For most people in a Muslim-majority country like Syria, Friday is a day of rest. Shops and cafes mostly close until the afternoon when Friday prayers are over and then business builds only slowly towards the evening rush. For many young Aleppians, it was meant to be a lazy morning. For me, an Armenian, I had to wake up early to go to school. But Friday mornings will always make me think of three things: a breakfast of the best ful in the world, delicious Syrian sweets – Shuebiyat or Zlebyeh — and drinking coffee by Aleppo’s citadel.
During my last year in high school, Fridays would always be marked by the trio of ful, sweets and coffee by the citadel. After twelve years of education, Syrian students take their baccalaureate, a final exam administered not by individual schools but by the Ministry of Education. Knowing that your teachers no longer control your grades lead many students to see the final year as demanding but also a time of freedom. As the ties to our schools frayed, few of us were very obedient or disciplined.
As I was in an Armenian school, our weekend was on Saturday and Sunday, unlike public schools which closed their doors Friday and Saturday. On Fridays, along with as many as a dozen classmates, we’d skip the first two classes of the day and go in search of the three wonders while most of the city was asleep.
Our journey would start around 7:30 am from al-‘Aziziyeh Square, about two hundred metres from my school. The first destination was the best ful “restaurant” on earth – Abu Abdo al-Fawwal. I would argue that Abu Abdo was probably the second best known person in Aleppo after the president. His shop, which he inherited from his father, who had inherited it from his father, was located in one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods of Aleppo – al-Jdaydeh. It was an old district located just outside the city walls and is one of the best preserved areas of the city.
After enjoying a bowl of ful, we would head to the nearest sweet shop. These shops in Aleppo are much more than they are in most countries. They don’t sell manufactured sweets and chocolates but make their own pastries from hundreds of different recipes that go back centuries. My two favourites are classics in Aleppo – shuebiyat, small triangles of flaky pastry filled with clotted cream and baked in butter, and filled often with pistachio and walnuts, and zlebyeh, a thin sheet of fried dough, also filled with cream and topped with cinnamon and pistachio nuts.
After consuming all that food, not everyone was ready to climb the magnificent Citadel of Aleppo. Some would go back to school while the cooler kids would skip another class. There were two options: either going to one of the cafés in front of the citadel or climbing the citadel itself. Either way it was a trip into the most ancient history of Aleppo. On Friday mornings the area is quiet. Most of the shops were closed, the cafés had no more than one waiter and the usually vibrant life seemed frozen in a different time.
Friends, food, sweets and culture. What else could you need? These memories of our beloved city are what we cling to now. Friends are scattered all over the world, from Canada to Australia, from Armenia to Beirut. The delicious dishes and sweets that represented the richness and generosity of our culture have become dreams for many Aleppians, who now struggle to get a daily meal. In the absence of food, friends and sweets, Aleppians sit and watch how their Citadel has become a sniper base for the army and a target for the rebels.