“Are you from Holland?” said the man.
“No, England,” I replied. “Why?”
“Because you are big and heavy like a cow.”
I’d heard that the people of Aleppo were among the friendliest in the world, so this wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
The man, who must have been well into his forties, really should have known better. He was wearing a traditional white kandora robe, his hair was short and gingery, like rusted wire wool, and his leathery complexion bore a sprinkling of freckles. I was just a hopeful traveller, embarking on an eating tour of the Middle East. Admittedly, it could be said that my six-foot frame was comfortably-upholstered, slightly out of shape, ungainly and rather sweaty in the intense afternoon sun. Perhaps not quite Lawrence of Arabia, emerging through a shimmering heat haze like some romantic desert vision. But surely not a big Dutch cow either.
“If you think I look like a cow now, you should wait and see me in a few months,” I said, thinking of my eating adventures to come.
He grinned back, showing a gapped set of yellowish teeth like the keys on a neglected accordion. “No, no, if you not Holland, then you not cow. Holland people, they walk like this…”
He arched both arms at his sides and proceeded to march on the spot in an unlikely manner, still grinning.
Perhaps Aleppians didn’t see many tourists? Or cows.
It was my first afternoon in Syria, and the crumbling streets of Aleppo’s Old City were all but deserted. The shops and market stalls were closed for Friday prayers, and I decided to wander around the dusky, desolate and eerily hushed Medieval souk before experiencing it in all its mad, frantic glory.
I’d met my new friend on the broken-up pavement by the entrance to the souk. His name was Ismail. He was certainly no bovine specialist, and his knowledge of the people and culture of the Netherlands was a little suspect. But he was harmless company while I made my way toward the Citadel.
In a roundabout way, I explained to Ismail what might have happened if I had walked up to a complete stranger in my native Birmingham, England, and likened him to a fat cow. How the stranger would probably be spending the rest of that week picking fragments of my teeth from the cleft in his ‘hoof’. He just laughed and wished me well. This was Aleppo, they did things differently here.