I had experienced the Aleppo phenomenon. Ismail was not insane, despite convincing evidence to the contrary. Neither was he hellbent on bamboozling me with nonsense then selling me something, ripping me off or robbing me. He just wanted to say hello and practice his English with a tourist. Albeit unconventionally.
I bade farewell to Ismail at the steps to the Citadel, an imposing limestone fortification on a huge mound of rock that overlooks the city. But the Aleppo phenomenon occurred again and again over the next few hours, as it did throughout my stay in Syria’s second city. I climbed the steps to one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. Inside there were snakes, lions’ heads and date palms carved into the stone. There were nooks and chambers chiselled into the walls, from which boiling oil, tar and all manner of nasties could be unloaded upon intruders. I was met with something hot, liquid, yet rather more welcoming in the old hamam or steam bath in the bowels of the Citadel.
It wasn’t a working hamam. It was quiet and empty, but for a greying attendant with an official-looking moustache. He offered me a seat and handed me a finjaal, a small china cup with no handle. Then he poured khawa or cardamom-infused Arabic coffee from a long-handled dallah pot and we sat down to drink. The coffee was hot, light, slightly bitter and gently spiced.
The attendant turned and waved his hand to the room, an L-shaped chamber with stone arches and punctured domes penetrated by shards of natural light. ‘Mister,’ he said, as he pointed to a naked shop dummy, whose modesty had been preserved with a cheap bath towel, probably bought from the souk over the road. There wasn’t much else to point at, and since his repertoire of English seemed as limited as my Arabic, I gladly accepted another cup of coffee and thanked him with an enthusiastic ‘shukran.’
I didn’t learn much about the hamam that afternoon, but I did experience one of the oldest and most traditional expressions of hospitality in the world. Not for the first time on my travels in the Middle East, I had been offered a seat, a coffee and some company courtesy of a complete stranger. It was a modern manifestation of a time-honoured bedouin act of kindness, whereupon travellers would be welcomed into desert tents for a hot drink, some dates and a few moments’ respite from their journey. It was rolled up in that distinctly Aleppian ball of friendly innocence that had caused Ismail to stop me in the street. What was surprising about this encounter was that it came from an official attendant in a museum. There wasn’t the slightest suggestion that I should pay for my refreshment – unthinkable in a museum back home, where a syrupy cola or a watery Nescafe would set me back the price of a decent Syrian meal.
It happened again after I left the Citadel. An amber sun was beginning to sink behind the rooftop satellite dishes and minarets. As I sauntered along, a shopkeeper was opening his shutters after Friday prayers. He called me over to join him in his shop. Again, a chair was produced; he offered me water to wash the sweat from my face and hands, and a towel to dry them. And there we sat in his ramshackle emporium, which was little more than a cavity in the wall, crammed with random cardboard boxes, plastic shoes and dusty racks of chewing gum.
It was the third time that day that I’d been engaged by a total stranger. It was the third time I’d made a new friend – and this one hadn’t compared me to an overweight ruminant from the Low Countries.
Which I considered a bonus.