I sleep badly, and wake up snot-lunged and fuzzy-headed. We walk out and find a souk full of birdsong, where a white car plays the lambada as it reverses. Two American women walk in front of us in expensive shades and tight-buttocked trouser suits, commenting on the shops. This is the sewing-machine district; almost every shop is dedicated only to the sale and repair of sewing machines. My ill head makes me slow, and I enjoy it, one foot in front of the other in the sun. I sit and notice that the rhythm of this souk is even slower than me. Shopkeepers sit in sunned doorways, head resting on a roll of carpet or tilted to the sky, hands folded or working through prayer beads. Women wander slowly; they mostly wear long jackets and hijab headscarves, which contradict the solemnity of Islam by their bright patterns. Three women walk past me, two ahead in zebra-patterned veils, one behind with a cheetah pattern.
We amble on, through a meat-souk hung with carcasses. A whole skinned camel is suspended upside-down from hooks, while a stallholder washes guts in a bucket: the full truth of meat displayed in one dirty corridor. We find ourselves through and out the other side, sun-drenched streets where kids kick a ball and want to be filmed. Their older brothers sit on a wall overlooking the city, and want to meet us. We’re friends within minutes, hello Engliland, I’m Brovan and this is Bily. Syrian males have a distinctive look, simultaneously butch and effeminate- a cross between Bruce Lee and the Capulets from the Leonardo Da Vinci film. They wear shiny dress shoes with exaggerated pointy ends, and their hair is slicked back in black waves.
Abdul, though, looks entirely different, scruffed adidas, a hoody and a shoulder bag. He stops in passing, lifts his shades and introduces himself with perfect unSyrian nonchalance. His English is good, and he takes us up through another souk, this one enormous and full of shiny things, shisha pipes, daggers, headscarves and perfumes. It leads up to the huge ancient castle at the core of Aleppo, where tourists drink expensive tea.
Abdul becomes our friend and guide for the day, and he’s a window on a new young Syria, leaning towards the west but fiercely Middle Eastern. Our conversation flows easily, but sometimes stumbles. I point to one of the omnipresent photos of the President.
“Is that the President?”
“I like… I love my president. I love him. I love my president. I love my president.”
Wow. Imagine someone expressing that passion for Gordon Brown.
We part ways with Abdul. We wish we could stay another night.