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Aleppo, the Sweater and the Sunflower Lamp

Aleppo, the Sweater and the Sunflower Lamp

A teenager's travels in Syria before the civil war.

A view of Old Aleppo from the citadel. Photograph by anjci.

I hope Khaled Bibo isn't dead. 

I met him four years ago on the bus to Aleppo. (That's Aleppo, Syria, the millennia-old trading city, culinary capital of the Levant and current war zone.) Khaled had a unibrow. You usually think of people with unibrows as stern and forbidding, but Khaled dispelled all of that with his smile, manic and loose.

There were two other things about Khaled that you noticed immediately: his hirsute body (you could see evidence of this creeping above the neckline of his striped sweater) and his preternatural intimacy with strangers. The latter was all-important for me. I was a self-serious, not unfrightened eighteen-year-old traveling alone in Syria, which I thought would help me become a writer one day. Suffice it to say, Khaled had to do all the work of establishing our acquaintance.

As our surprisingly modern bus cruised north on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, I learned that he was a Kurd; he had something like ten siblings; at thirty or so, he still lived with his parents; he was an engineer at a government water purification plant in the Aleppo suburbs.

Early on, I tried to account for the reasons, other than sheer goodness-of-heart, that Khaled would approach me. It was possible, I thought, that Khaled was being friendly in exchange for English lessons. This was the pretext for lots of abruptly intimate encounters I had with educated Syrian men. They just came up to you while you were shopping for dates and started conversations about, say, the disgusting impropriety of Western women's fashion and the likelihood that a Syrian woman so dressed would be pounded into dust.

And then there was the flicker of nerves when Khaled insisted on taking me to my hotel across town. Maybe the hotel would turn out to be a dank alleyway where I would be introduced to a lead pipe and eased of the burden of carrying my passport. (You think that way when you travel alone.)

But the paternal protectiveness of the way Khaled guided the Aleppan cab through traffic put that to rest. And then, at the hotel, even after I tried to wave him off, Khaled climbed the bare concrete stairs with me to the check-in desk and spoke with painful sincerity to the hotel's owner, a murmuring Arabic which I think, honestly, amounted to, "Be kind to this young man—don't rip him off."

Before he left, as we stood in the brown-painted lobby of the hotel—decorated with a creepy painting of a young blonde girl—we promised to meet again. No, that's wrong. He promised me. I was the one who needed assurances. He wrote down his phone number in my notebook, and I knew I would call him the next day.

That evening and the following morning, to fill the hours, I wandered around Aleppo. I recall a pyramid of glass bowls filled with rice pudding. (Each bowl cost the equivalent of ten cents.) And some good, crispy falafel in a shop where the piercing white light and cool white tile cut through the dark and the heat outside. And then a kind of red-light district: on one side of the street, a gaudily-lit Atlantic City-style night club; across from that, a liquor kiosk, where you placed your order at a window like at a fast-food drive-thru and the clerk brought you your bottle. I chose a two-six of Syrian-made gin with an indigo cap and silver Arabic script on the label that went down like burning coals dipped in juniper juice.

I was elated when my call from the hotel's front desk went through to Khaled the following morning.

"Eric!" I heard the sound of his voice picked up by the mic of his cheap cellphone.

Our first stop was a café. Next to us on the outdoor patio, where we sat in white plastic chairs, was an old man smoking a hookah—a metre-tall, glass, Brancusiesque sculpture of a pipe—and using his own personal nozzle-cum-mouthpiece, which had a wooden tip decorated with beads to look like a cobra's head. Every once in a while he would insert himself into our conversation and make disparaging comments to Khaled about the dissolution of today's young Syrian male, of which he obviously took Khaled to be an especially dissolute exemplar.

The way Khaled parried the old Baathist (probably) was vintage Khaled. Of course, I don't know what words he was using, since the exchange took place in Arabic, and Khaled is a humble, unfussy guy, so they probably weren't witticisms, exactly, but the unconquerable serenity of his goofy smile deflated every cubic inch of that swollen, reactionary windbag.

As for Khaled and me, we ordered ourselves a pipe of green apple-flavoured tobacco. And we sat and puffed until our coals were burned down to grey pucks of ash, and Khaled showed me how to write certain basic things in Arabic, the kinks and jags and swoops of whose letters I have as of this writing come no closer to mastering. But my failure was the point: as anyone who has traveled alone for any length of time will tell you, good-naturedly screwing up someone else's language is the most efficient way of endearing yourself to him. I still remember Khaled's unibrow rising with incredulous glee, like a barbell in an Olympic clean-and-jerk competition, when I put the accenting dot above the wrong part of a particularly serpentine Arabic letter.

When Khaled and I left the café and entered his car—it was tiny, a bathtub on wheels—he told me he was taking me to his uncle's bakery. He introduced the idea with a nonchalance that suggested I spent lots of Sundays hanging out with him at his uncle's bakery. I later wished this was so.

Driving through suburban Aleppo—the part tourists don't bother to visit, for good reason—I quickly learned that, despite its reputation for faded Eastern luxury, this place had no rewards for a junior Orientalist. The city is Sovietly cement-based, but woven through with enough raised highways to bring central Florida to mind. Architecturally, it was like something out of Mad Max, and it had the same regard for traffic laws: caroming through the dusty cement maze of Aleppo's roadways made me feel like a pinball achieving a high score.

Finally, we arrived. The bakery was on a side street. It was full of Khaled's cousins, all men. The inside was an unadorned concrete box with one stainless-steel work bench pushed up against the wall. The mouth didn't exactly water at the sight. But from this unpromising loam, the most delicate and colorful pastries sprang up like toadstools. There were cream-filled éclairs, I remember, and little fluffy cubes crowned with strawberries. They were delicious, as Parisian as the buildings outside were Muscovite and the roads Floridian. (Again, so much for the exoticism of the East.) But in the hands of the Bibos, the boulangerie fare was not a healed colonial wound, a pretty pink scar. It was more whimsical than that, and more simple. It was their craft. It hardly mattered from whom it was inherited.

For a time, they talked at me while they worked. Khaled did some semi-crack English-Kurdish interpretation. While I hope the UN pipes more fluid translations into Hillary Clinton's ear when the Syrian diplomats are explaining the whereabouts of the sarin nerve gas, the language problem was mostly allayed.

What came next, though, was beyond unintelligible. One cousin, maybe in his mid-twenties, scurried to the back of the room and, laughing audibly, like a child incapable of containing amusement at his own joke, removed something from a drawer. He scurried back toward us. And then the cousin whipped it out: a large, milk-white dildo.

The room erupted. It didn't erupt in anything—the range of reactions was too broad, too orgiastic to be pinned down. There was what started as laughter but careened off into something more visceral and wild. Cousin threw dildo, floppily, to cousin. More air-sucking squeals of hilarity. It was passed around, half ecstatically, half reverentially, like a piece of the True Cross.

Because I didn't understand the banter filling the spaces between wordless cries of delight, I was at a loss. Maybe they were saying, "Look what I found in my wife's sock drawer!" Or maybe it was "Oh, Rami, it's so funny when you bring out this gross thing to scare the guests."

But underneath the helium-dream surreality of the whole dildo episode, I located, I think, a bedrock of what felt like normality. It's not that my cousins and I would ever play hot-potato with a sex toy (most of my cousins are older women, so that would probably be illegal), but rather the invisible tendrils of filial intimacy that made them shrug and smile and clap in unstudied unison. This collective unconscious that Khaled seemed to share with his extended family must have been, I've since concluded, what gave him his air of imperturbability.

This was the thing about Aleppo, always keeling back and forth between delirium and inscrutability and womb-like familiarity. For instance, with the dildo put away and the dream sequence over, as the cousins Bibo were busy shooting logs of whipped cream into the cores of hollow éclairs, the lights went out. The power had died. 

And just like that, the whole room sprung into silent, invisible action. The Bibos turned off ovens, rearranged furniture, flicked on generators. Someone soothed the baby boy who sat placidly in a stroller. "Happens all the time," Khaled said. And for a time, with some supplementary lights on, the Bibos went about their baking, their cream-injection, their joshing as if a massive blackout hadn't just wracked their city.

One cousin brought out a tin lamp that looked like a sunflower and that dipped the room in a caramel light. Before I left—and I think leaving must have been Khaled's idea, because I had nowhere to be—we all sat around the sunflower lamp like it was a bonfire, huddling against the surrounding darkness.

I suppose what came next was standard practice, just common courtesy, and might have been rude to forgo, but it struck me as so phenomenally kind and unprompted that I still glow when I think about it.

There was another trip to another drawer. The contents of the drawer were brought toward our little circle in some cousin's folded arms. They were given to Khaled's uncle, a stout, playful, mustachioed man, who placed the thing in my lap. I opened it and saw that it was a sweater—a very nice Vans sweater that I would totally, unironically and unsentimentally, wear—and I realized, a second later, that it was a gift for me.

My thank yous—which I directed with extra effusiveness at Khaled, calculating that some of my enthusiasm would be caught in the sieve of his translation—still leave me embarrassed at my empty-handedness. I tried to compensate, writing down my address and phone number in Canada, telling the Bibos to come whenever they like, to stay on my couch, to stay in my room with me on the couch, to take over the house for whatever purpose they see fit.

Now, with artillery raining down on Aleppo and militias fighting for neighborhoods, street by dilapidated concrete street, I imagine Khaled and his cousins sit around the sunflower lamp more often than usual, provided that they have enough gas for the generator.

And now I wish more than ever that they would take me up on my offer to come stay in Canada. They won't, of course, because you don't fly out of a country in the midst of a civil war just because a foreign teenager gave you a phone number a handful of years ago. Certainly not because that teenager felt intimations of a sort of universal human relatedness when he was around you, despite his Western hang-ups, and wrote impotently about it while your city burned.

But maybe you'll be charitable and allow me to imagine Khaled and the rest of them crowding into my small kitchen in Toronto and wearing my mother's aprons and squirting each other with icing and not getting shot and wrapped in white shrouds and mourned in street funerals where more people will get shot and get filmed while getting shot and end up as YouTube martyrs in a civil war that is just almost certainly going to destroy the city of Aleppo and with it all the bakeries and the moments in which you can laugh deliriously with your cousins and Khaled's cool equilibrium and everything else.