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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Tartoussi in Aleppo

I went through the olden swivel door and left the dusty cobblestones behind. My eyes didn't adjust to the dimmed lighting before the short dark corridor gave way to a foyer open to the sky above. I stepped back in time and into the small lobby of the Hotel "Martini Dar Zamaria". I was greeted by a friendly smile from behind the reception desk which simply washed the weariness of the 3-hour drive away. Since I had to go back on the streets again for a full day of work, I couldn't take in the whole ambiance. However, a sense of an overwhelming peace made me reluctant to leave. Later on in the afternoon, as the heat finally dragged my stamina and spirit down, I incessantly glanced at my watch. I was longing to head back to the hotel, to shower, take a short rest then night-walk the alleys of the Jdaideh district of Aleppo.



Zamaria is an old Arabic house, converted into a small 22 room four-star hotel. From the outside, its faceless facade fails to register any impression on the eye. This is a general characteristic of old houses in Damascus and Aleppo. Once inside, it's a totally different story. The senses are collectively assaulted by a myriad of exquisite and pleasant details. Zamaria is named after a famous Allepine family who lived in the (Dar = House) since the early 18th century. The splendid interior architecture follows the Ottoman style with its attention to small symmetrical visual details and patterns engraved in stone. The original courtyard had been converted into the present lobby and one of two restaurants, called Al-Housh. The skylight above had been cleverly covered by clear plastic to air condition the space and to stay faithful to the unique outdoor feeling, albeit within the constraints of the four high walls around.


My room was small yet very comfortable and clean. The makeover authentically preserved the original conditions of the Dar. The grand effect of keeping the unusual little imperfections is simply great. As I laid back in the king-size copper bed, memories of my grandparents Dar in the old Damascene district of Qanawat danced in my head. I felt sleepy and safe. I was home in Aleppo. For roughly US$30.00 per night, breakfast included, I daresay that Zamaria is on the very top of my favorite anywhere hotels list.

When Dubai Jazz knew that I am heading to Aleppo he asked me to do him a favor. He wanted me to have a plate of Fava Beans (Sahen Fool) at Abu Abdo Al-Fawwal. He claimed, so did many Aleppines I later met, that this little joint in Jdaideh offers the best Fool in the world. I couldn't turn my friend down and I had to oblige. At the front desk, I asked the girl with the nice smile about Abu Abdo's. Her eyes sparkled when she told me that all I had to do was to walk out of the hotel door and to step right in Abu Abdo's. The restaurant with the 3 small tables was located in the same building at the corner of the alley. Remember Dubai Jazz, I've done you a favor! I ate the best Sahen Fool in my life, bien sure with a large stud of onion (Fahel Bassal) and a loaf of bread (Rgheef Khebez).

Jdaideh is a fascinating place. I was mostly impressed by the cultural, ethnic and religious fabric of the neighborhood. An Armenian orphanage stood shoulder to shoulder with an Islamic home for the elderly. The nameplates on the small front doors of adjacent houses indicated that Haj Mohamad lived here, Khawaja Hagob next door and Mr. George across the three-meter alley. I have never witnessed this matrix of habitat anywhere else, not even in the rest of Syria. A few of the houses were converted into hotels, restaurants and pubs and randomly dispersed in the district. With my two companions, I instinctively followed the serpentine pathways and debated our choice for a dining place. We stood in the middle of a large open square where old men and veiled women rested on benches. There were kids playing under the street lights. There was also a random sample of Aleppine youth, modern and traditional in their choice of clothing roaming the old quarters with fun and excitement emanating from every move and gesture they made. Another converted Arabic Dar, House Sissi, a five-star hotel and restaurant, stood at a corner next to a liquor store and a beautiful mosque. The jovial group of French tourists sitting on the open patio in front of the hotel, their hair and table napkins flying away with the fresh and light easterly breeze and the sweet voice of the Muezzin calling for the Isha prayer from the minaret above made the whole scene unbelievably surrealistic.

We decided, out of loyalty to our one-night home, to eat at La Terrace, the restaurant on the roof of the Zamaria. We were greeted by a magnificent view of the citadel and the Aleppine night. Most importantly, we were served with a delicious assortment of Middle Eastern Mezza, which we tremendously enjoyed while listening to the enchanting tunes of a solitary Oud. It is no secret that Aleppo offers great food and music. How on earth could it get any better than this, I thought, as I was hedonistically sipping my glass of Batta Arak.

Until today, I have miserably failed to closely know Aleppo and many other magnificent Syrian cities and towns. We all tend to think that it is always greener on the other side. I felt so small in my hypocrite sense of having traveled way and beyond in search for beauty while neglecting what has always been here under my nose. I vow never to make that mistake again. Aleppo, I want to fly back on a magical carpet from A Thousand and One Night to the playground of Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest poet of all times, to your defiant citadel and narrow alleys with an eternal sense of deep-rooted Tarab that rebels against any attempt to describe, let alone translate.

We need to know each other better, Aleppo and me, we need to get more intimate next time.

48 comments:

Bridget said...

Lucky you! Dar Zamaria is pretty much my favorite hotel ever, anywhere in the world. I'm glad you got to enjoy some time (and food!) in Aleppo.

Wassim said...

What a beautiful article. Wish I was there!

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Ya Salam ya Abu Fares, :))) you made my day reading this post, first of all, thank you very much for responding to my recommendation, you can bet that I started drooling at the mention of Abo Abdo Al Fawwal even before I saw the photo, seeing the Sahen and the two Fa7el Basels gave me an orgasmic feeling, although I would have loved to be physically there to witness the first hand impression these little Aleppine experiences might have had on you..I can't remember how many times me and my friends would skip classes because of Abo abdo, .....surely with the presence of such an inquisitive visitor as you are, it was looked at through eyes from which a little can be hidden, but you are not a normal visitor, as you said I was home in Aleppo. Yes! please feel right at home whenever you grace Aleppo with your visits...:)

When I was working at the railways, we once had Japanese experts working on an overhaul study. When the time had come to treat them the Aelppine way, the choice was clear and un-contested; Al CiCi restaurant in Al Jdaidah. It was one of those nights where I overwhelmingly felt that it is good to be alive, I remember the awe in my companions' eyes, whenever a small surprising detail unfold, be it in the food, the alleys, the way different things are blending, or the way people are carrying themselves!

Once again Abu Fares, thank you very much for your account on the Aleppine trip, although it was a business oriented one, I am really glad you didn't feel homesick or as you said once 'like a fish out of the sea'!

وداعا اخيرا .. وداعا حلب..
فهذا نهاية درب التعب ..
و بوح حديث طواه العتب ..
لذكرى مساء صداه الطرب ..
فكان اغانى و نشوى امانى و احلى زمان بقلبى انكتب ..
وداعا لانى بصمتى و حزنى رايت حبيبى يرحل عنى و انت السبب ..
طويت الدفاتر .. إنى مغادر بعشقك وحدك انى مسافر ..
بهذا ابوح و بمنديلى اللوح .. وداعا .. وداعا .. وداعا حلب ...!!

Yazan said...

Halab, is probably, in many ways, the most diverse city in Syria.
Although the image that I had gotten of it is much bleaker than yours, at least when it comes to how all these different cultures co-exist, I am glad to ur impressions, and I am even more glad that you had such an overwhelming experience.

Last time I was back home, I had a reservation for a weekend in aleppo, i was supposed to be staying at The Baron hotel, I only visited it once, and it has been haunting me ever since, to step right back in history, and sleep on T.E. Lawrence's bed. But, that damn flu got the better of me.

As always abu fares amazing writing. I, too, wish i could be there.

Omar said...

ya salam ya abufares, your post read like a beautiful poem. Amazing descriptions and nice photos to supplement the imagination.

I have yet to visit Aleppo, but when I do I'll be sure to sleep in that very same hotel.

abufares said...

Bridget
Zamaria would be the favorite hotel for any visitor who doesn't take things at face value. It's a unique experience, one that I will certainly try again and again. It seems very likely that I will have encore visits to Aleppo on business. Now, I have a personal address there.

abufares said...

Wassim
Thank you for your compliment on my writing. When you are in an overwhelmingly beautiful place and state of mind all it takes is a little effort to put your thoughts into beautiful words.

abufares said...

Dubai Jazz
I knew that you would like this post. In a way, it was dedicated to you.
I particularly like the context of the word "Tarab" in the poem you've quoted.
On many a night, when I listen in a stupefying state to say Om Kalthoum or Sabah Fakhri I challenge myself to define the condition of "Tarab". All great music can sweep you down and up along its winding velevety way if you close your eyes, but "Tarab" stands alone as a unique conscious human condition. In the alleys of Aleppo, the Oud player, the laughter of the children, the echo of footsteps on the worn cobblestones, the creaking of the wooden doors, the whispers of veiled women, the rituals at Abu Abdo all conspired into forming one beautiful Aleppine Oriental orchestra. I didn't only listen to, I was part of "Tarab"

abufares said...

yazan
You bring a very important point to focus. As a short term visitor I cannot say more than what I have seen. I would really love to hear from Aleppines how they feel about the exceptional diversity of their city. There might be resentment or harmony, but I was lucky enough to only sense the latter.

abufares said...

Omar
I have visited more places in America and Europe then I have in my own country. I'm sure it's the exact case with you and almost everyone of us. We suffer from being unable to see at close quarters.

KJ said...

You cannot fathom the intensity of the nostalgia that your post has set upon me at this very hour :'(

Kinan said...

*flesh covered in goosebumps*

Abufares: chapeau on this epiphany of all blogposts.
Your writing is as enchanting as the city of Aleppo. I was teleported to every scene with each word. Beautiful!

Lujayn said...

Abu Fares, lovely to hear you enjoyed your visit to Aleppo. The area of Jdeideh is my favorite. You never know what you're going to see when you turn the corner of a narrow alleyway. The area around the square you were at is a popular vegetable and meat market, but the square itself has been newly renovated, making a coffee at the Sisi House facing the square a definite pleasure!

I've always wanted to stay at one of those hotels - more the Kan Zaman near the Sisi House (which is my favorite restaurant in Aleppo for its food and atmosphere). I wander in every time I'm in the city to stand in the hotel's courtyard and smell the jasmine. You have definitely evoked my fonder memories of Aleppo, which I have to admit arent always so positive. But that particular area is like an oasis in the middle of all the noise, smog and crowded neighborhoods.

abufares said...

KJ
Nostalgia, if administered in the right dose, has a most gracious effect on the soul.
I am so happy to be able to blog about these little experiences, to record my impressions in a way. I already miss the one-week old experience. This is certainly not the end of the story.

abufares said...

Kinan
I tremendously appreciated the grandiose word: "epiphany". I had to look it up in a dictionary by the way.
I'm humbled by your comment, yet it made me feel so good about myself.
It's like telling one that he's done a good job, and for this I'm very thankful.

abufares said...

Lujayn
We have to yet "hold hands" and walk the streets of Aleppo together :-)
I will certainly eat at the Dar Sissi on my next visit.
I'm impressed with Jdaideh for a simple reason. In Tartous, Al-Saha, the old part of town, has a great potential of becoming a haven in the midst of the crazy concrete jungles which have invaded all of the Syrian cities. Unfortunately, the conditions at Al-Saha are deplorable. It's very easy to make the old city in Tartous one of the most magnificent places on the Mediterranean if something similar to Jdaideh is initiated.

Lujayn said...

You're on :))

The Sissi House (qahwet al-sisi) was a popular men's coffee shop, as I've been told. Both my parents lived in a house down the street when they were kids, and this area was their playground. Its very familiar to me with all its stories, and I feel an affinity to it that I have never felt with the houses they moved to afterwards.

I'm not very familiar, however, with the renovation work taking place now on the area, but to the best of my knowledge, it started off as private initiatives by individuals who saw potential. In fact, the Sisi House was the first to turn an old hosh-arabi into a restaurant, and the trend caught on. There is definitely a government restriction on demolishing old houses in the district which has helped preserve Jdeideh, but little else in the way of development or renovation, until very recently. Better late than never, though. One of the great things about the area, I believe, which has helped is the fact that its very much lived in and used by the local population.

abufares said...

Lujayn
The local government in Tartous and the Ministry of Antiquities are not doing anything to improve/fix/solve the problems of the old city and not letting anyone else in the local private sector or international organizations improve/fix/solve the problems.

Ya3ni: "La Ber7amak wala Bkhalli Ra7met Allah Tenzol 3leik".

The old city of Tartous has a very high population density, inflicted with extreme poverty and neglect. A few innovative international projects have been proposed (always with the social welfare of the inhabitants first). But NO...

La Yaslamou Al Sharaf Al Refee3ou Min Al Aza.

We know how to solve our problems and we don't accept foreign proposals...

BULLSHIT!

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Dear Abu Fares, Dear Lujayn,
The old city of Aleppo owes much of its pristine shape to Mr. Adli Qudsi, a US educated Aleppine architect....
In the 70s, when old Aleppo was under the threat of reckless urban planning, he mobilized some of his colleagues (architects, artists and intellectuals) to block the hideous plan. They succeeded. Since then, Mr. Adli has managed to complete 350 renovations through his consultancy office, of course, he is making money out of it, but I think it is well earned because he also pursued a cause that others didn't care to pursue ...

P.S.: thank you for your kind words Abu Fares, and sorry for the spelling and grammatical mistakes of my earlier comment, I was half-asleep when I wrote it yesterday, but i couldn't let the day pass without commenting!

msummakie said...

Abufares,

Great post about Zamaria. Love that restaurant and can't wait to be back in Halab next week. I'll have to tell my husband to get us some fool from Abu Abdo's.

Marla

Lujayn said...

Dubai Jazz, I didnt know that about Adli Qudsi. Thanks for the info :) Profit is great if you can contribute responsibly to your surroundings at the same time.

Since we're here, kefak?

saint said...

Spicy post!
Abu Fares, I think even if I don’t know you before, but sitting with you on that table at that place in Alepo (through your post) made me feel like I have known for a long time. You have invoked decades old forgotten memories in that city and I thank you for that. I spent one year in Alepo UN, and we used to go to a place in the old town near some “Hamman” and have our Friday “fool” there. I guess, Alepo “fool” is cooked differently from Damascus “fool” which give it different taste, is that right?

I love Munich said...

Gosh I LOVE your way of writing, of describing places, people, smells, these little details most people don't see or pay attention ... I close my eyes and can SEE, HEAR or/and SMELL what you are refering to!
Aleppo must be a fascinating city ... who knows, MAYBE one day I will be able to visit! Insha'allah ...

Thanks a lot for a WONDERFUL trip - I enjoyed it from the first minute to the last!

abufares said...

Dubai Jazz & Lujayn
Here we go, real Awlad Balad talking about their city like nobody else can.
Dubai Jazz, I knew that you were a little on the tired side when you saw one Fahel Bassal as two :-)

abufares said...

msummakie
Glad you enjoyed my post. But, you can't tell your husband to get you some fool from Abu Abdo! You have to go, with your husband, there. Find a table (out of the 3). Sit down and enjoy the Fool in its right setting and proper rituals :-)

abufares said...

Saint
But you already know me my friend. I am the kind of guy who really enjoys a Sahen Fool and love to talk about it ;-)
Fool in Aleppo is different than Damascus. They spice it up differently (including cumin)and very finely chopped tomatoes. It might be even possible that the tomatoes is heated up with the sauce (I need an Aleppine to correct me on this one if I'm wrong).
In Damascus, more garlic and less spices are used. Tomatoes is added as an afterthought in larger chunks.
Now, on the coast of Syria and Lebanon, the smaller variety of Fool is used. Normally, people don't like the larger Fool eaten in the interior. As a personal preference I prefer the larger Fool myself.
The most important thing of all is to try everything the locals eat once you are visiting a place. I would never shy away from this hobby. I don't know what I will do when and if I go to China, where I was once told that "They would eat anything that moves, except a bicycle".

abufares said...

Karin
I really thought about you more than once during my visit to Aleppo. I have even written you an email on my mobile (if you remember).
Aleppo is indeed a fascinating city. We will visit it together!

DUBAI JAZZ said...

yes dear Lujayn, since we are here, I am doing really fine, how about you? btw, I thought about you the other day when I applied for membership at the fitness first gym at Burjuman, and it seems they have another one in Ibn Batuta, is it the one you refer to when you say 'going to the gym' at your face book board? :)))

Akh ya Abu Fares, I thought a small apology would spare me the embarrassment and the mockery, but now that what happened has happened, I am laughing my ass out at the two fa7el basel observation, I don't know what to say, al 3atab 3la al nazer, butI sure am not cock-eyed!!, so I must have mistaken the Fa7el Basel with the number of your colleagues ..(your companions were two right?:))))

david santos said...

Freedom for the Palestiniano people. Below the North American terrorism and sionista nazism.

abufares said...

Allah Ma'ak Ya David ya Ibn Santos.
Viva la liberdade

Restless in Dubai said...

Hey Abu Fares,

I've been here in Dubai since April 2006 and I was never homesick as I am now after reading your post. Dar Zamaria was my favorite. Just sitting there and smell the Jasmines would make me shed a tear or two. I so miss Aleppo and now thanks to your post, I am gonna try to find a way to escape my boss's captivity and flee to Aleppo.

RnD

Daniel said...

Hmm, I was in Aleppo recently, and I have a suspicion we passed that hotel... My Iranian-Canadian friend asked inside a four star, and they said 75US a night.

Sadly, we found a 300 lira room in a much more basic hotel in the centre..

abufares said...

RnD
Yalla I gave you one reason to miss home.
As to fleeing to Aleppo, just remember this old saying by a very wise man:

"There's more than a dozen way to kill a boss."

abufares said...

Daniel
The Dar Zamaria rate for a single room is US$30.00 per night, breakfast included. There is a possibility that there are different rates for non-Syrians but I seriously doubt it.
If anyone has a definite answer, please feel free to give your expert opinion.

Lujayn said...

Daniel, Abu Fares, yes, there are definitely different rates for Syrians and non-Syrians. Thats why they quoted the higher price to Daniel. Although in this case, it wasnt too considerable a difference. They even charge different entry rates for museums and other heritage sites.

Lujayn said...

yala abu fares, new post, new post, new post!

K. said...

Ah, wonderful, Abu Fares!
Although Damascus is my love, you made me doubt, just for a split second;-) I actually don't know Aleppo and I was planning on discovering it, but now, now I just can't wait! Thank you:-)

Btw, he got it, my lovely Kimo: 284/290! Although I never doubted him, it feels great to see it materialized now and I feel like screaming it off every roof top!

Katia

Ammoontie said...

Dear Abu Fares,
Thank you for sharing Aleppo with us. Although I have no idea of its whereabouts..from your descriptions and lovely pictures I think it is a beautiful place. And that fava beans dish is my favourite. Would you share the recipes of that lovely looking fava beans ? It looks so tempting.

Común said...

Hola!!!!!!!!!

La foto tuya con la moto, me imagino viajar, es lo que me encanta.
La foto del post en la que hay personas en el bar y detrás la escalera me sugiere que están tomando el te.

Un besote y abrazo de oso, desde ARGENTINA.

kaya said...

What lovely pictures. The place looks so quaint.
And as usual. Abu Fares, You prose leaves one mesmerised and lulls one into a dreamy, as if almost there physically state.
Very very noice.

abufares said...

Lujayn, Katia, Ammoontie, Comun & Kaya

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you but I was away on

VACATION :-))))))

I just got back this afternoon (Thu 9th)
I promise to let you read all about it. Hopefully by tomorrow. Well, I need to start writing,
Ciao

Fatima said...

Abu fares,,
You just made my day,,,
the scent of the warmth in Aleppo allies..the paved streets , the shadowed old balconies there, and all what is old about it is what makes it the real place to me. Maybe, because i am from Aleppo, feeling that she belongs to me as well.. Alas, i am no more there, but still i can feel Al-Jedidah surrounding me,, you know, whenver i feel down or feel i wanna contemplate,, I just head walking from the old Sirian area, near to what i live to that area esp at late or early morning, where you can smell the jasmine and touch the depth of the unforgettable people who roam there whenver it is empty and silent....
thank you,,
sweet you,
M

abufares said...

Fatima
I must've known that this sweet girl commenting on my blog is from Aleppo. Only in such a beautiful background could a "Jasmine" emerge and fill my blog with perfume and beauty.
Thank you for being here.

Manar said...

Abufares,, you are a poet ,,!! are not you..
The Tartoussian shells can never leave my closets and secret drawers,,,Be shining as ever..
Lighthouse:P

abufares said...

Manar
I am by no mean a poet, however, reading your words fills me with inspiration to continue writing in the hope that someday, something of substance might emerge.
Thank you for the kind words, on and off the air.

Lighthouse said...

;-)
thanks for uttering my name abufares,, i miss it in Arabic,,,
salameh

abufares said...

Manar
Your name is Zai el 3asal.

lê said...

still remember the chant of the vegetable seller walking beside his donkey,,, BASAL AKHDAR,,TUM AKHDAR,AlBAALE,, BAADUNES, KABUS AL SALATA,,FEJLAT AL SHAHWE,,,,who dose not remember the SAHLEB on the cold mornings of december, the SOOS, and the BZURAT on hot days, the list gose on, do we really need mcdonald,pizza hut,or cocacola, what about the fresh lemonade with ment and MAA AL ZAHER,,,,,,,,,