Archive for August, 2007

Shopping

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.

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

To the Mountains!

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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.”

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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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