I’ve Never Been To Aleppo

I’ve never been to Aleppo. 

I’ve been to Damascus.

I’ve been to Palmyra.

I’ve been to Homs.

I’ve been to Bosra.

 I’ve never been to Aleppo. 

psalm-18-6

In 2003, as a fresh faced 20-year-old, I had the opportunity to visit Syria for the first time. With a friend I travelled by taxi from Lebanon, through the mountains that border the two countries, and arrived in Damascus for a one-night stay. It was the sights and smells that did me in.

I was one of very few Westerners. I ate amazing chicken kebabs with garlic mayonnaise and hot chips. I drank beer at a seedy bar that supplied weird nuts on the side. I visited a hammam, a men’s bath and massage centre, and came out the cleanest I’d ever been. I took in the sights of a city that had been around for over 3000 years. I sat in the Umayyad Mosque and attempted to see the “head of John The Baptist”. I stood inside the mausoleum of Saladin. I walked the Al-Hamadiyah Souk, with its storefronts lined with gold and the shopkeepers trying to convince me to buy special silk garments their grandmothers made. I wandered the Old City taking in the history and culture. I paid a visit to the National Museum, full of artefacts from millennia ago. I made my way down the Street called Straight, where Saul turned Paul walked 2000 years ago. I visited Ananias’s House and sat in those two dark rooms thinking about the many followers of the Way who’d been through.

When I visited Damascus I feel in love with the place.

A city that was, and still is, my favourite city in the world.

But I’ve never been to Aleppo. 

In 2006 I took a road trip with another friend of mine. We crossed the border into Syria and after a few days in Damascus we took the local bus to Palmyra, in the middle of the Syrian desert. We explored the ruins and met the bedouin locals.

But I’ve never been to Aleppo. 

On that same trip we visited Homs. We had a brief look around a city that was off the tourist trail. We had our haircuts and made some friends. We took a taxi to a local castle and nearly got beaten up by the driver.

But I’ve never been to Aleppo. 

When my parents came to visit us in Lebanon I took them across the border once again. We took a mini-van to Bosra. The rain came through the rusted out roof, and water was collected in a snap-lock bag. We climbed all over the Roman Amphitheatre and took some funny photos near various Roman ruins.

But I’ve never been to Aleppo. 

#prayforaleppo

O, LITTLE TOWN OF ALEPPO
How scared we see thee lie,
Above thy ancient, ruined streets
Unholy stars collide.
Yet in some backstreet shelter
A newborn infant cries,
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And Herod smells the blood
Still Rachel weeps, but angels keep
Their bitter watch of love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth,
Let weeping cease, and foolish peace
Be born again in us.

How silently, how violently
The wondrous gift is slain
A mother cries and though he dies
Her son shall rise again.
Perceive his broken body
Conceive his future form
And as you grieve, yet still believe
The birth of Isa dawns.

Pete Greig

Once Upon A Time In Beirut by Catherine Taylor

Once upon a time beirutHaving lived in the Middle East for a couple of years, and studied its history while at university, I am always drawn to books depicting personal experiences of it.

Catherine Taylor, a professional journalist from Australia, tells of her life and travels of the Middle East in this little gem of a book. She and her husband were based in Beirut for three to four years, from post-9/11 to 2005. During this time they travelled the region, including visits to Iraq during and after its occupation.

This journalistic-biography is very pleasant to read. It just flows; and there are plenty of stories to get wrapped up in.

The experiences Catherine has come across as amazing. And the ease in which she adjusts to life in the Middle East is commendable. Her and her husband’s story skip along at t great pace, and reflect what any Westerner living in the Middle East would and should feel. I can certainly relate to many of the stories she tells, particularly in her interactions with people, the places she visits, and the experiences with various religious expressions.

It was great to get more of an insight into the nature of city life in Beirut. The clubs, pubs, eateries, cafes, streets, shops, swimming pool, hairdressers, and the like are experiences to be treasured when in the Middle East.

I found what Catherine says regarding living in the Middle East to be true. The enduring mind-set of the Lebanese people after the Civil War, the exuberant and nationalistic support post-Hariri’s assassination, and the recovery after the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in 2006 all ring bells. The survey and investigation as to what went on in various parts of Lebanese history is told through interviews with close friends, Hezbollah officials, Sunni’s, Palestinians, and others. This gives different points of view to the historical narrative of Lebanese history.

I think the book would have been improved if there was a greater focus on the Hariri assassination and its after effects. While Catherine was not there at the time of the bombing and assassination there is only one chapter dedicated to it.

Overall this is a good read and gives a basic understanding of life, for a Westerner at least, in the Middle East. It is not a cultural thesis, and nor should it be read as such, but for a little glimpse into the milieu of the region it is worth the read.

Catherine Taylor, Once Upon A Time In Beirut: A Journey To The Heart Of The Middle East (364 pages, Sydney: Bantam), 2007.