October 30, 2016

Memories of Aleppo

Old City Street Aleppo, Syria
The Turkish taxi driver pulled over as he frantically waved to the passing car to park on the gravel shoulder of the Kilis Antakya Yolu freeway somewhere between Sanlufa, Turkey and the Syrian border. With a screeching halt he bolted out of the taxi and ran ahead towards the now stopped car, leaving me inside, alone. The silence was serene. Surrounded on all sides by the rocky savanna, I watched, the pantomime take place before me. The square shaped man whose car had Syrian license plates handed a long narrow carton of cigarettes to my taxi driver, who raised his hand pointed directly at me. Then, in unison, they walked towards me in the taxi.
 It became clear that I was traded for a box of cigarettes. Sure enough, the plan was for Muhammad, the Syrian, to take me to Aleppo. I requested to see his drivers license and then wrote the number and his name on a piece of paper and gave it to the Turkish man. This exchange of licenses was my only protection. 5 hours earlier I had given the Hotel El Ruha’s manager, in SanluUrfa, the taxi driver's license number, when I hired him for the half day trip to the Syrian border.  These two pieces of paper would be the only link to my whereabouts if I were to come into any danger.  My trust lay with the three men.

Muhammad and I listened to a mix of Turkish and American pop music from his tiny car radio for the hours drive to Kilis, Turkey’s transit city on the Syrian border. Muhammad waited for the one and half hours it took to process me through Immigration and Customs check points. Once cleared, we drove two more hours through miles of barren fields, exhausted after the fall harvest, colored in the monotonous muted browns of late Autumn. Here and there a spindly minaret and a clump of homes formed into distant villages. Eventually the open spaces condensed into the burnished metallics of the industrial towns of Northern Syria. We finally came to a stop at a cul-de-sac just outside of Aleppo's Old City. Muhammad pointed to a narrow alley that apparently lead to the Biet Wakeil,  Aleppo’s first boutique hotel, which I had booked from viewing the gorgeous photos of this 16th century mansion. After paying fifty bucks and a small tip for the drive, Muhammad gave me a cheery good bye. I felt a warmth and honesty that was to reflect the Syrian people. Trust in myself and in the goodness of “others” allows me to travel alone, relying on my instincts and non verbal cues.
Night Market Aleppo, Syria

Again, this goodness in people proved right when I learned that I had arrived a day early, victim to my new laptop’s internal clock on NY time."No worries" the burley, round faced manager, Habib bellowed, “We'll take care of you very well. As he smiled, he began to look more like Zero Mostel, the famous American movie actor. "We'll have dinner together and whatever you don't like you won't have to pay for!”  And, with a big barrel laugh, he takes me across the stone courtyard to the tiniest room on the second floor, in this once grand home. That night, the more we drank Akvavit, the Scandinavian aperitif flavored with dill, the louder we sang. Habib, being a Coptic, educated in London, knew all the lyrics To 'Fiddler on the Roof'.  There in the Al Jdeideh, Armenian district, Habib became Tevya singing“If I were a rich man, Daidle deedle daidle…”  Together, we dinned on some of the finest dishes of the Syrian cuisine: sheep milk, Labneh; the silky smooth fresh garlic paste, Toum; along with the city’s famous Lamb meatballs & cherry sauce, Kabab bil Kara. It all lived up to Aleppo’s reputation as some of the best cooking in the Middle East.

The next day, walking through the Al Medina souk, shopkeepers would run up to ask why there were no American’s coming to Syria. This historic souk, one of the oldest and longest covered markets in the world, seemed like a suburban mall, filled with locals, doing their daily shopping, as well as tourists from everywhere, except North America. It was difficult for me to respond honestly, and say our President, George W Bush, had just declared your country part of the “Axis of Evil”. Since, I believe that as a tourist, I am an ambassador for Peace; I told them “oil prices are very high in America, no one could afford to come to Syria.” With sad faces they shrugged their shoulders and accepted my answer as truth.
Children at the Night Market Aleppo, Syria
That was November of 2007, when I was traveling by myself, on this journey through the Middle East, to document the origins of the Abrahamic religions from Turkey to Israel. One of the highlights was my stay in the biblical city of Aleppo and to live within the Old City walls to imagine life as it may have been in 2nd Century BC  Within, I was confined to navigating the narrow winding streets, designed to confuse a stranger who might wander in with evil intentions. The intricate maze served as protection.  Ariel views were from the third storied rooftops, or the minarets and church steeples which provided a higher spiritual point of view. The earthly perspective from within the walled lanes revealed only a thin slice of the celestial sky, a sliver of blue by day, dissolving into the dark shadows by night. Hidden behind these walls were the inner courtyards of private mansions that revealed a personal vision of the heavens.

I was that stranger, arriving without an escort or guide and going it alone seemed to be no problem. Habib admonished me of my fears “any local person kidnapping a foreigner will be hung!” His finger looped around his face, as if placing a noose over his neck, his head falling to touch his left shoulder. Looking at me sideways, he said; “They’d be dead, no trial” With Habib’s reassuring demonstration, I felt safe to wander without direction though the puzzling lanes of the Old City. The baker on the corner of Sisi and Al Telal Street and, the Bell Tower of the Forty Martyrs Cathedral became my landmarks so I could find my way back to the Biet Wakiel each night.
Armenian Orthodox Church at Night Aleppo, Syria
I was not afraid. Everywhere I went, I witnessed families walking together, women adhering to the Islamic dress codes: the Hajab that covered their heads, neck and chest, others wearing the ˜Niqab which had slits opening for the eyes, the Abaya covering their bodies. I covered myself similarly to follow their customs. I imagined how these close knit extended families formed likeminded communities and lived much as their ancestors had lived. Each feeling the comforting press of their traditions. With limited education and limited views these restrictions lent for little experience of the outside world.
Rooftop View Aleppo, Syria
Now, we live in pivotal times!!!!!!  The Jdhedah district, the Al Madina souk have all been destroyed. Rebel Occupied East Aleppo, is of pivotal strategic importance to the 5 year civil/proxy war. The Syrian government and its Russian ally have massively intensified air attacks, targeting Aleppo’s civilian neighborhoods.
Great Mosque Aleppo, Syria
The appalling tragedy is about to get worse. Our values for humanity have an eternal impact on all civilized society. We’ve witnessed the displacement of millions of people. Watched  as they became  refugees, their homes and villages destroyed.
 Today, living in New York, I feel we are all similarly secluded. Like the old and confining alleys of the ancients cites our urban metropolises form similar barricades to the world at large, preventing us from forming omniscient global views to openness and diversity.
To escape the confines of our interior walls, Curiosity and Empathy is the way out!!!!My motto is “Trust is the currency of the Solo Traveler.”

July 25, 2016

A Voice for the Hazara People

Sadly, the UN reported that on July 22, 80 people were killed and 260 wounded by ISIS suicide bombers as thousands of Hazara's marched through the streets of Kabul in protest over a new power line that bypasses their region. 

This Central Mountain region is the home to the Hazara minority, who as Shia Muslims, are consistently marginalized by the government in Kabul. 
School Begins in a Line Jark, Afghanistan
According to the USA Today:

"The previous Afghan government changed the route in 2013. Protest leaders have said that the rerouting was evidence of bias against the Hazara community, which accounts for up to 15% of Afghanistan’s estimated 30 million people. They are considered the poorest of the country’s ethnic groups, and often complain of discrimination. Bamiyan is poverty-stricken, though it is largely peaceful and has potential as a tourist destination." USA Today July 23, 2016
It's been a little over ten years since I descended the scree-covered slopes of the Surb Koh Mountains on horseback. There were no roads leading into the Waras District’s secluded villages, located in southern Bamiyan Province, far away from where the Giant Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban.

Salam Khan Amini's Donkey Dewan Afghanistan
It was June 2005 and I was the first foreigner to reach this remote area, which the Russians could not infiltrate during their Communist invasion.

Tea with Village Elders Dewan, Afghanistan
I will never forget the warm and kind hospitality that I received by the families and local elders in each of the six villages that I visited to set up a schools program for the nonprofit I co-founded.  My mission was to bring education and healthcare to the over 2,000 students and 91 teachers who were receiving little assistance from the newly formed Karzai Government.

Teachers Discuss Lack of Pay Dewan, Afghanistan
In their homes, cooking was on done on an open fire; the arduous process of washing clothes was done by hand in running streams.  A few had oil driven generators, which provided 2 hours of precious power to charge my laptop and digital cameras. A few satellite phones connected the villagers to the outside world. 

Washing Up Jark, Afghanistan
"Fewer than 40% of the Afghan people are connected to the national grid, according to the World Bank. Almost 75% of electricity is imported." USA Today July 23, 2016
Those innocent protesters on Saturday where making clear that little has changed for them in the way of modernization and for this they were brutally murdered
Like the Hazara's of Afghanistan, it’s imperative to the international community that all voices be heard if we are to have Peace and not bloodshed. 

My love and heart extends to the families affected.

Mt. Ararat

Marla Mossman

My photo
One woman traveling alone, in search of her religious and cultural heritage.