a genuine standing mosque from the Ummayad Dynasty. Coupled with my horrible digital camera which can’t take pictures in dark areas, we’ll see what happens!

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Next up on the Tarboush: Egyptian Elections, a country profile of Lebanon, and other wonders! But for now, that’s what’s Under The Tarboush.