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.

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