Thursday, September 9, 2010

Aleppo and the Eighties


"Living life is for the sole purpose of getting the society's approval, that's a life filled with rewards"; a quote from a very important yet unknown writer from Aleppo, whose books never really existed to .... sell out. But his legendary teachings survived time, and are passed on from one generation to the other in a city called ALEPPO.

A Life with a style

My Mother said that we couldn't go play out every summer day, cause people would say those kids are homeless. So we played at the Baghdad train station yard with the other kids every other afternoon. We biked, raced, hid and sought something we were never able to find. But we felt very happy. There was joy in the air and in the simplicity of our entertainment as kids. Upon our return to our apartment, we were not allowed to the living room or our bedrooms. Instead, straight to the bathroom to wash our feet up to the knees. Bathing daily was not customary yet. But even when we got cleaned up, there was still that room in our apartment and in every apartment that kids were not allowed to. Rings a bell? Oh yeah, some apartments still have that room with its mentality till today. It's called "Salon". Salons were where people had their most expensive furniture and chandeliers. The centerpiece is not a TV. It's an antique cabinet that showcases the valuable ornaments that are made of crystal, jewels, and gold. That "Special" room was for "special" guests and was opened once a week for deep cleaning, regardless if it was visited or not. If you lived in Soulaymaniyeh, cleaning day was every Friday. Then the doors were shut again in case God forbid an unwanted dust found its way there (and that was always the case).


We walked everywhere, it felt that the far end of the world was within the limits of the four walls of Aleppo. There were a few exceptions once or twice a year, or once every other year. It all depended on the financial situation, which we were not to discuss with anyone according to the book of endless laws of Aleppo. Those exceptions were limited to Latakia, where we had summer vacations with our relatives. Or to one of the mountains, where we camped with either the scout, or one of the other numerous organizations we belonged to for a year, or two, or three. Other than that, everything was in our city; the big park, the swimming pools, the Aziziyeh and the Jala'a sports club. Nothing else was ever needed, ever.

The furthest we walked to was to our grandpa's apartment, and that was 15 minutes away. We all lived in apartments with the exception of uncle Joseph, who lived in an Arabic house with a yard right in the middle. It was kind of fun, but we never understood why his house was different. I guess that question mark on every kid's forehead pushed him eventually to tear down the house and build an apartment building instead, to finally live like normal people do, in an apartment with neighbors up and down socializing and borrowing sugar and rice.

Crossing the two-way streets was a matter of looking left and right then running from one sidewalk to the other. Waiting at the traffic light was unheard of (Huh? Why? What for?). But also cars were less, and they were luxury. Like I said, everything was within a walking distance, why have a car!

During summer vacations we went to swimming pools with other relatives and kids. We spent the whole day playing, swimming, eating the home made "Zaatar" sandwiches under the sun with no sunblock, we didn't know what those were.

We bought cold refreshing "Soos" from the random seller walking in the streets of Baghdad station, playing his sophisticated environmental friendly music, using mostly two copper bowls and his beautiful voice yelling "Soos ya Soos". And we bought hot "Sahlab" from the cart pushed by a hunched back old man in those extremely cold winter days. (no worries, no germs, or is it "no germs, no worries"!) "Kazzeh" had his signature Ice cream that no one was able to duplicate, especially the "Sahlab" flavor. Elderly people referred to ice cream as "Don Dermah" I guess the old Turkish influence had its own way of surviving. That extended conveniently to my grandparents. When my grandpa drank a little more than my grandma cared for during dinners, she mumbled a few Turkish words and he immediately stopped drinking. But how many calories did we get from all that food and really late dinners back in the day? Oh please, who knew what calories were anyway. Everything was burned right away with the nonstop walking. Going to the gym was not necessary, the gym was a foreign name to us (they later referred to it as an iron club .... go figure!). Safety was not an issue too, I had to go the the bakery at 4 AM once a week to buy us fresh bread. I was 8 years old when I started that routine. (I hated it too).


Let me just say that we used to get together for "Mooneh" in summer days, to happily work and help our mothers get their food storage done faster (but more to socialize and meet as if we didn't meet just the day before). We used to work on artichoke, peas, lemon, and all kind of fruits to make jams and really sweet sweet drinks with. Our favorite get together was when all the family kids worked at Auntie Georgette's apartment on pistachio. We would be rewarded some promotional junk from her husband's store. We ate the most delicious food you can think of, Syrian cuisine with a hint of Lebanese and Turkish flavors. No other city competed with Aleppo when it came to food. And we ate really fattening food due to the surplus in butter production. It had nothing to do with the lack of knowledge or with the fact that food was our favorite hobby. And with the extra attention you put to food, a feast was never a feast when it had all kinds of delicious hot dishes from Kebbeh, Kabab, Mahashi, fried food, salads, vegetables, cold cuts, fresh bread, and yet the table is missing its king, aka Homus.


Hair-cuts were disastrous I admit. Girls competed in having the biggest hair. They had to use so much hairspray to look taller, and boys had one hair-cut style, yup, just one, combed from left to right. Towards the end of the decade a new style was introduced to us, it was initially inclusive to "Al Wisam"; a barbershop in "Souleymaneih" that made a fortune before other barbers learned the secret of that trade and started imitating him. I'm talking about having the sides of our heads trimmed so short and going gradually longer towards the center of the head. Yes, an invention. Still, the first time I had that haircut, my family was waiting for me on the balcony of our fifth floor apartment to see what that extreme make over made me look like.

The one style that had no gender discrimination was the extra high-waste jeans; a style that successfully made all our butts in the eighties look gigantic.

Entertainment "TV and Music"

Watching TV was limited to the only one channel we had. (just like school after baccalauréat was limited to the one university we had back then) Cartoon was from 3:30 to 5 PM. It included "Open sesame, Sinbad, Grendizer, Remi, Bell & Sebastian, Tom Sawyer, international tales and treasure island" Then mid way through the decade we had Channel Two, what a treat. It was mostly in English and its hours were even less than channel one. TV stations worked from 2 pm to Midnight, ending the day with "Tomorrow we meet". If you tried to turn the TV on before or after those hours, it was like "What's wrong with you?" unless you were trying to tune in a signal from Turkey. I had a friend who used to take me to his relative's place where the Turkish TV signal was stronger. It was located right on top of an ice cream store, how convenient! We both loved ice cream and since his relative, an older woman, used to go to visit his mom, we always shared 1/2 kilo of chocolate ice cream (an amount frowned upon by the society when consumed by only two teenagers). We bought that same ice cream over and over and ate it till one day we decided that it was not enough, so each one of us bought his own 1/2 kilo. We ate that ice cream till we bloated and never ever did it again.

Music was an important topic in every social circle. It used to be shortly discussed right after taking a break from some gossiping and immediately before starting a new round of fresh gossips. Fairuz was playing in every apartment in the AM hours. Sabah Fakhri and Mayada el Hennawi were the pride of Syrians, but kudos for them since they were specifically from Aleppo. When it came to western music, our thanks went to Mouna Kurdy, the host of "Stars and Lights" that used to be broadcasted every Sunday at 8 PM. Mouna played the Bonny M, Baccara, Dalida, mireille mathieu, and demis roussos every weekend with no failure, year after year, even after Sandra, Modern Talking, Samantha Fox, Madonna, C.C.Catch and George Michael were introduced to the world. She kept on playing Disco for us because the Syrian TV president told her that the tapes of the pop singers were not compatible with the hi-tech equipment they had at the station. Auntie Khatoon and her sister Maryrose Attooneh were the last two viewers who religiously kept on watching "Stars and lights", then their own lights were dimmed and they themselves became stars, shining in the skies of Aleppo. That was the end of our little window to the disco era.

My generation had a tape that was played (And could be still playing till this day) more than Michael Jackson's "Thriller" record. I'm talking about the first record of the one and only Majeda el Roumi "Khedni Habibi". That tape sums up so many memories and puts a smile on more than 80% of the people who were teenagers and young men and women back then. And when it came to pop music, we Aleppo people, had our own top ten that included "Hello Maria Magdalena! here's a Careless whisper: nothing's gonna change my love for you" staying at the top of the charts for at least 5 years. We did listen to other songs, but none measured up to the mentioned songs. Don't ask me why.


In winters, chimneys were the second source of heat, right after the "heat of faith". An average of one to two chimneys in each apartment. The one used mostly was the one in the living room. The other one used to be either in the dining room or in that very special room (Salon) kept for the show twice a year aka religious holidays.  But make no mistake, Chimneys had multiple functions. They were used as dryers (way before dryers were invented), as indoor "Grill and stove" to make grilled cheese or Castanea "aka chestnuts" and to boil water for beets and corn.

VCRs were introduced, Betamax then VHS. Shortly after, we had computers. No one knew what they were for, but you bought one because either a relative or a neighbor bought one, and according to the society, they're no better than you. Those devices were mostly used for playing games, and those games were so boring. Dad locked up our computer in a cabinet for over ten years, "the promise was till our grades improved, in other words, so it would remain brand new". Then he sold it at not even tenth of its price. He had no idea that there would be updates.


But the world was inside Aleppo. The future was there too. It was warm, friendly, quiet, religious, innocent, promising, and most importantly, happy. And as my aunt Janet put it "God's throne is in the middle of Aleppo city". And as my friend Sandrella put it "Aleppo, the mother of the world". Aleppo, and the 80s put together worked on graduating us. I mean if you grew up in the 80s, you're lucky to have lived during a simple and beautiful decade, so add on top of that being born and raised in Aleppo? you have to be genius, no!

Keeping all jokes aside (what jokes!) Aleppo, was and still is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It got culture, history, authenticity, and it got a dialect that I have to skip writing any kind of comments on that dialect other than saying it is so unique and so sophisticated and musical. It definitely sounds like, ummm, sounds like, well..... sounds like no other. Eshshi? Esh beddak?


Ziggy said...

Omg I loved every sine line of this post, made me smile w all the memories, n now I wanna go book a ticket lol. I'm requesting a 2nd Halab post someday please :)

Lavender Luz said...

Oh, you make me wish I'd been there in the 80s as well as in the 90s.

"No other city competed with Aleppo when it came to food."


Music in my era was "Habibi" and "Macarena."

Loved eating mtabel. And shopping at Khaldea. Ate at Wanes once in awhile, but it wasn't my favorite place. Sissi House? Yasmin House? Yumm. Yumm.

Tony said...

Sissi and Yasmin are 90s. Wanes is, oh God, really old. How do you know Halab and what took you there?

Ziggy, I wrote that blog on Thursday and published it by Midnight that day. I feel that I really didn't give it the time and thoughts that it deserves, but I might write another one if you promise to read it :) I love Halab, I can't help it. And NYC reminds me of Halab so much. A comment I once put in my annual email that got on the nerves of one my Lebanese friends and she emailed me asking "What exactly do you see common between the two cities?" I laughed so hard and I told you, if you don't live there, you won't understand. The world doesn't revolve around Beirut only. But I love Beirut too

Angelique Ayouba said...

You reminded me with my childhood. I feel ashamed that I have forgotten all that. The only thing I still remember was the mouneh at Anti Georget when she did Pistachio it was a funny happy time but how come you were rewarded from her husband's shop I was never rewarded with any shit :( that's not fair is it because I was a girl and you were a boy!!!! you missed that topic.
And me too I promise I'll read the 2nd Halab post if you write it.

Tony said...

humm, come to think of it, I think I should write a 2nd Aleppo topic, I should include the mentality of Aleppo people and their feelings when they give birth to girls as apposed boys, thank you Cousin, that was a good observation ;)

Ziggy said...

I will gladly read a 2nd post, and share it with everyone I know :)

Ziggy said...

i will gladly read a 2nd post, and share it w everyone I know... shlonee ma3ak :)

Tony said...

Ziggy, I'm working on a new Blog that would indirectly talk about Aleppo, it's called "Stories my mom told me". But if I ever write back about Aleppo, I'll take you up on that offer :)

Naomi Crofts said...

Thank you for this! The pictures and some of the description bring Aleppo back to my mind so vividly! You are right that those who were born and brought up there are very fortunate.

Rimi said...

Love it, Tony!