Syrian Chronicles 02: My first days in Aleppo

Nikolay Mihaylov
Jul 16 · 6 min read

After a few months of pausing this series, I’ve made time to continue it. I was focused on finishing “Angels in Action”, and listened to Louisa not to write before the premiere, so now I’m back :)

Touchdown

Arriving at the airport it was dark and we didn’t have a look around the city. I always liked flying, but this was one of the longest trips in my childhood, close to four hours. We were coming along with several people, which were the wifes and kids of my father’s colleagues. Got crammed along with the luggage into a small van, quite crowded yet cheerful. The next two years that same van would take us several times per week around town and on trips in the country, and it seemed very exciting for me. None of the men were allowed to have cars, although a few were drivers, but the rules are quite strict and it is really not safe.

The first few days were a total blur

Back in 1990, there wasn’t a mosque in front, I guess it is new.

Our apartment building is one of of triad, which are 12 stories high, situated in the outskirts of the city. The majority of the town is 3–4 story high, quite cheap, light and without any design or aesthetic. Our flat is on the 10-th floor and it feels like the top of the world after years of living on the third in Sofia. You check out the map, and back in 1990, you could see the edge of Aleppo from the roof of our building. My father works along with his colleagues in offices on the third floor, so he’s just taking the elevator down, from 9 to 5, comes home for lunch, really calm and stress-free. Like elsewhere in the Arab world, the week began on Sunday and the weekend was on Friday and Saturday.

I like the space and air, the dry sandy-reddish soil (which leaves stains on anything) and smell of spices all around the city. Grass and plants are rare, it rains briefly for something to grow without proper irrigation. The water is also very limy, so we rarely drink it. The frames of the windows and balcony doors everywhere are aluminum, almost without any isolation, so you can hear the wind all the time. Aleppo feels so different from Sofia, not only because of the yellowish-gray and dirty colors, made mostly of stone and concrete, which is good for the summer to keep cool, but bad in the winter.

The weather

The summer is hot (35+ celcius) and very dry with just a couple of short rains in the spring and almost nothing else for the entire year. We had a few sand storms which brought dust to everything. In the mild winter, which was January and February, it doesn’t drop under 10, even at night. I recall a snow cover only once in two years and it was super weird. Back in Bulgaria there are always thick snow covers, we were very often making snowmen and even tried building huts a couple of times.

Locals, money and foreigners

The majority of arab families have more than three children with a monthly income less than 30$. We were considered to be way above avarage, with a budget about 100$ for three. The syrian currency is pounds and in their money bills, the biggest was 500, like 11$. My father and his colleagues get part of their salaries in cash — USD, which exchanged at the black market at 45 pound/per 1$, meaning our family had all our expences covered with a single 100$ bill.

Even if the food is really cheap, there are almost no obese people you can see anywhere. Very little women were in the workforce, most are housewifes. One of my father’s colleagues is an engineer though, Sarah, a big exception. We made friends with several families, although kept the connections and social circle within bulgarians. Most of our free time we spent in the neighbourhood, had a few friends with the arabs, but the other two buildings in the vicinity were occupied with Russians, which we were told there were about 10,000 in the city. There is quite a lot to share about them, since I was raised from childhood reading textbooks and believing a far superiority of that nation, which proved to be extremely exxagerated.

Pets and animals

There are no stray dogs or any cats in the neighbourhood. I don’t remember seeing anyone walking a dog, jogging or any barking during the night. A friend had got a kitten at some point, but unfortunately it was killed after a few arab kids had cornered it and thrown stones at it. Arabs, as I later found out were quite brutal towards animals and extremely rarely had pets.

Public transport is almost non-existent.

I don’t remember any public transport available, but for sure a lot of crazy driving with almost no traffic lights in the entire city. I couldn’t see a woman behind the wheel anywhere for this time. Our van took us where we needed to go. Maybe several times we used a taxi, but still that was a major exception. Even two years later, we were hardly allowed to walk alone in the city, since most of us were kids and there were far too many cultural differences.

Food and beverages

There was no pork sold anywhere, but the beef is quite good and the potatoes really sweet. There are no dairy products like yogurt, cheese and almost no salami or other types of sausages we were used to in Bulgaria. Still, we got lukanka and cheese packages from Bulgaria from time to time, so that was a delight when it happened. Chickens look big and juicy, but somehow full of water and don’t taste that good. Still, with proper spices they are OK. Spices in the arab world are not that hot, nether tasty. Still, there’s a different flavor to some and when combined, they helped to sink in with the general numbness of the local kitchen. The potatoes are sweet and mom made all sorts of variations from them, like mashed, boiled, salad, potato balls and so on.

The bread is called hobz — pita bread that looks a lot like thin pizza. Sometimes I miss it a lot, there are a few alikes sold nowadays in Bulgaria. I especially remember how great it was in combo with a beef dunner and spices. Its a sandwich like no other and although at the Syrian’s Mimas joint in Sofia make something very close, there’s always something missing from the flavor and the juice.

Alcohol is also very restricted in the Arab world as Islam forbids it in general. However, there is Arak, which is very close to the ouzo they have in Greece, it becomes frosty and white when mixed with water. I remember the smell and tasted it there once or twice, but since I was 11, I didn’t have any interest in alcohol back then. Many of the men got used to it, especially at parties, when there were no rakia(national brandy) packages from Bulgaria. At the time I like eating lots of meat (I’m avoiding most of that these days).

There are a few types of tea, and the most special black one is super strong. A small cup of 80 ml gives you quite a kick.

Last but not least, chocolate could be seen everywhere. Coming from a regime where it was scarce, here you could buy Mars and Snickers bars, Kinder Surprise and Milkas at every major shop. If you had the cash, of course, which we almost never did. The major replacement was coconut bars, which were quite cheap, and became something linked to my childhood that I nowadays avoid almost entirely.

The next post will be on my first days at the Russian school, meeting Russian girls, learning to sing Russian songs and recite Russian poems.

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