Jan 3, 2011

If Syria is not nice, may I turn into an Arab*

Doesn't make sense? I adopted the title from the Turkish saying “may I turn into an Arab”, meaning if what I am saying is incorrect, may God punish me by turning me into black (like an Arab). As you can guess, becoming black is something undesirable for a Turk. Of course, Turks are not known for their political correctness and as unbelievable as it may sound to your multicultural sensibilities, black street cats and dogs are still called “Arab” in Turkey and no one seems to think of it as something weird. Indeed, before writing this, I got curious about what semantics had in store for me. So I looked up in the Turkish Dictionary and found ten or so sayings about Arabs, almost all of them derogatoryL.

Political statements from an apartment building in Haleppo, Syria.

Square in Haleppo close to Azaiza, perfect for an afternoon drink.
Although living together so long with many ethnicities under the Ottoman umbrella left its effects on the language, today Turks have no idea about their neighbors. One of the nice things to change this has been the fact that our government has revoked visas with many countries including Syria. Ever since, it has not only boosted trade but also exchange of people. So deciding to take advantage of that, we hit the road. We crossed to Syria from Antakya in Turkey by road. Our Arabic speaking taxi driver took us to Haleppo in less than two hours.

Armenian fisherman in Haleppo.

A memorial in the garden of an Armenian church in Haleppo.
At first sight, Syria looked much less prosperous, much more religious and much less cleaner than Turkey. Indeed, I could not withdraw any money from any ATM in Syria. (So beware and carry cash). As always, however, one must scratch the surface for a more balanced view of a new place. Maybe Haleppo was much less developed than the capital Damascus,  but undergoing renovations, one can totally see it becoming up and coming in maximum five years time. Further, beneath the country's apparent religiosity, one should notice that ten percent of the population is Christian with so many denominations (something long lost in Turkey). At the same time, with the young Assad in power, the country seems to open up more and more to the world with tourism although it remains a one party system. Lastly, I realized that while we lump all Arabic speaking countries as "Arabs", Syrians and Lebanese do not really think of themselves as Arabs.

View of Haleppo from our hotel Dar Al Kanadil.
Time frozen Pan Am ads in Baron Hotel's bar in Haleppo, Syria.

In Haleppo, we stayed in the old city close to Bab Antakia (Antakya, where we came from). The old city is not that attractive if you are a freak about filthy places but it has its charm in the sense of it being so local. Many people prefer staying in the Christian part of the city, in Al Jediedeh. This part of the city is also home to good Armenian restaurants like Sisi. We took long walks in neighborhoods like Azaiza which is full of old beautiful houses but one can also take taxis that do not have a meter. So carefully bargain. It was a pity to miss out the Citadel for it was closed on our last day but you can still wander around the neighborhood and visit the souq (the Bazaar). But coming from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar conditions our expectations to levels that cannot be met in Haleppo. What was really different than home was the Umayyad Mosque, but more about mosques below.
Outside the walls of Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

The courtyard of Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

The arcades of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus are so pretty.

Socializing in Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
When you are walking around in Haleppo, you cannot stop noticing Armenian orphanages and Armenian churches that are full of dedications to 1915. In fact, it brakes your heart to see many graveyards of Hagops and Kevorks born in Sivas, Yozgat or Tokat (once multicultural but today hopelessly nationalistic middle Anatolian towns in Turkey) but died in Haleppo. In fact, seeing an Armenian fisherman who hanged an Armenian flag right next to the Syrian flag in front of his store really made me question things. No matter we claim to live in a democracy and Syria does not, I know that in my “democratic” country, an Armenian shop owner must be out of his mind to do something similar. At this point in time, full of anger and frustration, heading to Baron Hotel was a good idea to find some consolation in alcoholL. The hotel’s bar is seriously frozen in time with Pan Am signs still decorating walls while 60 year old waiters liquor you up.

Old Vine Boutique Hotel in Damascus.
Next day, we took off to Damascus and end up in a boutique hotel called Old Vine inside the old city. I would highly recommend the place for it is so charming and peaceful it is worth the extra money you pay. It also happens to be very close to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. What an amazing place! And how interesting to see that people have a totally different relationship with mosques in Syria than in Turkey. First of all, mosques seem to be spaces for socialization. Indeed, when you enter the courtyard, you see families talking while children are playing. Unlike in Turkey, you are supposed to take out your shoes not inside but also outside. Further, in Turkey women rarely go to mosque whereas in Syria many women seem to. Lastly, the architecture of the Umayyad Mosque itself attests to an amazing synthesis of East and West by being built over a church and carrying the concept of arcades to a poetic beauty.
Back streets of Damascus.

Back streets of Damascus is full of these houses.
We then visited the museum for national art and next to it discovered a mosque whose architecture looked quiet familiar. Turns out it was built by Architect Sinan! But one notices how different mosques in Syria are than our mosques: their minarets are very elegant and styles are more Arabic whereas ours are unfortunately stuck in the architecture of 16th century.  
Al Sulayimaniya Mosque in Damascus, notice the difference between this and Umayyad Mosques.

Hijaz train station in Damascus.

The bazaar of Damascus is definitely more interesting than the one in Haleppo but it is the back streets of Damascus that are exciting. Passing by the water pipe café where the last hakawati (story teller) still explains stories (with his sword), we saw all sorts of churches, ornament stores, old and decrepit buildings. Exhausted, we finally made it to Naranj, the place in Damascus to eat Tripadvisor agrees. Indeed, it is packed with customers and only our Turkish tricks from back home got us in without a reservation.

One of the funny conversations I made with a taxi driver was to count the Arabic words we have in Turkish. Once I started benefitting from my legal education that teaches many archaic terms in Arabic, the taxi driver was crying his eyes out from laughing. Ironically, bar common words like “independence”, “process”, “future”, “collection”, “guarantee”, “submit” and the like, we could hardly exchange whole sentences. Despite that, his crucial question came: “Can you read the Quran?”, I said “In Turkish, yes”. Sensing his disappointment, I then said: “Compared with you, we are light Muslims” to which he added: “sugar free”. As you can see, our exchange got sophisticated after allJ. 

Yummy pastries in Damascus.

Lastly, having been inspired by Turkish Airlines’ Sky magazine, we then made it to Hijaz station built by the Ottoman Sultan to carry pilgrims to Mecca. All of this is enough to lure me back to Syria to visit Palmyra or to go on a desert safari. If not, may I turn into an Arab…

A shorter version of this post is available at Hurriyet Daily News.