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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

On the Third Night - in a Country where You Didn't Talk Politics - UPDATED

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) 20 - In one of the Oldest Continously Inhabited Cities in the World, alas, these Ancient Walls Today are Probably No Longer Standing

Photo: This international city, home to a variety of nationalities, had a population larger than the country's capital in 2010. Sadly, almost certainly no longer.

So where might it be? You can send your guesses via the site's messaging system or via email. I'll give the answer and what happened on the third night - tomorrow.

UPDATE: Well, if I hadn't understood this already, this little quizz certainly brought it home: the readership of this blog may not be large, but it certainly includes some bright, agile minds. I think David Thompson sent in his (correct) guess a mere 12-15 minutes after I posted yesterday afternoon, and the answers kept coming all night and into today – from Kenya to North America and Mexico via Ukraine, Serbia, Slovenia, central Europe, the UK and Ireland. And the vast majority were spot on.

True, Iván 'the Wag' Sellei proffered Gozsdu udvar, but most realised the scene was culturally and geographically somewhat removed from Budapest VI (it made me laugh though, Iván).

We also had three Jerusalems, a Damascus and a Cairo. The latter two had to be ruled out as both are capitals: the former would be contentious on that point, but as it isn't the correct location, we don't need to go there. (And, while I can't be sure, memories of my own wanderings in the old city of Jerusalem are of narrower streets than shown in this picture.)

So, special congratulations to the correct contestants – all told about 20, maybe even more, hit nail on head, and none more so than AlHakam Shaar. Now Hakam is at a distinct advantage, because it's his home city (from which he is in self-exile, for his own safety, while the current regime remains in power). So of course, I thought he might well guess the location. But no, he confidently asserted and identified it, writing:

Hi Kester!

This is none other than Aleppo, in its souq, "el-Mdeeneh", as pronounced by us Aleppians.

I recognize that it is the wider souq el mdeeneh, but not the specific sub-souq (every line of shops has its own name, e.g. souq al-Attareen (of the spices), souq al-Zarb (my grandfather had a shop there where they sold and rented tents, primarily to peasants and bedouins), etc. The wider souq must be some 10-30% of the whole of Old Aleppo's area. I grew up in a house in a neighbourhood in Old Aleppo and my father's office was in another.

What screams souq in this photo is.. actually a couple of things: the streets are lined up with shops on both sides. The whole street is basically shop fronts; there are no plain walls like you would see in residential neighbourhoods (but also on the external walls of some "khans"* (caravanserais), such as Khan al-Wazeer). Almost every inch is a shop front. The ceilings - residential streets are not ceiled. The arches are a bonus, often bearing the signature of some rich governor or notable of Aleppo from any time since before the Ayyubids, through the Mamluk and Ottoman eras. But in this photo the arches are nothing too majestic and are probably just an extensions, called "sibat" that provides both storage/use space and a roof. In other cases, the structures are complete with domes and the gates of "khans". * In Persian, khan means place and it's a loan word in Turkish, dialects of Arabic, and other languages.

Thank you for all this, Hakam! Really interesting.

Photo: Aleppo, a flea market near the bus station. It was poverty as in the Indian sub-continent, and tragic to see some of the 'goods' up for sale. Early November, 1984.

So now to the story – On the Third Night – which is longer than I first realised, so I'll make it into two episodes, maybe three.

Also, I'm not going to say on a public forum where the following all took place – not even 37 years after the events. It might have been Aleppo, it might have been another city. Under normal circumstances, the people I met should still be alive, but this was Syria and, sadly, I fear that if they haven't left the country, they will be dead – either killed in the fighting of the last decade, or murdered by the state security forces, possibly even before civil war broke out.

Syria was, and is, typically described as a dictatorship. The problem with this moniker is it covers a spectrum of regimes from 'non-democratic, but liveable' to 'daily terror'.

Some Hungarians for example, will talk of the “Kádár” or “Communist” dictatorship even up to 1990. Well, technically, you can say that, but in reality even in the 1970s – as described by Gábor Rimner - the system tolerated the anti-communist jokes told by 97% of people under 30. (See, for example: Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner, Chapter 32 - “Market Research - And its Strange Head of Department” – published on Aug 12 last year.) At that time Hungary certainly was a dictatorship, but it was no longer a Stalinist state.

Syria, in 1984, was Stalinist plus. Nobody joked about President Hafez al Assad or his Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party: to do so risked a long prison sentence, or worse. But in the first days, though I knew the regime was bad, I hadn't felt how bad.

Between every town, all traffic was stopped at checkpoints by armed … well one supposed they were police – but often they were just in civilian clothing. I remember this young fellow, in blue jeans, climbing onto my minibus at one such checkpoint. As he swaggered down the aisle checking IDs, his Kalashnikov (as I suppose it was) banged on the metal seat frames. Don't get me wrong, he got to me (in the back row), checked my visa and returned my passport civilly enough. But a guy in jeans with an automatic weapon clanging at his side does not engender a feeling of confidence.

Anyway, one day I met a guy and got chatting. He – let's call him Mohammed - was about my age, very helpful, and clearly intelligent. He invited me round to his place that evening for tea. I duly turned up and we spoke about this and that - I honestly forget about what – with his two friends. I think at least one had a degree in English, and all three spoke the language very well. Mohammed was in the tourism sector, and I remember him saying his father had been in media, but had been removed from his job for not toeing the party line.

As I was preparing to leave, Mohammed asked if I was staying another night in town. I said I was, and he promptly invited over the following evening – if I wished. Well, these guys were good company, and so the next night, we more or less repeated the first evening's scenario. And once again, since I was to be in town another full day, I was invited round a third time.

As we sipped our teas and nattered, conversation drifted to where I mentioned, for reasons I forget, the then recent film “Chariots of Fire”. Had they seen it?

“La!”, Mohammed said, raising his eyebrows, his mouth agape as Arabs are wont when uttering the negative: “No. We cannot see it here. And do you know why not?”

I shook my head. I couldn't really think what was subversive about a movie on athletes preparing for the 1924 Olympics.

I probably should have thought harder.

“Because there is a Jew in it,” Mohammed said, answering his own question.

There was no hint of anti-Semitism in his voice when he said this, but I wasn't sure how to react. There were some seconds of silence.

Then Mohammed leaned forward, put his arms on his knees, and asked, slowly and very deliberately:

“Tell us, what do you really think about our country?”

The atmosphere in the room, as they say in football match reports, turned “electric”.

Photo: A shortage of customers: A tea 'shop' in Aleppo.

(To Be Continued)

Note: I wrote about visiting the ruins of the Church of St Simeon the Stylite in Syria in December: See post Dark Brooding Ruin: Tumultuous Past, Tumultuous Present - posted December 15

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