Sunday, June 29, 2008

Travelogue 3: The Middle East as seen through 7 Mohammeds

On of the joys of traveling in the East is the natural friendliness and hospitality one experiences there. I have always found this to be so in Turkey, and was to find it even more the case in the Middle East itself. They are people given to small kindnesses and courtesies. Of course, the cynic would note that this was totally wrapped-up in the possibility that you might purchase something in their shop. Granted. But the hospitality goes much deeper--to the core of the Middle Eastern psyche. And this behavior goes all the way back to the beginning. Countless biblical passages recount the kindnesses shown to the traveler, the stranger, the guest. In fact, in Orthodoxy, the only iconographic representation of the Trinity is known as the "Hospitality of Abraham," in which the patriarch receives the 3 angels at Mamre, a type of the Holy Trinity.

The innate Arab friendliness and hospitality makes it easy to strike up acquaintances. In visiting the ruins of the Church of St. Simeon the Stylite, I was the only person there, other than a young European couple (German, I think). I wanted a picture of myself in front of the base of St. Simeon's pillar. So, I asked the young man--as politely as possible--if he would do so. He obliged me, and I thanked him. But all I got out of him was a grunt, and a look of being inconvenienced. I am making no sweeping generalizations based on a chance encounter with a rude western European; only noting how at odds such behavior was with what I was experiencing among the locals.

So yes, it was easy to make friends along the way, and for a time at least, most of them seemed to be named Mohammed. I arrived in Damascus on a flight from Paris about 9:30 at night. In the Middle East, many, if not most flights arrive and depart in the middle of the night. My connecting flight to Aleppo would not leave until 1:30 in the morning, so I had a 4 hour layover there at the airport. There were no more flights arriving or departing until my 1:30 flight, but then I noticed about 4 flights departing after mine and before daybreak. So, until after midnight or so, the Damascus airport was an almost deserted, forlorn spot to hang out. The entire terminal reeked of smoke. I am the farthest thing removed from a Smoking Nazi, but as an American, it has been decades since I have been exposed to anything quite like this. But after a while, I slowly accustomed myself to the lingering haze. The shops in the airport remained open all night, but as there were no customers, the clerks occupied themselves with visiting one another, drinking countless cups of tea, and of course, smoking. About midnight, the airport lobby began to slowly fill with Damascene travelers, arriving for the flight to Aleppo. Two young men in ill-fitting suits sat down beside me. They both appeared exhausted from whatever business they had been conducting in Damascus. But after a while, they introduced themselves as Mohammed and Bashar, and struck up a conversation. Mohammed seemed eager to practice his English. He also informed me that he was studying German on his own. He offered to buy me something to drink as we waited. The offering of something to drink is as natural with Arabs as greeting someone itself. It is also polite, and expected, to ask of family matters. I learned that he was 27 years old, one of 7 children. He was engaged to be married in November, but he and his fiance wanted only 2, or perhaps 3 children. We exchanged cards. I learned that he had a stationary store, and also specialized in printing invitations and other items related to weddings. He wanted me to call him the next day, come to his shop and we would go to lunch together. As it turned out, my time in Aleppo was crowded, and I was ultimately unable to do this. As I have his card, I do plan to email him, thank him for his kindness, and congratulate him on his upcoming nuptials.

I spent the first day in Syria walking the old city of Aleppo: exploring the citadel, checking out the Great Mosque, strolling through the souq (bazaar area), getting lost in Jdeide District (the old Christian Quarter), having a beer at the Baron Hotel bar (T. E. Lawrence slept here), stopping in at an internet cafe and just generally soaking up the street scene. The Aleppo souq is one of the most authentic around--not at all touristy, but catering to the everyday needs of its local customers. I was walking back through the souq, as it was the quickest way back to my hotel. A young man in one of the shops spoke to me in English. In Texas, we have a colloquial expression: "this ain't my first rodeo." Well, this wasn't my first souq, either. Shopowners and/or touts will start off a conversation with you, and before you know it, you are in their uncle's carpet shop. This young man was giving it a good shot, and as long as you understand what is going on, why not go along with it. After all, it is part of the experience. As you can probably guess, this young man was Mohammed No. 2.

Mohammed No. 2 was trying out his English on me. Of course he wanted to know where I was from. I replied, "the U.S." This answer is never sufficient, because everyone then wants to know where in the U.S. I put my hand to my mouth and whispered "Texas." This is my standard overseas response, and will remain so until January 20th, 2009. Everyone usually gets the joke and it is a great conversational ice-breaker. Mohammed didn't know much about the U.S. outside of pop culture references (singers and performers I was unfamiliar with), and the names of a few cities--Detroit and Las Vegas. He then told me that he was using Robin Williams as a guide to learning how to speak English, but that he thought he might be gay. I said no, he's just funny, that's all. He then proposed to take me to his cousin's shop (aah, here we go, I thought.) But then Mohammed mentioned the name of the shop and it was one I was familiar with--receiving good recommendations in travel guides, and one I intended to visit anyway before leaving Aleppo. So, I agreed to accompany Mohammed to his cousin's shop. If I purchased anything, he would receive a commission.

The cousin's establishment was an actually a nice place to stop; a small, corner shop, chock-full of interesting items. The cousin, Mohammed No. 3, seemed to be an earnest young entrepreneur. He could just as easily be selling real estate in Dallas. As it turns out, he had just returned from the U.S., as his wife was from Boston. And he was planning to return again before long. While he was busy talking to a client or supplier on the audio of his laptop, I sat around and drank tea and visited with Mohammed No. 2 and the manager of the store. Before I left, Mohammed No. 3 opened a secret door in the back wall, exposing a tiny staircase going up. We went upstairs, and sure enough--carpets! Like I say, I've been around enough in the region to understand the carpet market a bit. I really don't mind the sales pitch, if I'm rested and in the mood for it. But I walked away without purchasing...this time.

That night, I bumped into the manager of the store, and as neither of us had yet eaten, we had supper together at a nearby cafe. I was introduced to a dish pronounced something like "badinjon," which is ground lamb meat stuffed in eggplant--delicious! We had an interesting meal--touching on foreign relations and even religion. He described an unpleasant recent experience at the American embassy in Damascus. He had traveled there to take care of some visa paperwork for his employer. In his view, the soldiers and embassy staff unnecessarily humiliated him in their various security checkpoints. I replied that Americans are completely paranoid about terrorism. No, he said, Americans are afraid. I did not disagree with him. He asked about my komboschini (prayer rope). I explained to him what it was for and the words of the prayer. He did not understand the word "mercy," and asked me to explain what that was. I did my best to explain, all the while amazed to be reminded that this is a foreign concept in Islam. This episode put me in mind of a Spengler article from 2 years ago, that I re-read once I returned home. Spengler observed:

There is no Grace in Islam, no miracle, no expiatory sacrifice, no expression of love for mankind such that each Muslim need not be a sacrifice. On the contrary, the concept of jihad, in which the congregation of Islam is also the army, states that every single Muslim must sacrifice himself personally. Jihad is the precise equivalent of the Lord's Supper in Christianity and the Jewish Sabbath, the defining expression of sacrifice that opens the prospect of eternity to the mortal believer. To ask Islam to become moderate, to reform, to become a peaceful religion of personal conscience is the precise equivalent of asking Catholics to abolish Mass.

The entire article, found here, is well worth a read.

Before we parted that night, we met a friend of his--Mohammed No. 4. This young man operated a shop where he and his brother made towels. I walked over to a shop where his brother was working on the loom--that's right, the loom. They had learned the trade from their grandfather, who had learned it from his grandfather and who knows how far back beyond that. These brothers were at least the 5th generation in their family to operate this loom. They made a variety of towels, including supplying the towels for all the hammams (turkish baths) in the city. I sat there in this shop, drinking tea and chatting with Mohammed, while his brother was operating the loom. I learned that it took them 3 hours to make a full-sized towel. They kept the loom going for about 18 hours a day, with their dad opening early, and the sons working late. The following night was to be my last night in Aleppo. Before I left, I made sure I made my way back to this little shop and purchased a couple of hand towels for our kitchen.

The next morning I had arranged for a car and driver to go out to the Church of St. Simeon and also the Church at Qual Lauzeh. My driver was an older man who introduced himself to me as Mohammed. (Of course you are, I thought!) Mohammed No. 5 spoke some French and a smattering of English. I spoke no Arabic, and a smattering of French. We met, conversationally, at "Franglish," I suppose. Unfortunately, he assumed my French was better than it actually was. While we were driving north of Aleppo, I asked about his family. Mohammed had 2 wives, with 8 children by the first and 1 by the second. I asked if that was a problem. He replied, "for you, yes; but for me, no." He went on to say that Islam allowed him 4 wives. I already knew that, and was really asking if it was problematic having 2 wives together in the same household. But I never received an answer to that question! Later on, he observed, "la vie est dificile." I thought (but didn't say): "well, you should have thought of that before you had 2 wives and 9 children!"

Mohammed No. 6 came along on the last night in Aleppo. I received a recommendation on a nearby hamman. The Arabs, and all peoples of the Levant, for that matter, place great emphasis on personal cleanliness, and these Turkish baths are part of that rich cultural legacy. We would characterize them as just giant steam baths, but there is a definite protocol and etiquette to using these facilities. This particular hamman was of recent construction and contained, of all things, a swimming pool, as well. I am just like a little kid: give me 3 ft. of water and I'm happy. Mohammed, the manager of the hamman, was a real hoot--a cut-up, as we would say around here.

It was a number of days before I met Mohammed No. 7. He was our driver for 5 days in Jordan. This Mohammed was in his early 40s, a professional driver with a nice sedan for hire. He lived in Amman, with a wife and 3 or 4 children. He was consistently good-natured. As my nephew and I pulled ourselves out of the Dead Sea, Mohammed was waiting for us with ice cream cones. Only near the last, did we discover that he was actually Palestinian, whose family was from Bethlehem. He told us that his family had left Palestine for Amman 20 years earlier. Mohammed wouldn't talk about it, but I am sure there is a sad story behind it all.

Rublev's Hospitality of Abraham
Mohammed No. 4 and myself in his towel shop
In the souq, Aleppo

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for sharing, in a wonderful way, your memories. I can practically see, and hear and smell, it all around me: thank you.