Aleppo Tran — I

Originally posted by Gordon206 on 07/15/07

Note: There isn’t much to say about this piece, except that it happened, as advertised, in May 1977. Only later, however, did I realize the full extent of what was happening around me: especially the terrorist acts.

The entire essay approaches 10,000 words, and I did not want to break it up. However, that is simply too long for an online reading experience. Thus it will appear in three parts.

Aleppo Train

15 May 1977

For the stage-setting, think of soft air and springtime; a  gentle breeze; the glossy green of poplar leaves spinning in the sun.  I was young, alone, and abroad.  Also, I was ill.  More than a cold, less than the plague, this was, I assumed, a tenacious, crawling influenza that had taken over my life.  This happened in Syria, on a train moving north.

It had been, I decided, the most useless detour of my life.  After a rocky bounce through the eastern provinces of Turkey, skirting the borders of first the Soviet Union, then Iran and Iraq, I had swung south through Qamichli, Aleppo, and Damascus, then north again through Aleppo on the way back to Asia Minor.  I was sick when I entered Syria, and I was sick leaving it.  In the course of a five-day visit to a landscape brimming with historic and cultural riches I had managed to miss virtually everything.  Personal contact had been sparse; sickness and futility dogged me.  At Nusaybin, the last town in Turkey, I walked to the Syrian frontier past knots of young Kurds, unemployed and jeering, an Islamic version of the Eumenides come to bid me fare-ill.  When I rode in the share-taxi from Qamichli to Aleppo my somber seat-mate, a former pilot in the Syrian Air Force, never missed a chance to remind me that the Israeli Phantom which shot down and killed his best friend was made in U.S.A.  Then, in the middle of the Syrian desert, as we hurtled past at 70 mph, he pointed to the crumpled hulk of a car in which his brother had died only two months before.

In Aleppo I had wandered alone, to no purpose, through the wondrous warren-like bazaar of the Old City .  Late that first afternoon, while striding along the streets near my hotel, I heard a crack and felt my right shoe give way.

These were suede desert boots, made in England and famed for their comfort and quality, the kind known to British soldiers in Cairo, circa 1942, as “brothel creepers.”  The welt of this fine English product, brittle and improperly tanned, had snapped clean across like a slice of melba toast. 

For a moment I stood, unbelieving, in the teeming heart of Aleppo.  A shoe, overworked by the strain of being walked upon, had cracked and broken.  Never in a lifetime of footwear-ownership had I known such a thing to happen.  A quick hobble to a street-side cobbler-I had no intention of blowing my meager funds on new shoes-produced a tacked-on leather patch costing less than a dollar.  But walking now became even more difficult.  For two days thereafter, like an actor training to play a wounded man, I limped along the streets of Aleppo, then onto a southbound bus, and at last to a run-down hotel in the heart of Damascus.

There, in the capital’s famous souk, I gave in and bought a pair of canvas Syrian sneakers; but even then, in haste and confused by the metric sizes, I managed to buy them two centimeters too small.  With my new-and increasingly painful-tennis shoes, I embarked on more futile explorations.  Outside the great Umayyad Mosque I stood but, feeling ill, unclean, and foreign, did not attempt to enter.

Before the gates of the bazaar I found temporary refuge.  In a tiny kiosk run by a friendly Arab, I sat and drank sherbets crafted from shaved ice and a heap of Damascus oranges.  The stall, no more than an extra-large phone booth, contained two stools wedged between a wall and a counter.  The proprietor worked alone, pulverizing the fruit, rinsing and re-using the same water glasses for all customers, drawing waxed-paper straws from a small cardboard box.  On the side of this box, next to Arabic squiggles, it read, “Modern Syrian Factory of Straw.”  Nothing, I decided, could have been more wonderful.  Like an instant television commercial, the vision arose: a humble workshop bustling with industry, the bales of its walls a pale, bristly gold in the desert sun, its workers faithfully shipping their waxed-paper products to the sherbet and fruit juice venders of Syria.  Then I tasted the orange sherbet, and from the first sip I could not believe that such flavor was possible in this dusty world.  Heaven, sweet and slushy, had appeared in a water glass.  Within seconds my throat was healed, my malady overthrown.  Having devoured one drink I ordered another, and when that was finished I ordered a third.  As the gluttonous American left the vender’s stall, he bowed deeply and pressed his hands together in the sincerest gratitude imaginable.  And well he should, for those three fresh orange concoctions were the high point of his visit to Syria and one of the greatest gastronomic pleasures of his life.

The rest was but clumsiness and farce.  That night in a restaurant I met two Canadian  hippies, and together we wandered the streets as one of them, to the wonderment of passing Arabs, flossed his teeth with a long nylon strand that trailed in the breeze and snagged itself in the thatch of his beard.  When the two Canadians woke me at my hotel early the next morning to ask if I wanted to go with them to Beirut, I was again so woozy from illness that I scarcely knew who they were.  (Only after they left did I remember telling them to come and get me.)  That afternoon, defeated by weakness and befuddlement, I dragged my bag, my pinched feet, and my bandana onboard the return bus to Aleppo.

It was, I knew, a meager harvest of memories, and now, in sickly solitude, I was leaving the Syrian Arab Republic, taking my maladies and crawling back to friends in Bodrum, a small  port on the Aegean coast of Turkey.  Clicking and swaying, pulled by some far-off reluctant urge, the train ambled north from Aleppo through a landscape of green wheat, yellow buttercups, and distant barren hills.  The cars creaked, their lusterless fittings diffused the sun, the wood trim wore its scars like an old shed.  The enterprise seemed more accidental than real, as if several idlers from the Aleppo rail yards, having nothing better to do, had decided to find a locomotive and pull some cars up to Turkey.

But if there was no great speed on this line, there was at least a kind of gentility.  Though the train was old, no one could call it squalid.  People, livestock, and baggage did not jam the aisles.  No one was cooking falafils in inflammable oil on a leaky gasoline stove.  The modern world, with its speed, and the Third World, with its overcrowding and danger, seemed to have forgotten us.  If anything derailed on this Ottoman-era roadbed our oxcart velocity assured us of a soft and harmless landing.  All I had to do was to sit coughing and evacuating my sinuses for a certain number of hours, and in the end I would be delivered: first to the border, then to Adana, then Ankara.  At the end of the road, with its warm sun, Crusader castle, and Aegean splendor, there waited the view from Bodrum.

And for my legs, if not my pinched toes, I found room to stretch. In my compartment only one other seat was occupied, and the population on the rest of the train seemed equally sparse.  This was not one of the world’s famous, well-traveled railway journeys.  Except for sheep smuggling, Turkey and Syria had not reached a high level of cross-border trade.  The two neighbors had been less-than-friendly since 1937, when, near the end of the French Mandate, Turkey took possession of Alexandretta (now Iskenderun), the province which lay directly to the west of Aleppo.  Official Syrian maps to this day show Iskenderun (and Antioch, the province’s capital and  most famous city) as a part of their country.  Only by careful inspection of the map can you find that the real border posts are nowhere near where the Syrians think they should be.

Aleppo sits a mere thirty miles from the Turkish frontier, either to the west or the north, and yet the train would take its sweet time reaching the border post at Islahiye, the first town inside Turkey.  A straight thirty miles for the highway engineers had become many more by the time their railway counterparts had added enough turns to span the rolling terrain.  Add to that the engine drivers’ reluctance to increase speed, plus a willingness to stop at every available hamlet, and what seemed a jaunt developed into a journey.

The train had just left Aleppo when, with a lurch and rumble from the door, my fellow traveler entered the compartment.  Laden with bags and packages, instantly classifiable as “Middle Eastern” in appearance, the man smiled shyly and nodded his head.  There seemed a kind of reserve about him, a watchfulness as he stowed his baggage and withdrew into his seat.  Years?  I wasn’t sure.  His face had acquired the creases and valleys that make age so difficult to guess in Middle Eastern men.  Perhaps it’s the sun; perhaps it’s because, even in youth, their lives teem with worry.  In this sere social landscape, with an abundance of social pressure and a lean diet of worldly goods and hope, they grow old quickly, then remain ruggedly handsome as the years become decades.  I guessed that my fellow traveler was forty, though he could have been fifty–or thirty-five.  Black hair retreated in waves from a high forehead; his mustache and sideburns flashed a hint of gray.  The narrow face was too long to be truly handsome, but about him there lay a real dignity and reserve, as  if he knew the world and his own place in it but was ready at any moment to run for shelter.  The man’s baggage consisted of  two suitcases, both of battered faux-leather plastic, and a full load of miscellaneous extras.  These were the normal sorts of parcels one sees in Middle Eastern trains.  Small packages wrapped in newsprint or brown paper were secured with string, then placed in other, larger bags.  One of the big bags was of cloth, with wooden handles; the others, of yellow polyethylene, had been used so many times that the printed Arabic on the exterior had worn to a jumble of insect tracks.  My compartment-mate and I smiled then nodded again, assuming the non-existence of a common language.  With a stretch and a sigh, we settled in.

I was rummaging for reading material, head down, in my bag when the offer came.  A cone of newsprint appeared in the space between us, proffered by long, delicate fingers and a hand roughened by age.  In this cone lay an ample supply of Syria’s (and southern Turkey’s) most famous products, called fistiq in Arabic and carried (eventually) into English as pistachio.

“Buyrun,” said the man.

“Sagh ol.  Te?ekkürler.”

With thanks, I accepted.  Though the offer came only a few minutes after eight in the morning, it’s never too early, I find, for a nut, especially if refusal, the only alternative, seems like very bad form.  Hearing my reply the man smiled, displaying front teeth rimmed with gold.  Did I speak Turkish? he asked. Yes, a little.  We had, it seemed, a common language after all.  And why not, since we were both headed north?

As we worked our fingernails on the pistachios, more questions followed. Was I ill?  Yes.  May it soon be passed.  Thank you.  No, despite my mustache and weary aspect I was not Turkish. An American?  Really?  He looked at me some more.  With my jeans and chambray work shirt I wore a brown Harris Tweed jacket that I had purchased for five dollars at a Salvation Army Store in Santa Rosa, California.  I looked drab enough for a peasant.  If it weren’t for my bad accent and limited knowledge of the language, I could have been Turkish.  But no, I said, I was indeed American.  A traveler.  And you, I said, you speak Turkish well.  You’re Turkish?  No, he demurred, we are Syrian.  We.  You have relatives in Turkey?  No, we did not.  No relatives in Turkey.  But still, he spoke Turkish.  A pause ensued.  A smile played across his lips.  A question was implied; a label was needed.  What part of the Near Eastern mosaic were we talking about?  Where did this human tessera fit in?  It is bad form to pry into these matters.  I had disgraced myself too many times in the past with naïve, unseemly queries.  The man’s large hands rose from his lap, the fingers splayed in a gesture of resignation.  What can I say? they seemed to declare.

“Biz Hristyan?z,” he said: “We’re Christian.”  And then, with a look, “You understand.”

Well, yes and no.  If I didn’t understand, I began at least to get the picture.  We were enroute to the Republic of Turkey, bastion of police-state secularism, relentless pulverizer of ethnic divisions, hydraulic press of national unity.  Not a good thing to delve too deeply into these matters.  Besides, I knew history–and I knew what happened when you moved south of the border.

It’s always surprising, at least for an American, to discover political boundaries that really mean something.  Someone from Iowa, for example, doesn’t see a great deal of difference passing across the Mississippi into Illinois, or driving from one cornfield in Iowa to another one in Minnesota.  Even Missouri looks the same until you drive into a small farm town and see an occasional black face, and then you realize that there are no blacks in small-town Iowa because in Iowa there were no slaves.

But walking from Turkey across no-man’s land into Syria is quite a different matter, and it’s not just the alphabet, as it melts from geometric Roman letters into slack, wiggly Arabic.  It happens like this.  On the Turkish side sits Nusaybin, which once had been Nisibis, a major Roman outpost on the eastern border with the Persian Empire.  Now it is populous but nondescript, inhabited almost exclusively by Muslim Kurds, with a few Syrian Jacobites for leavening. On the south edge of the city, slightly separated from the mass of buildings, sits a customs post with the usual Turkish officials: scrupulously professional, as correct and grim as the photo of Ataturk on the wall.  These men do not merely stamp the passport; they attack it, with a vicious downward slam that rattles the table, bangs its echo off the walls, and marks the hapless document for life.  After Turkish customs stretches a gash of emptiness: a shallow valley, a narrow asphalt road, warm and tarry underfoot, with barbed wire and minefields on either side, and slicing across the foreground the tracks of the Istanbul-to-Baghdad railroad.  The land is barren semi-desert; the traveler’s companion is the sun.  In the distance, perhaps a mile away, lie the greyish-brown flat-roofed buildings of Qamichli, no more inviting than those of Nusaybin.

But first there is the customs post, a concrete cottage with a sign stating in Arabic and French that this indeed is the Syrian Arab Republic.  Beside it, lowered to block the road, sits the standard red-and-white striped pole.  Otherwise, the place seems deserted.  The traveler calls out and gets no response.  He calls out again, and soon appears the Republic’s customs officer.  His occupation, however, is not easy to discern.  Only on his head does the man sport an official garment, the octagonal khaki-colored hat with a black bill worn by the customs police.  From the waist down he is wearing striped cotton pajamas, and on his hairy feet are rubber flip-flops.  The officer is not a tall man, nor particularly big, but what there is of him is well-fed.  His ample belly swells beneath a cotton sleeveless undershirt; his hairy chest and arms show no evidence of exercise or starvation; his smiling face is round and unshaven.  Smiling?  Yes.  In spite of the fact that I have woken him from his afternoon nap, despite his croaking voice and the sleep that rims his eyes, he is affability itself.  We converse in a mixture of bad French and Turkish.

Welcome!  Welcome!

(He says this with great vehemence, as if trying to overcome the effects of sleep.)

Thank you.



Bravo.  Where do you go?


Good.  Yes, Aleppo is beautiful.

How do I get there?

A stunned pause.  The question requires thought.  He rubs the stubble of his whiskers with his right hand.  No buses now, he says.  Get a taxi in Qamichli.

The officer takes my passport, shuffles off in search of his rubber stamp.  My friends in Bodrum have warned me that currency regulations in Syria will require a form from customs, which I will have to produce upon leaving the country.  I ask the pajama-clad officer about this.  No problem, he says: don’t worry.  I need a foreign exchange form, I insist.  No, he says, no paper.  It doesn’t matter.  Welcome.  With a gentle pressure upon the page, next to the Turkish wound, he places the entry stamp.  And with a wave and a last, woozy grin, he sends me off into Syria.

And here is the point of this digression, the thing that one sees as he walks the last mile from the border post up a slight rise into the town of Qamichli.  It’s not just the minarets that look different in this Arab country, nor the fact that, yes, that may indeed be the spire of a church back there amongst the buildings: it is the sprinkling of names that began to appear amid the Arabic shop signs, surnames that are utterly absent in the town to the north.  “Gumushjian,” it may say, on the shop of a silversmith; “Bakaljian,” a grocer’s sign may declare.  As you walk into the dusty town and look at the signs, more “-ian” names continue to crop up.  They tell you that you are in Syria, that here is where so many Armenian survivors ended up after they were expelled from Turkey in 1915.  Above all, it says that behind this border, this blank line in a blank desert, lie meaning, history, and pain.


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