Monday, July 6, 2009

Aleppo and Bananas

A saving grace of the developing world is the near universal presence of cheap fruit juice bars. In Ethiopia a few avocado, carrot and mango smoothies would set me back a dollar and stand in superbly as lunch or dinner. The Middle East is no different. Within hours of arriving in Cairo for the first time, I was sipping from a pint sized glass mug of lime green Asab juice, the sweet and tangy sugarcane drink that reigns supreme across Egypt. Asab cannot be found in Syria. According to my favorite fruit juice dude in Aleppo, this is because the Egyptian favorite is the lesser man's drink.

While the juicer's explanation left me laughing at his display of Levantine pride, we were both reduced to tears of laughter moments later when I asked for a milk and banana smoothie and received a whole banana and the wish that I enjoy my time in Aleppo. The joke lay in my confusing the Arabic word for milk, "haleeb," with the Arabic (and Hebrew) name for Aleppo, "Haleb." Mooz wa Haleb, indeed!

Whatever one calls Aleppo, the shortest stay in the city is enough to leave the visitor convinced that nowhere else in Syria has the same degree of charm and old world beauty. Aleppo is a classic example of a can't miss sight without any can't miss sights. Besides the stunning citadel at the heart of the old city, there is nothing in the town visitors must see. What makes Aleppo, one of the world's most ancient cities, so alluring is the magic of wandering through the slanted stone byways of the old city, skipping past the endless displays in the meandering shuk and imbibing the pungent aroma of the olive oil bars of soap that have been an Aleppo hallmark for centuries.

Aleppo was once the final stop along the Silk Road and so there are any number of writers that have evoked the charm of the city's mercantilist spirit. I tackled the city the weekend of June 13 with the added motivation of tracing the legacy of a Jewish community that Haim Sabato recalls in Aleppo Tales. Today the community is only a distant memory. Locals were kind enough to direct me to a synagogue north of the old city. On arriving I found a few stone archways framing a dilapidated parking lot. Not quite the Jewish heritage tour I may have hoped for.

The rest of my weekend was a marvel thanks to an Armenian silversmith, the American star of the national women's basketball team and most of all, John Travolta long lost Syrian cousin. The silversmith came into my life when I staggered into the Christian neighborhood in Aleppo known as al-Jedeida. I had been on my feet since the morning without a penny to my name to buy anything to drink--the risks of traveling solo on the shabbath day! So I am lounging in the shade of the single tree at the center of al-Jedeida when a kindly Armenian man invites me into his shop. Normally I would touch my hand to my chest to signal my disinterest in hearing his plaintive sales pitch. But I was tired and trusting. And better yet, minutes later I was drinking tea and listening to stories of how Aleppo's large Armenian community fled Turkey to their current home.

Before letting me go, the silversmith insisted I chase down the two young women that had stopped by his shop before me. I took his advice and quickly found myself talking with two of the only Americans in Aleppo. Both girls were English teachers. More importantly, they were both really cute and bought me orange juice. And best of all, one of the girls was on the Syrian women's basketball team!

Shabbat ended and I retraced my steps in order to take photos of the sights I had passed earlier in the day. When I arrived at the citadel a troupe of dancers in golden costumes were performing for a large crowd. While I angled for a good shot of the stone castle, John Travolta stepped out from the crowd and volunteered to take my picture. Or at least that is what I thought, especially when the Travolta look-alike said in nearly perfect English "My name is Travolta, perhaps you have heard of me?" Hassan, as Travolta's Syrian stand-in turned out to be named, took a liking to me and we ended up spending the next five hours together driving around the city in his car and then dining in a rooftop restaurant along with Hassan's Iraqi business partner.

1 comment:

  1. Prices of vegetables and fruits are too much for a low-class people to afford. I dreamed of providing natural juices such as Mangosteen Juice cheap enough to be afforded by everyone.

    Lucas Moore