A Syrian Souk Experience

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Nobody gets lonely in Aleppo’s souk, not even Hassan.

I stopped to look at some traditional Aleppine olive and bay laurel soap, and I heard a voice calling me from a nearby textiles stall.

“Hey, you. Where are you from?”

It was a podgy-faced young man in a tight black t-shirt, theatrically waving in my direction. I went over to answer the, by now customary, question.

“I’m from England,” I said.

“Oh. I have been to Soho. It was so queenie-queenie!” He giggled, pulled a face, and then slapped me on the shoulder.

Not for the first time in Aleppo, I was mildly taken aback. Here I was, in a conservative and predominantly Muslim society, where homosexuality was certainly illegal, and I was flagrantly being chatted up by an openly camp market trader in the most public of places.

Not only that, but the slogan on his tight black t-shirt read: “Well, it won’t suck itself!”

The caption on Mazen’s t-shirt was so rude it made his face go all blurry.

I naturally reached for my camera. “Ooh, not the face,” he said, as he quickly scurried behind his co-worker, who was sat upright with his elbows on a pile of fabric and his head in his hands, like he’d seen it all before.

“Oh, go on then, just one,” he relented without persuasion, and struck a pose.

“He’s the only gay in the village,” quipped his companion with a wry look.

And, impressed by such an unlikely grasp of catchphrases from the Little Britain TV show, I extended a friendly handshake to both.

“Ooh, I think he’s already attached,” podgy-face said to his friend, as he held onto my hand for just a moment too long. I pulled it away with a chuckle and moved on.

Princess Diana, during her Yasser Arafat period

As I walked past another stall, I saw a picture of the late Princess Diana with a red-and-white keffiyeh superimposed onto her head. Elsewhere there was a portrait of the Syrian President, embellished with a pair of devil horns scribbled in marker pen. I wondered if the souk doubled up as some kind of subversive bolt-hole for dissidents and non-conformists.

Bashar al Assad in Devil Horns (top), keeping a beady eye on the kebabs

Before I left the souk there was another classic Aleppo moment. A stocky, thickset man with a bent nose, gimlet eyes and eyebrows like gorilla’s fingers summoned me over to him.

“I’ve met some strange Englishmen in my time,” thought Ghiath, “but this one takes the biscuit.”

I feared the well of Syrian goodwill had finally dried up and I was in for a pummelling. He asked the staple question, curtly. I answered him. ‘Ah, England good,’ he muttered gruffly, before handing me a business card. It read:

Ghiath Tifor, Golden Boxer.

“Middle East champion. Arab champion. Middle weight,” he announced proudly. I braced myself for an upper-cut, but his stern expression gave way to a smile. He delved into his shopping and produced a brown paper bag. From it he lifted two plastic-wrapped mamoul cookies, which he gave to me before going on his way.

James Brennan
James Brennan is a freelance food and travel writer. The former food editor of Time Out Dubai and restaurant critic for The National newspaper, he has contributed to a range of publications in the Middle East and beyond, from CNN Traveller to The Sunday Times.

He is the current Academy chairman of the Middle East region for the World's 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, and he has travelled extensively to discover the food, flavours and people of this fascinating and often misunderstood region.
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One Response to A Syrian Souk Experience

  1. Vanda Gerhart February 24, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    Fabulous! I just love the diversity and openness of people all over the world. It puts a big smile on your face in the most unexpected places.

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