Beirut to Aleppo

July 28, 2007 at 5:47 pm 2 comments

We spent less than 24 hours in Lebanon.  For years, I’ve tried to make sense of the broad outlines of politics and conflict in Lebanon for my survey courses.  The main thing I understand better now is why affluent Lebanese leave Beirut for the summer.  Although the thermometer registered only 93, the city was completely oppressive, a combination of 87% humidity and terrible air pollution. 


We walked up the hill from the hotel, trying to find a computer with an internet connection to let kids know we’d arrived OK, passing many men in uniform carrying big guns –I hadn’t seen that many military people out on the streets since Istanbul in 1982 (that makes me quite lucky!).  Everyone in this section of Beirut seems to have their own laptops.  Wifi is common (seemed people for miles had come to Starbucks with their laptops), but the only internet establishment we saw was for gamers—it even had a room apparently dedicated to the incredibly popular “World of Warcraft.”  Everywhere else we’ve been in Morocco and Syria, even the smallest towns, people were on Skype talking with people far away.  In the Ashrafiya neighborhood in Beirut, the only cyber café everyone directed us to had no Skype, and no usable headphones to use after I downloaded the program.


The great missed photo of the night was the ABC Mall, where we had dinner.  Clearly more upscale than Southpoint (in Durham), it seemed to be partly about consumerism, partly about culture, perhaps consumerism as sophistication?  The point was to see and be seen, and there was much more here to see of the women.  Hardly any were covered, and many were barely covered.  The building’s architecture and decoration, its patrons and its recognizable logos, would have provided a terrific slide to show alongside Aleppo’s market for that first lecture, “This is the Middle East.”  The juxtaposition would be accurate and appropriate, but I hope to get a chance to return to Beirut at some point–how typical is Ashrafiya?  


 The hotel manager seemed surprised that we were headed to Syria, which he clearly disdained.  And he warned us against taking the service taxis, predicting that there would be no air conditioning and we might be sitting with people who smelled bad.  We had too much luggage (six months, remember) to share a car with four others, and asked him whether we might pay for all six of the places in the car.  Seemed to work out great.  We didn’t notice that the car had Syrian plates until we reached the border, but we did notice that the driver was questioned at many of the checkpoints in Lebanon.


We climbed the mountains out of Beirut, then drove up the valley.  There are military checkpoints every few kilometers, manned by people in uniform with weapons, sitting behind piles of sandbags.


There are visible reminders of last summer’s bombing along the roads and in the city.  And the posters were ubiquitous throughout the valley: photos with names of the martyrs, photos of Nasrallah and other religious leaders.  Even on posts outside churches, the posters expressed solidarity with Lebanon’s dead and Hizbullah’s leaders.


Our driver apparently brewed a pot of tea while waiting for us to show our passports to exit Lebanon.  I was amazed–he kept the pot in the foot well, intermittently pouring it into a glass next to him, offering us some (good, strong, not too sweet), and sipped tea all the way to Aleppo (a 6 hour trip, including an hour at the border).  The border crossing was pretty easy, except that the Syrian computers went down and we all waited a while.


Our driver had done this countless times, apparently, was recognized by many, greeted other drivers and people at the borders.  He was an incredibly cautious, reasonable driver, a good thing since it seems that Syrian cars don’t have functioning seat belts.  William and I were both impressed with how he changed as soon as he crossed the border.  In Syria,  he drove like a good-natured madman! 

The hotel felt familiar after our stay for four days last summer, and we hunkered down to try to find a flat for the next five months.  It was 109 here yesterday, in the shade, humidity 12%.  Today, they say, we’re headed to 111.  People are complaining it’s the worst heat wave they can remember.  I hope that means it won’t stay this way too long.


The hotel is actually within the suq, so Friday was very quiet.  On our way back from lunch, we ran into Sebastian, a local shopkeeper we met last summer.  He immediately contacted his friend, who is refurbing “old Arab houses,” but, sadly, has none available.  It seems most people here want to live in modern apartments and the Ottoman style houses that surround courtyards are being abandoned.  In Morocco, they are being refurbed for tourists (the riad craze), but Aleppo doesn’t have many tourists.  It was fascinating to see what they looked like before and after renovation, but the only one available was in the “before” state and we really do want indoor plumbing, so we’ll continue the search. 


Entry filed under: Lebanon, Middle East, Syria, Travel.

Communities and Transitions To the Mountains!

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Russ  |  July 28, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Great post. Funny about the World of Warcraft. I bet they play on European servers since they’re closer.

  • 2. tarek makdissi  |  August 13, 2009 at 9:13 am

    LOOol … that’s funny .. i’m at an internet cafe in the ashrafia .. and with no headphones. . .and the funny thing that i’m, Trying to Find an internet cafe to play WORld of warcraft .. 😀


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