A Tartoussi in 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.