The Syria I remember

10 years ago this month I visited Syria.

My friend Jonny had invited me to come stay with his family in Aleppo. For two weeks I was their guest. I would get to visit again two years later. I had just turned 20.

This is the Syria I remember:

  1. There is a salty yogurty drink called Ayran
  2. Aleppo is called Halab in Arabic. I don’t know why it has two names
  3. There are just as many churches as there are mosques
  4. You can smoke everywhere and cigarettes cost nearly nothing
  5. A taxi is about 25p. 50p if you’re going far
  6. Taxi doors are thin and slam far too easily
  7. You can marry whoever you like, but it’s negotiated between families
  8. Weddings start at midnight
  9. The actual religious bit is 3 months earlier
  10. There is a place called “Sluumphi”, which is like a Syrian Blackpool
  11. Families sit outside together on Friday nights
  12. There are public pools where women wear bikinis
  13. Men link arms with one another
  14. There is a type of soup called “fool” which makes you feel stoned
  15. Cats are everywhere, but very few people have pets
  16. Syrian teenagers love house music
  17. Markets are underground so people and goods stay cool
  18. You see women in burkas shopping for lingerie
  19. There are no chain stores or western shops
  20. Having a good appetite is more important that being able to speak Arabic
  21. For £60K Bob Sinclair will fly in especially to do a concert
  22. It’s rude not to argue
  23. There’s film stores where all the DVDs are openly pirated
  24. Alcohol can be bought everywhere
  25. Big groups of men aren’t allowed in nightclubs
  26. You can fit a small family on a scooter
  27. It’s simply too hot during the day for 9–5 jobs like we do in the West
  28. The roads between cities are flat and straight
  29. You don’t talk politics
  30. There is a delicious round food called Kibbeh
  31. Syrians believe they have the best Arabic accents
  32. Finishing food a host gives you is impolite. They will simply give you more until you “stop challenging their generosity”.
  33. Try finding this out before being ill the night before and going to a family gathering
  34. People have lived in Aleppo continuously for 8000 years
  35. Getting online means going to a internet café
  36. You have to use a proxy server to visit Myspace
  37. The national museum is fantastic and you can touch everything in it
  38. Car horns are used as much as indicators
  39. Palmyra, considering how old it is, I’m not sure how it got built
  40. The hummus here is very smooth
  41. People will try sell you coffee when you stop at traffic lights
  42. Apparently drinking this coffee isn’t a good idea
  43. A Syrian with blue eyes and red hair might refer to themselves a “crusader baby”
  44. Rice wrapped in vine leaves tastes amazing
  45. The streets are the safest in the world

Even then I knew I was lucky to go to Syria, let alone twice. Only now, a decade later, do I realise quite how lucky I was. I got to see the country as it may never be seen again. A place very different to the one of conflict, chaos and suffering we see in the news. A country of close families, hospitality and world history.

I won’t forget that.