Saturday, May 17, 2008

Two days in Aleppo: a break in the action

The last two days in Aleppo have not been incredibly jam-packed, which is a good thing. The first day's morning was spent juice bar hopping and surfing the internet. In the afternoon, Ainsley, Dan, Ariel and I wandered around the Christian Quarter. We probably walked up and down one street seven times, but eventually were able to navigate the ancient labyrinth and go explore one of the old houses that's open to the public, as well as see the Armenian Church. The house was gorgeous. Part of it is now used as a hotel, although clearly one outside our price range. I've decided that my future house should probably come with a courtyard, though.

The Armenian Church was unexpectedly ornate. It was jarring to see so many pictures and paintings of Jesus. We've been visiting a lot of mosques (amazing, really...) and Islam bans the display of icons (aka pictures of people or things). We were given the 411 on Armenian Orthodoxy by a dour-faced Armenian with permanently furrowed eyebrows who'd been studying theology since he was 12, and who made the revolutionary pronouncement that Armenian Orthodoxy was the purest way to interpret the Bible. While we were contemplating converting, I noticed that one of the portraits bore a striking resemblance to my 8th grade chemistry teacher. I was about to remark on this fact to the Armenian...but I did not think it would go over well. After the church we were to a cafe and drank real cappuccinos, which were delicious.

After the cafe we met up at the hotel for dinner. We were going to meet up with Dorea and another friend of hers, Syndi. Syndi is from Texas and is married to a Syrian, but they currently live in Yemen. She was visiting and kind enough to have us over for dinner. Her husband Aziz, a very large but friendly-looking man, picked us and Dorea up and first took us to a music store. We were told the store had the best music from all over the world. Aside from some really cool Middle East and Central American folk music, they also had some little-known American greats, such as Michael Bolton, Hilary Duff and Beyonce. Our group purchased the non-American things.

After the shop we headed to Syndi and Aziz's house. Syndi was not quite what I was expecting. She is short, wears glasses, pulls her hair back in a scrunchie and wears big, flowy dresses she's collected from all over the world. She loves Syria, but has more of a love-hate relationship with Texas. She and her six brothers and sisters were raised by a leftist-activist single mother in a small, very Republican town. They did not mesh well with the local community. We listened to Syndi's brother's spoken-word CD, which described some of her experiences growing up. Highlights included: visiting the local shooting range, where one could pay to shoot any animal he wanted, including imported water buffalo; getting hurtful messages written in shaving cream on their car every morning. The community apparently got so tired of Syndi and her family that her mother had to leave the town Syndi's senior year of high school while Syndi stayed to graduate alone. Despite the fact that Syndi clearly stood out like a sore thumb growing up, she seems to have absorbed some of the Texas culture. She speaks with a slight Texas drawl and does everything at a very deliberate, unhurried pace. We spent five or six hours sprawled out on her carpet with Syndi, Aziz and their two boys, listening to her amazing yarns and eating delicious food. Syndi is definitely one of the most interesting characters I've come across in the Middle East thus far.

The next day the girls reunited with Syndi and Dorea to take on the souk, and the men went to reclaim Andy at the airport. Syndi took us to her favorite shops. Alison and I have been obsessed with Kurdish carpets, so when we got to the carpet store Alison and I sat ourselves down and proceeded to watch as brilliant color after stripe after intricate pattern was thrown at our feet. We were there for awhile but in the end both walked away with two beautiful carpets apiece. My favorite is my giant, seafoam green carpet. It looks like what The Grinch would have made had he been Kurdish, and will be hell to carry around, but is fabulous. Alison bought two versions of Joseph's technicolor dreamcoat incarnate, and we soldiered on, through scarves, through newly-butchered animals, through produce and nut stands, out into the fresh air.

When we got back to the hostel, we found that Andy had returned victorious, and we were eight once again. That night we went out for an authentic Aleppan dinner. We sat around for hours, eating, drinking fresh juice and smoking shisha. Something about the curls of smoke must have inspired us to send our own amorphous, shifting thoughts out into the air, and soon enough we'd started a discussion on The Big Ideas. We stayed for hours, until they finally kicked us out and we marched back to our hotel. After briefly watching MTV on satellite cable and being supremely weirded out, we went to bed.