The olive tree is the most important symbol of life and peace in the Middle East. It has been so central to daily life for thousands of years that it has a symbolic and practical weight beyond all other trees. It is mentioned in the Koran, the Bible and the Torah and its myth of origin is shared among the faiths. Adam’s son, born after his parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden, was allowed back to retrieve three seeds from the Tree of Knowledge. From these seeds grew the olive, the cypress and the cedar.
Though shops in Aleppo’s Aziziyah district, above, and on Sharia Qawatli are more likely to resemble their western counterparts than those in the world’s oldest covered market, below, the suq is no timeless arcade: Fax machines whir, international magazines inspire dress design, and antiquarian bric-a-brac sells to tourists at a good profit.
Ghassan al Hussein
Appliances, Sharia Qawatli
Internet cafe and pastry shop, Sharia Qawatli
Aleppo vies with Damascus for the title of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Both are mentioned in Eblaite tablets from the third millennium BC, where Aleppo goes by the name Hal-pa-pa, but fine neo-Hittite reliefs recently found in Aleppo’s towering citadel mound may give a slight edge in the antiquity contest to this more northerly of Syria’s two largest cities.
Five million Syrians — one quarter of whom are from Aleppo — have been forced to live abroad since 2011. To Aleppians like me, places from Amman to Oslo now have more of home than we are aware of. This never felt truer to me than when I was in Berlin last April to participate in an important conference about rebuilding Aleppo organized by the Association of the Friends of the Old City of Aleppo.
Getting from my Aleppian friend Hassan Oneizan’s place in Steglitz to the conference venue at the Association of German Architects in downtown Berlin involved one bus and two trains. As a newbie, I missed my first bus. Although the next one was coming in ten minutes, I couldn’t afford to be late. The fastest alternative was now to take a bus and a long taxi ride.
Our descent was fast and sudden when it came to both war and football. The 2010-2011 season was called off in its entirety. Civil war leaves little untouched. You more or less have to take a side or you leave. Footballers did all those things, leaving diminished teams struggling with their third string players. Firas al-Khatib, one of the best players ever in Syria, declined to play for the national team again and left the country in 2012, first for Iraq, then China and now Kuwait. Players for al-Wathbah, the Homs club, were killed in a mortar attack outside their hotel in Damascus while getting ready for training.
When war blazed across the country in 2011, Syrian soccer was on the verge of its greatest triumph ever – a possible spot at the London Olympics.[i] At that level, it is youth teams that compete and Syria’s Under 23s looked promising. Among its best players was the goalkeeper, Abdelbasset Saroot, who played for the Homs team al-Karameh. In April 2011, he joined the demonstrations in Homs, prompting the government to accuse him of being a Salafi extremist and offering a two million Syrian pounds reward for his arrest. The National Sports Association issued a decree banning him from playing for life. In July 2011, a video appeared on Youtube of him standing before a Syrian national flag. “I am now wanted by the security agencies which are trying to arrest me. I declare with sound mind and of my own volition that we, the free people of Syria, will not back down until our own and only demand is met: the toppling of the regime. I hold the Syrian regime responsible for anything that happens to me.”
When I lived in Syria, I hadn’t even heard about the Janbolad (Junblatt) Palace until 2011, my third year as an archaeology student. I was very surprised that a palace like this existed in my city. I did not expect its beauty, because just a few people even knew the palace’s name and location.
It is the heavenly voice of the Levantine singer Fairuz that awakens Christian neighborhoods of the city. Mothers are awake earlier than usual; they open the doors to their balconies and the contest begins on whose Fairuz is loudest. It is Good Friday, one of the most important days in the Aleppian Christian calendar. Shop keepers and hair dressers are packed; working in harmony with the rhymes that mix with the fragrance of the Bakhur incense. In the afternoon, tens of thousands of Christians join a pilgrimage to the nearly forty churches of Aleppo. The old town, however, gets the largest number of pilgrims. Farhat Square in al-Jdaydeh quarter puts on its special attire. The sounds of people, peddlers and boy scout brass bands are a symphony embedded in the memory of Aleppians. The four churches that overlook the square remind Christians of their ancient roots in the city. The medieval limestone holds the memory of surviving the Mongol slaughter when Timur Lank invaded Aleppo six hundred years ago.
Lovers of Arab music know Aleppo by the name Em el-Tarab – the “mother of tarab.” Tarab roughly translates as “ecstasy” and refers to a state of spiritual up-lifting and enchantment that is induced by this type of music. Although today the term is often loosely applied to any type of traditional Arab music, Tarab actually refers to a particular musical culture that was popular from the 19th until the first half of the 20th century.
Arabs are considered a high context culture, meaning that due to a long history of intense contact in their communities, they can use short cuts, allusions and proverbs easily in their conversation and expect to be understood. Much can go unexplained in discussions as people are deeply familiar with each other and their common culture. Languages that exist in these cultures can have a richness of allusions that others may lack. For example, in Aleppo, if you want to point out that someone is stupid, you have a range of options, not all of them particularly politically correct:
Syria’s frontlines have become the world’s most dangerous areas, forcing millions to leave their homes. But some people in the city of Aleppo refuse to go. They’ve taken up voluntary relief work, to help the casualties of war.
In Aleppo one is not awakened early in the morning by the cheerful chirp of a robin or a wren, nor by the clear call of a cardinal, but rather by a penetrating voice crying in Arabic under the window, “Hellu Haleeb”. This syncopated wail persevering on the interval of a minor third defies all sleep. Eventually it lures one to come outside and buy “nice sweet milk” direct from cow to consumer, for the gentle jersey waits at the door bedecked in her blue glass beads.