Archive for August, 2007




Syrian children learn English in school, and each one I meet wants to try out a couple of phrases whenever I leave the house. I respond countless times each outing to “Hello, how are you?” And “What is your name?” They run away giggling before I can introduce a new phrase.

Among the dozens of children on our street, most are friendly and curious, which seems to be an appropriate response for children who live in an area where foreigners seldom come. Friends in Syria seem surprised that we live in this old neighborhood, where restoration has begun quite slowly, where most of the residents are poor, and where people interpret Islam as requiring that women cover not only their heads, but their entire faces as well.

We had issues with only one young boy among the dozens that greet us each day, a child probably ten or eleven years old who harassed my Arabic teacher whenever she came to see me. William had words with him, and we haven’t seen him for two weeks.

But those incidents made me begin to worry about the kids, about what their parents said about the local strangers.

My anxieties were calmed on Thursday evening. Returning from dinner, we greeted a family walking on the street past our door. A small girl (maybe four years old) ran over to say hi and I greeted her back. Then her father smiled, picked her up, and held her up for me to kiss her. She seemed delighted when I kissed her on both cheeks.



August 31, 2007 at 12:24 pm Leave a comment


Ahmad took all of us, his international extended family, to his brother’s house to sample the pizza. His brother and sister-in-law plan to move to a city east of here and open a pizza restaurant. Based on our taste-tests last night, seems like it should be a winner.


Ahmad’s brother Juma has been restoring an old house not far from here. The house has a stone oven in the courtyard that works quite well for pizza. His wife Ghaida had already made the dough and the fillings. When we arrived, she brought them into the courtyard and put them on a table. Ghaida is fast and efficient. First she and Masayo, our Japanese housemate “daughter,” shaped balls of dough and set them aside to rise. Then she rolled them out, the small ones first, while Masayo and Magiko (our upstairs housemate) spread meat on some and red pepper paste on others to make lahmajun. When Masayo dropped out, I learned to make cheese pastries and lahmajun. Ghaida is a wonderful teacher.


Ghaida’s daughter, 5 years old, tried to help with all the stages. When I commented that her daughter could help with the pizza restaurant, I was quite surprised by Ghaida’s adamant response. No, she insisted, her daughter would go to school!

I told Ghaida that my own daughter is 23, and she smiled. “I’m 25,” she said. “How old were you when you married?” I asked. Fifteen. Ghaida hadn’t been to school, and her new husband, ten years her senior, taught her to read and write. Her daughter will go to school.


Both daughter Diana and son Hikmet (8) seemed quite attached to the French teacher who has been living in one of the rooms of the restored house. We also met his sister and her two friends, visiting Syria for three weeks from Paris.

After we ate too many cheese pastries and lahmajun, the pizzas were ready. They were the closest to American-style pizza we have eaten outside the US. No pepperoni.


August 27, 2007 at 9:54 am Leave a comment

Visa Extending

Today was the day to go to the immigration office to try to get our visas extended. There is no “security” in the building, no metal detectors or body searches. (We had noticed this at the Syrian embassy in Washington, DC, too. We walked right in off the street and no one even checked our bags.) The first floor is for Syrian passport applications and renewals. The second floor is for foreigners trying to extend visas and get identification cards.

People walking, waiting, and talking in the long corriders and by the long counters were wearing the most diverse kinds of clothing. Kurdish women and bedouin women wearing colorful dresses and headscarves, men with long jalabiyas and checked scarves, people dressed in western-style clothing with heads uncovered, women wearing long black coats (it’s in the 90s here) and scarves that cover their faces, and the Gulf women–I’ve not yet understood how they can make those long black dresses, black scarves, and spiked heels look so distinctive, distinguished, and elegant.

We had gotten eight copies of our photographs from the man with the camera in the courtyard, collected both required forms, and were waiting in the downstairs lobby for Ahmad to finish his passport renewal when a man in uniform with three stars on his shoulders spoke to us in Spanish. When we obviously didn’t respond to his entreaties, an old village woman tried the same thing (I think) in sign language. When he tried in Arabic, it became clear that he wanted us to go down the hall and to the right. We stood in the hallway until he arrived and showed us into his office.

Syrian hospitality and friendliness toward foreigners is really quite remarkable. When he learned I was a history professor, he was delighted. He had studied history, Middle East history, in Chile (hence the Spanish). He wanted to know why we were in Syria, how we liked Syria, what we would be doing here, and insisted that we drink tea. The conversation became more detailed when Ahmad appeared. Our host talked about the history of Syria, its tremendous importance in the world’s past, the importance of all the varied groups in the Middle East working together. He quoted the second Caliph, ‘Umar, on protecting people during war, and talked about Syria’s historical tolerance for others. Then he insisted we drink orange juice. When two other men from his village came, he greeted them, we all drank orange juice, and they sat opposite us and listened.

Somehow, it seemed clear to everyone that the conversation was over, and everyone rose to leave. Our host walked with us to the officer upstairs, who sent someone with us to the long queue. We waited there, two Americans and dozens of Iraqis, while our various forms were signed and stamped, stapled, copied and approved. It is a bit awkward, waiting in lines with Iraqis who are trying to get permission to live in Syria because of what my country has done to theirs.

When we returned to thank our host, he offered to take us to see some of Syria’s historical sites. I left hoping Syrians receive the same kind of treatment at a US immigration office.

August 25, 2007 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

Aleppo Modern

I continue to be fascinated with Aleppo. William and I walked today from our house to Bab al-Hadid to buy milk. Except for the supermarket at New Town, food stores specialize in certain kinds of things. One doesn’t find butter at the yogurt store, or the corner grocery, or the spice shop, for example; it is sold by the same man who sells breakfast cheese and zatar (a spice mixture).

woodhadid.jpg blacksmithhadid1.jpg  lumber.jpg

I was surprised to find, just a few yards from our house, a street of blacksmith and wood-working shops where people obviously still make tools by hand. Somehow, my tendency to see history as linear is challenged by the presence of these men working a short walk from the street where other men sell huge, industrially-produced pump equipment. I use “men” advisedly. The only consistent observation I have made here about small business is that men are the only obvious participants.


It does seem rather absurd to claim that “modern” and something else coexist in Aleppo. The city just seems to include a whole variety of forms of production. That range is evident not only among purveyors of tools and equipment, but also among clothiers (ready-made shops sell the latest European fashions and tailors make men’s shirts to order) and food producers. These photos juxtapose our stroll through part of the new city on Thursday evening to a “fast food” restaurant (great kebab) and the local equivalent of Starbucks (to-go cups, flavored syrups, cold coffee-drinks) with our walk through Bab al-Hadid area today. Thrown in are a couple of pictures from Saturday, when we took our Japanese housemate for her first walk through the suq. The reality of meat was almost enough to turn me into a vegetarian. We introduced her to our favorite foul shop (vegan).

fastfood.jpgcoffee.jpg  meat.jpgfulrestaurant.jpgfullunch.jpg

August 20, 2007 at 5:53 pm Leave a comment



University Entrance

Hala, my wonderful Arabic teacher, met me at the entrance to Aleppo University’s Faculty of Arts. She had introduced herself to the chair of the History Department the previous day to ask if he would be able to meet me. We walked into a huge hallway, past the empty hall used for exhibitions, and up to the third floor. Professor Abbasi welcomed me in his office, and, since what I had really wanted was simply to meet another historian (do most historians miss being around other historians when away from home?), we, of course, talked about history. Professor Abbasi does his research on the relations between the Ottomans and the Safavis, from 1501 to the mid-1700s. He also has studied Mosul, but 200 years earlier than me.

I asked him about the faculty. There are only seven full-time history faculty members in Aleppo, and the department relies on the teaching of a number of professors visiting each week from Damascus. He told me with some pride that nearly a dozen of their own graduates were now working on graduate degrees in Europe and other parts of the Middle East, and he was hopeful they would return to Aleppo to strengthen the local department.

Aleppo University Dormitory


Undergraduates in the department take an incredibly rigorous course load. Each history major takes six courses a semester. Their required courses include one in Geography, at least two years’ study of either Turkish or Persian, one European language, and a whole series of chronological/ regional courses on the ancient, medieval, and modern histories of the Middle East and Europe. They take one course on eastern Asia, and one on America. Although some students take more courses in geography or economics, they remain quite focused on their own major department. Hala, who finished her undergraduate degree in Arabic literature, tells me it was the same for them: an intensive course load that focused almost exclusively on the major. Hala is currently writing her masters’ thesis on Arabic children’s theater.

I enjoyed the company, the coffee, the history conversation, and then returned to work on my own project. When Hala arrived at 5:00 for another intensive Arabic hour, she brought a whole tray of kubbe that her mother had made for us! Trying to figure out what we could send back in the tray, I experimented last night with a Syrian peach pie. I know it is a poor craftsman who blames her tools, but I really do think that some measuring cups and a real pie pan would have improved the crust. We’ll try something else.

August 16, 2007 at 2:24 pm Leave a comment

Aleppo: Hospitality, Fast Food, and Censorship

Hospitality: It was still very hot at 5:00 when I walked to the main street to meet my new Arabic teacher, so I stood under an awning to wait. After five minutes, a young man from the framing store attached to the awning brought me a chair. After ten minutes, one of the proprietors brought me a glass of hot tea. After 15 minutes, he returned to offer me his cell phone to call my friend.

Fast Food: Ahmad introduced us to one of the foul shops (pronounced as fool) in the old suq. For $ .50 one gets a bowl of hot fava beans in tahini sauce with olive oil and spices, accompanied by sliced tomatoes, mint sprigs, fresh onions and bread.

Censorship: It seems the US government has decided that Mozilla’s Firefox is an inappropriate technology transfer to Syria (and Cuba and a few others), so we use Internet Explorer here, which apparently involves no technology transfer? It seems the Syrian government is dubious about the domain, so I can’t read Katie’s blog.

And more strolling: Our 23 year old housemate, a Public Policy intern from Japan, has been spending all of her time working since she arrived last week. We took her to the Jadidah section (the old Christian quarter) to watch the people stroll Friday night. I asked her if people go out at night in Japan, and she responded that some do, you know, go out drinking and partying. It sounds like the social scene at her college town is similar to ours. She was quite taken with the strollers in Aleppo, walking up and down the street, looking at the shop windows and at the street sellers, dodging the wind-up toys on display on both sides of the street.

Finally, Rami Khoury points out that a bit more about people’s lives in the Middle East might provide a more complete impression than the constant press focus on politics and violence.

August 12, 2007 at 11:50 am 2 comments

Ahmad’s House

Ahmad is an artist and a designer, who put aside his paintbrushes a few years ago to devote his full energy to restoration, especially of his own house.  I feel like I’m living inside his art. 

From the street, all one can see is a door and two small windows one story above ground level.  Through the door, one enters a small room with a marble-decorated floor and many plants, roofless, from which a set of stairs leads off to the right, and a small doorway beckons straight ahead.  Up those stairs, past a terrace, is a large apartment where a Japanese couple is living for a few months while working in Aleppo. 

Through that next door, one enters the open courtyard, with its white stone floor, beige stone walls, central fountain (Ahmad’s design), dozens of plants, and a grapevine trained over a steel frame above the courtyard to provide summer shade.   

Each time I enter the courtyard, I’m struck by how that anonymous door on the street leads into a private, colorful, quiet space. 


On the wall opposite that internal doorway, Ahmad has carved poetry, painted shutters, and created a remarkable geometric screen over the upper windows.  Inside is our room, a large functional space (with a bed–also his design, sofa, table, desk, bathroom) in which he has invested an enormous amount of time, painting the wall and ceiling panels and restoring old decorative elements.  Beneath our room, Ahmad has his own. 


To the right on entering the courtyard, the Japanese couple lives upstairs, and another room at ground level is currently occupied by a graduate student on a summer internship, also from Japan.  Opposite their rooms, the left (west) side of the courtyard, is a high wall. 


Next to that inner door is the traditional aywan, a space created in Arab houses to provide a shaded area for food and conversation.  Ahmad has restored and installed seating, carved decoration into the stone arch, and painted a remarkable geometric design on the ceiling.  Just past the aywan is the kitchen we share with the student, and above that, The Tower.  The Tower is one small air-conditioned room with a bed, a wooden table, a chair, those two windows onto the street, and my dictionaries, to which I am expected to disappear for most of each day to finish The Book. 


Ahmad has created a studio in one of the cavernous basement areas, where we get to watch his work in progress.  It’s been fascinating to hear his views on restoration and redesign.  Do old structures have to be restored in ways that rigorously adhere to some absolute sense of past architectural styles?  If all those eras also drew on the work of those who had come before, couldn’t restoration be freed from the arbitrary strictures of an antiquarian outlook?   

At another level, Ahmad is completely practical.  He has created the infrastructure needed to bring a 17th century house up to 21st century standards, installing electricity and plumbing, creating a solar hot water system, and developing a massive steel framework above the courtyard to allow him to alter the courtyard climate with the seasons, a canvas overhang to protect from the summer sun, a plastic sheet to keep off rain and limit cold in winter.

August 8, 2007 at 4:55 pm 2 comments


Ahmad took us to “New Town” last night, marking our introduction to a third type of shopping in Aleppo.

So far, in our time in Aleppo, we had shopped in Aleppo’s centuries-old covered suq.  Walking east on the main street from the in-suq hotel, spice sellers lined both sides of the one-lane road, followed by a row of butchers, before one entered the textile suq, where you could purchase blankets, tablecloths, sheets, scarves, and clothing.  Aleppo’s suq extends many kilometers; there a sections where tailors work (an old roman prison; each has what used to be a cell open onto the street), sections to purchase cosmetics, rope, shoes, jewelry, antiques.  Few tourists come to Aleppo; the suq is filled with people from the surrounding countryside coming to furnish a new home or acquire everything needed for a wedding.  Bare-headed men in western dress mix with men wearing distinctively Kurdish baggy pants and others with long gray or white jalabiyas whose heads are covered with red and white checked scarves. The suq isn’t just for shopping: the Umayyad mosque is partly within the structure, many workshops remain on the outskirts, men roast meat for hungry shoppers, and sweet-sellers are everywhere.

Just outside the main suq, single-focus shops still predominate, clustered with other, similar shops.  We have walked through blocks where many shops sell only plumbing fixtures and supplies, while shops on neighboring streets offer electronics, produce, building supplies, kitchen equipment, school and office supplies.  You go to the street that offers the thing you’re looking for.

The second type of shopping relies on small neighborhood grocers who sell bread, cheese, yogurt, eggs, biscuits, rice, sugar, tea, toilet paper, things one needs every day.

Those are the ways we had shopped in our previous two weeks in Aleppo.

But buried in the middle of one of Aleppo’s newest sections is the “Supermarket.”  At 9 last night, the first floor was crowded with whole families pushing carts in narrow aisles, men and women and children together.  “New Town” seems to have it all in one structure: many options for tea and coffee (the green packages have cardamon, they aren’t decaf), biscuits, rice, all the things one would get at the corner store, but more options.  There was a meat and cheese counter, where butchers cut meat to order and deli people prepared salads and packaged cheese on request.  A cookie/candy counter attendant offered to weigh sweets, and an employee ground coffee beans to specifications (William didn’t realize he was being asked about adding cardamon.)  Foreign foods were displayed on the aisles: prepared mustards, mayonnaise, soy sauce, breakfast cereals (Fruit Loops in Arabic).  No wine, no bacon.  There were housekeeping items, soaps, plastic wraps–all in about half the space of a non-super-store grocery in the US.

The second and third floors offered most everything imaginable.  Pots and pans, dishes, cosmetics, electronics (we found a drip coffee-maker!), clothing, jewelry, flashlights.  The DVD section had a large sign offering the new release of “Hary Boter.”

It’s a high-energy place.  While the fixed prices are a bit of a relief after the bargaining required for the suq, the environment seemed somehow more demanding.  By the time we left, I had that glazed-over look that Katie tells me I develop whenever I’m at Walmart.

The store manager found us somehow, gave us a huge welcome, and insisted that we sign up for the promotional event, a raffle to receive a brand new car.  The thought of driving in Aleppo is daunting, but we signed up for the raffle and left thinking about shopping and economic transitions.

August 5, 2007 at 5:20 pm Leave a comment

To the Mountains!


Kassab should be only about two hours from Aleppo, but we took the long route: bus to Latakia and then a “microbus” to Kassab, in transit about 5 hours. Even though none of the vehicles was air conditioned, the ride was a welcome relief from Aleppo’s overwhelming heat. People seem awed by the heat, reassuring us that the temperature is higher than any time in the last 75 years, informing us that the mercury had climbed to 50 C; our response was to head for the mountains as soon as we found ourselves an apartment.

The apartment is terrific. It is actually one large and one small room in an old Ottoman-style house, redone by a remarkably talented artist/designer/restorer. We celebrated with dinner with two UNC students, visiting Aleppo toward the end of research summer grants in Jordan, and then considered getting out of town while waiting for the apartment to be ready.

 When the power went off the next morning at 7, it took away any ambivalence. William and I both really like Aleppo and are delighted to be getting to spend some months there, but the heat had been overwhelming. Without power, which gets turned off a few hours a day in rolling blackouts, neither ac nor fans helped at all. So we checked out, stored our stuff, and were on the road.

We didn’t take the opportunity to see Lattakia, home of the ruling family and, for a brief time, center of the area the French hoped to separate from Syria as a separate Alawi state. We thought about two days at the beach there, but decided to continue on to the mountains.

The driver who took us between the bus stop and the microbus hub was a moonlighting science teacher, who asked William what he thought of Syria (many people ask us!) William answered that America and Syria are friends. The driver initially looked surprised, then grinned, “People to People,” laughed, and gave William a high-5.

Kassab sits less than 3 kilometers from the Turkish border in some spectacular mountains. It is right over the line from the Sanjak of Alexandretta (the place I’ve been writing about all year), and, the hotel’s proprietor tells us, has been an Armenian town “for 2000 years. Turkey has been around for 70.” There is a large framed 1982 Syrian Ministry of Tourism map in the restaurant/patio of our hotel that shows the international border going straight across northern Syria from Aleppo, while the currently recognized international boundary that has Antioch (and all of the former Sanjak) as part of Turkey is marked “undemarcated border line.”


Signs here are bilinguial (Arabic and Armenian), and intermittently trilingual (add English). There are two large Armenian churches, an Armenian cemetery, a brand new large mosque, a municipality building, and a small downtown that seems to cater, depending on the establishment, either to upscale tourists staying for summer vacations, or to the locals who live here year round. A large office at the end of the main street has photographs of a generic young girl in prayer (her head covered) and Hizbullah’s Nasrallah. (He does seem a remarkably popular figure in Syria and Lebanon, at least to judge by the poster count.)

The place we’re staying is run by Armenians, and the guests are both Arabs and Armenians. (As usual in Syria, we are a bit anomalous.) One extended family group just spent a couple of days here en route to a vacation in Istanbul, leaving this morning for the next stage and another 30 hours of driving. A tour bus pulled in for breakfast, bringing a few dozen people that the Jordanians guessed to be from Damascus. All the modest dress coexists with Armenian women wearing sleeveless dresses; thinking about spring break, I find it amusing that the beer in the shops seems to be primarily for the locals, not for the holiday-makers.

William is spending some time with the two young medical students we met on the microbus. One is from Kassab, and the two have shown him around and introduced him to the family. My own reckless adventures in eating (was it the shwarma from the street? the water from the tap? the unpeeled fruit? the uncooked tomatoes?) have left me in the hotel room instead, reading the guidebook and old New Yorkers that we brought with us from NC.

The drive out of Kassab Thursday was spectacular. For miles, we drove on a winding road through mixed forest, including a national nature preserve. Every few kilometers, we saw plastic tables and chairs ready for picnics. At some of these areas, men stood behind grills ready to make kebabs. Real restaurants dotted the road, offering spectacular panaromas along with the food.

We had taken advantage of the private public transportation of the Middle East. Fifteen-passenger vans are ubiquitous. They form lines at transportation hubs and wait until they are full. Privately owned, the vans provide public transportation at a very low cost (the three hour drive cost 125 Syrian, or $2.50, the hour drive from Lattakia to Kessab was $.50) to a population that does not yet rely on privately owned vehicles. We stopped for lunch/coffee at a travelers stop by the side of the road that served pizza, a variant of grilled cheese sandwiches, and various salads.

Arrived back in Aleppo in time to move into our new place! Temperatures had dropped into the low 100s. Life is good.

August 4, 2007 at 3:57 pm Leave a comment

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