The railroad to Damascus

The taxi reversed as quickly as it could, the wrong way up a busy one-way street. Cars and trucks blasted their horns and heaved out the way. The driver – who looked calm and relaxed, like a man rowing a pleasure boat – was going to get me there even if it killed us both. But backwards.

“Hello. Taxi! If we go in reverse we get there before we started out, yes?”

The dilapidated bucket of bolts wouldn’t have survived a drop of rain, let alone a collision with a heavy goods vehicle. But, miraculously, we arrived at Aleppo’s Baghdad Station alive.

The smooth marble floors and rough stone walls were the only things in the station that might be described as cool. The rest was sweltering chaos. Beneath huge ornate copper lanterns, a mass of people milled about. Most of them had no idea where they should be going – including the station staff. The ticket man looked at my passport like it had been issued on board the NASA International Space Station. ‘London?’ he asked, eventually. Close enough. And after much faffing about, I somehow managed to procure a ticket to Damascus.

The train was a Russian monster from the 1970s. It seemed like every window was cracked, but the seats were large and comfortable, there was plenty of room and it was cheap. Not long out of Aleppo, we passed field after field of crops. Maize, wheat, sunflowers and olive groves. Cherry orchards.

It was late afternoon, but the hot sun was streaming through the shattered panes. Bedouin goat herders stood on embankments and waved. Children in rags chased after the train, barking sheepdogs in frantic pursuit, kicking up dust. Some of the children threw stones, which explained the state of the windows. As we rattled past ancient and abandoned beehive mud huts, it felt eerily like the train was an unwelcome modern intruder to these old ancestral lands.

It was a six-hour journey to Damascus and soon it would be dark. The fertile land gave way to dry scrub, then desert with mountains on the horizon. The sun sank behind them, its dying beams skimming off the peaks and casting a spectrum of muted colours, from pale green to dusky blue.

I drew the curtain and dozed, waking as we neared Damascus. The train began to slow down and I pulled back the curtain to see silhouettes of buildings, blocks of grey against an inky sky. Between the shapes I saw a solitary bright star, perhaps Sirius, shining like a jewel. And next to it was the crescent moon, as sure and sharp as a scimitar blade, a curved sliver of light caressing its sharp edges like a tear on a canvas.

I knew as much about religious symbolism as I knew about astronomy (i.e. not very). But the star and the crescent moon made me think of the Christians and Muslims living side by side in Damascus, and how the city had played a huge role in shaping both religions.

According to the Bible, St Paul was famously converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus. When he set out on his journey he was a zealous Pharisee, a persecutor of Christians. He was on his way to the city to kick some Christian ass when he was blinded by a vision of God (don’t you just hate it when that happens) and led to the house of Judas (no, not that one) on the Street Called Straight.

St Paul, back in the days when halos looked like dinner plates.

There he was cured of his blindness by Ananias, and was born again. As a Christian convert he began preaching in the city, but this upset the local Jews. Fearing for his life, he had to be smuggled out of Damascus by being lowered to the ground from the city walls in a basket.

Muslims claim that the head of John the Baptist rests in a shrine in the city’s Umayyad Mosque. In fact, when Muslims first arrived in Damascus in the 7th century, the original basilica was used by both Christians and Muslims. Inevitable problems arose (perhaps they couldn’t agree on a colour scheme?), and the Muslims finally won out when the caliph Khaled ibn al-Walid decided to build the largest and most spectacular Islamic building in the world. The basilica was demolished and the mosque built in the 8th century.

The Umayyad Mosque, Damascus – John the Baptist’s head is here

Even today, it ranks only behind the mosques at Makkah, Medina and Jerusalem in spiritual importance for Muslims. Of course, this being Damascus, both Christianity and Islam are relative new kids on the block. The Romans worshipped Jupiter on this site, and before that the Aramaeans had a temple to their god Hadad.

Lady Hester wisely eschewed the M&S trousers with the elasticated waist.

In her book, Lady Hester: Queen of the East, Lorna Gibb describes how the British aristocrat, traveller and adventurer, Lady Hester Stanhope, arrived in Damascus in the early 19th century.

‘She sat astride a bay stallion, wearing a Turkish man’s riding costume with a Baghdad mantle. She did not wear a veil. Crowds gathered to stare but instead of reacting with the customary outrage, possibly because they were unsure if the mounted figure was male or female, they began to cheer, even saluting her with the greatest mark of respect, the scattering of coffee grounds in her wake.’

“Hello. Taxi! I am the one responsible for the climate change. Come, quick.”

I lurched into town in a Russian locomotive, wearing a sweaty black polo shirt and a pair of Marks & Spencer cargo pants with an elasticated waist. A crowd of about fifty taxi drivers gathered at the station, who all tried to grab my luggage at once. They began to shout ‘taxi’ at me, so sure were they that I was a man in need of transport. I was. And after agreeing a far-too-high price, I stumbled into an Iranian-made vehicle that resembled a biscuit tin on wheels, which left a poisonous black fart of exhaust fumes in its wake.

Abu Abdo and the best breakfast in Aleppo

One morning I woke up earlier than was healthy. Somebody had recommended a special restaurant for breakfast – an Aleppian institution, no less – in Jdeideh.

No sign, no fuss, just the best breakfast in all Syria.

Down a dusty lane some people had gathered outside a signless cafeteria. It was Al-Fawwal, and the man behind the counter was Abu Abdo. He was making ful medammes, which wasn’t a great surprise. Because that’s all he’s ever made. Every day, from 3am to just gone noon, for the best part of 50 years.

Abu Abdo – Aleppo’s King of ful

Abu Abdo’s ful medammes consists of large fava beans, slowly simmered in copper urns until soft and mushy, served with red chilli paste, garlic and a choice of either lemon juice or tahini. That’s it, no alternatives. You either like lemon or tahini or you don’t like Abu Abdo’s ful.

Nobody’s ful but mine

Watching him work is to see a man truly in his element, like Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a Shelby Mustang, or Stéphane Grappelli gliding his bow across a beloved fiddle. Fluid, graceful, elegant. His body moves like mercury as he goes from tahini, to beans, to chilli paste to olive oil. Splashing them into bowls or plastic bags in a flowing, liquid ballet of functional movement. You worry that if he stops he’ll seize up and crumble into a billion pieces. He’s as much a part of his restaurant as the dented worktops and the big blue gas canisters that fire up his ful. Take away Abu Abdo and the ochre walls would crack and the heavy wooden shutters would bang themselves closed in resistance.

Like Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a Shelby Mustang, Abu Abdo is a man in his element

I’d had ful before in Dubai. It was sometimes spelled ‘foul’, which I thought was a pretty apt description. To me it tasted like a Bronze Age sock that had been dug up from a peat bog and boiled in donkey vomit. It had the cheesy, acrid stench of a three-week old body part found under a serial killer’s porch. You could say I wasn’t a fan.

I ordered ful with tahini and sat down at one of a few marble-top tables. The ful was splashed up the sides of the bowl, a brownish, reddish, yellow and white swirl of unctuous liquids, with the occasional fava bean poking through the surface, slathered in the mixture like cormorants caught in an oil slick. There was a basket of flatbread, a bowl of tomato and green chillies, and a whole raw onion. A steaming copper urn stood nearby, ancient, streaked and stained with what looked like a century of slopped ful. I girded my gastronomic loins.

Ful steam ahead

The ful was incredible. And I’m not just saying that. It was spectacular, creamy, comforting, spicy and wonderful. The cheesy stench was nowhere to be sniffed, and the rancorous bitter pungency a distant memory. This was ful medammes as it should be. A lovable dish that loves you back. I remember thinking it would make a great hangover cure.

Everybody loves Abu Abdo

‘Do you like my ful?’ asked Abu Abdo, somewhat rhetorically, after I’d soaked up every last drop with bread and got up to leave with a woozy look on my face. He was still spooning the mixture into bowls, and stopped momentarily when a young lad came behind the counter to give him a hug. Here was a man who was loved in his community for providing a simple daily service. For giving soul food to the people. For always being there.

Think about the town or city that you live in. Can you name a restaurant that’s always been there and always been the same? One that’s consistently served great food without fiddling with the formula, or jazzing the place up with poncy menus or a sophisticated lounge concept? As soon as most chefs get a whiff of success, they’ve turned their little gem into a chain, and it’s roaring off over the horizon to conquer new towns and cities like Attila the Hun on crystal meth. The chef gets his own TV show and he’s off too, tearing around Tuscany on a Vespa, patronising the locals.

Ful if you think it’s over – it’s hard to walk away without a top up…

Abu Abdo’s is one of the last true bespoke dining experiences – you know exactly what you’re going to get, you know who’s going to cook it, and you know you can’t quite get it like that anywhere else. It’s been in the community for 150 years, handed down from father to son with a responsibility to keep on doing what they’ve always done. It doesn’t have to be sexy or cool. It just has to be good. A constant in life that doesn’t have to compromise to please the shareholders. A rare treasure indeed.

Al Jdeideh: a tasting tour of the New City

And I thought the paper round I had as a kid was hard going.

A fig tree had shed its soft green fruit onto the pavement next to an old black 1970s Chevrolet. Across the street, a prehistoric-looking bakery had laid that morning’s flatbreads out on carpets unfurled on the cobbles. A retro Volkswagen Beetle trundled one way, a man on a motorbike went the other, and two little boys emerged from the scene carrying the family’s daily bread on their heads, the packets flapping over their ears like deer stalker hats.

Fl-hat-bread is 'the look' in Aleppo

On the tiny Hatab Square there was a fishmonger rubbing spices into the scored flesh of a huge fish, while a mother, her young son and a big black cat looked on. Jdeideh was just waking up.

A boy for a fish - the ancient Arabian art of haggling lives on in Aleppo.

Al Jdeideh is the Christian Quarter. It was built in the 16th century but, since Aleppo is older than God’s godparents, it qualifies as the New City. It’s home to a mixed community of Maronite Christians, Greek Christians, Armenian orthodox Christians and no doubt one or two lapsed Christians. Churches great and small can be found among the grand merchant’s houses, which line narrow cobbled lanes.

The passageways and alleys are full of lanterns, gabled first-floor windows, wooden shutters and strangled electricity cables. If the scarred stone walls could tell tales, it would take a million and one nights to tell them all.

There are merchants’ houses that have been converted into inns catering to the growing trickle of tourists. Their courtyard restaurants occupy serene spaces decorated with orientalist tat, dark wood carvings, wrought-iron bannisters and ivy creeping across pale walls.

Beit Sissi, sitting pretty

At Beit Sissi (Sissi House) I had muhammara, a very spicy red pepper dip garnished with walnuts and cucumber, drenched in sweet pomegranate molasses.

Muhammara and fattoush, a great Syrian double act

The fattoush salad, feistily sprinkled with lemon juice and sumac, offered shards of crispy fried bread to scoop up the dip.

Zmorod, Zmorod, I love you, Zmorod...

A flatbread’s flip from Sissi was Zmorod. There I ordered what is perhaps the definitive Aleppian dish, the ultimate product of the region’s fertile land and mercantile history: kabab bil karaz, the famous cherry kebab. Rounded nuggets of minced lamb had been cooked on skewers to a state of succulence and slathered in a gooey slick of dark red cherry sauce.

The cherry kebab at Zmorod looked much better than this. Unfortunately I ate it before I could photograph it.

These were the locally grown wishna cherries that were just coming into season, like the ones I’d seen at the souk. It was a test for the palate, a sortie of flavours bombarding the taste buds with sweet and sour, before strafing it with spice. It was intense.

I upgraded from vinegary Syrian wine to arak, cloudily diluted with water. Its muted aniseed notes cut through the sweet and sour of the cherry kebab, and balanced the tart acidity of the accompanying fattoush. It played a similar palate-adjusting role to sake in Japanese cuisine, but, thankfully, it’s much cheaper to buy the good stuff.

Complete and utter basturma: meat in the Armenian quarter

I wandered into the Armenian quarter, which had flourished with refugees who had fled their homeland during the early 20th century genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans. At Kasr Al Wali, I was keen to see how Armenians had shaped Aleppo’s tastes. The basturma offered heavenly slices of cured meat, a blush of crimson flesh that intensified to a deep purple close to its spice-encrusted edge. I had yalanji, cold stuffed vine leaves folded into neat triangular parcels, and sojouk or spiced sausage meat rolled in flatbread. But when it came to the main course, I wanted to go off-menu.

“Do you like chicken?” asked the young waiter. “I have Armenian speciality. Not for restaurant but for house. Home cooking. Traditional. One hundred percent Armenian.”

The plate arrived with a mound of chicken pieces, peppers, mushrooms, sweetcorn and onion in a thick tomato sauce. It was accompanied by French fries and sauteed vegetables, and showered with grated parmesan.

“What’s it called?” I asked.

“Chicken Mexicana,” replied the waiter with a shrug. It was heartening to know that, in spite of their blighted past, the Armenians still liked a laugh.

The trad Armenian dish 'Chicken Mexicana' proved beyond doubt that Armenians like a laugh

Aleppo: The souk, part three

Nobody gets lonely in Aleppo's souk, not even Hassan.

I stopped to look at some traditional Aleppine olive and bay laurel soap, and I heard a voice calling me from a nearby textiles stall.

“Hey, you. Where are you from?”

It was a podgy-faced young man in a tight black t-shirt, theatrically waving in my direction. I went over to answer the, by now customary, question.

“I’m from England,” I said.

“Oh. I have been to Soho. It was so queenie-queenie!” He giggled, pulled a face, and then slapped me on the shoulder.

Not for the first time in Aleppo, I was mildly taken aback. Here I was, in a conservative and predominantly Muslim society, where homosexuality was certainly illegal, and I was flagrantly being chatted up by an openly camp market trader in the most public of places.

Not only that, but the slogan on his tight black t-shirt read: “Well, it won’t suck itself!”

The caption on Mazen's t-shirt was so rude it made his face go all blurry.

I naturally reached for my camera. “Ooh, not the face,” he said, as he quickly scurried behind his co-worker, who was sat upright with his elbows on a pile of fabric and his head in his hands, like he’d seen it all before.

“Oh, go on then, just one,” he relented without persuasion, and struck a pose.

“He’s the only gay in the village,” quipped his companion with a wry look.

And, impressed by such an unlikely grasp of catchphrases from the Little Britain TV show, I extended a friendly handshake to both.

“Ooh, I think he’s already attached,” podgy-face said to his friend, as he held onto my hand for just a moment too long. I pulled it away with a chuckle and moved on.

Princess Diana, during her Yasser Arafat period

As I walked past another stall, I saw a picture of the late Princess Diana with a red-and-white keffiyeh superimposed onto her head. Elsewhere there was a portrait of the Syrian President, embellished with a pair of devil horns scribbled in marker pen. I wondered if the souk doubled up as some kind of subversive bolt-hole for dissidents and non-conformists.

Bashar al Assad in Devil Horns (top), keeping a beady eye on the kebabs

Before I left the souk there was another classic Aleppo moment. A stocky, thickset man with a bent nose, gimlet eyes and eyebrows like gorilla’s fingers summoned me over to him.

"I've met some strange Englishmen in my time," thought Ghiath, "but this one takes the biscuit."

I feared the well of Syrian goodwill had finally dried up and I was in for a pummelling. He asked the staple question, curtly. I answered him. ‘Ah, England good,’ he muttered gruffly, before handing me a business card. It read:

Ghiath Tifor, Golden Boxer.

“Middle East champion. Arab champion. Middle weight,” he announced proudly. I braced myself for an upper-cut, but his stern expression gave way to a smile. He delved into his shopping and produced a brown paper bag. From it he lifted two plastic-wrapped mamoul cookies, which he gave to me before going on his way.

Aleppo: The souk, part two

If it ain't colourful, it ain't available in Aleppo's souk

On the main tributary of Souk al-Attarine, I stumbled through the human tide in search of food. Among the hordes were roaming hawkers selling sesame-studded breads on rickety carts, while others transported their wares on their heads. One cart was piled high with a mountain of pistachio nuts, a speciality of the region. My eyes were drawn to a cluster of butchers’ shops a few moments after my nose had got wind of them.

It was the perfect opportunity for Khalid to try out his new offal-proof Kandoura

The strong stench of blood and guts drifted from visceral hanging displays. Bulging livers drooped from ceiling hooks next to flaps of tripe. Large sheets of pallid fat had been hacked and carved so that sculpted lobes curled over like waxy white palm fronds. The hanging carcasses left little to the imagination, their ribs poking through wrinkled folds of skin like the bars on a grisly xylophone.

Who said fat isn't beautiful?

Occasionally, there would be a decorative bunch of parsley or mint hanging up to distract you from the gore, but one stall had blood spattered and smeared on the wall like a statement: ‘We’re butchers, dammit. We kill animals and there’s no getting around it.’

Butchers: they chop up animals, you know

Some of the meat shops doubled up as kebab joints, with skewered chicken livers and minced lamb koftas waiting to be thrown on a hissing grill. Shawarmas of sliced chicken and lamb turned slowly on vertical spits, crisping up against the steady heat of the rotisserie, ready to be carved into flatbreads and rolled up with tahini sesame paste and salad leaves. These places did great things to my nasal passages. But the fragrances of the souk changed constantly.

"So let me get this straight: you're looking for a herbal remedy for an itchy friend..?"

I was distracted by a fresh waft from a nearby fruit and vegetable shop, where a basket of barely-ripe cherries caught my eye. Then a zesty blast hit me as I approached the spice traders, whose colourful powdered stock was heaped up in sculpted mounds. Sumac and paprika in crimson and burnt orange; buff dunes of cumin, coriander and turmeric beneath hanging rows of dried limes.

"How much for the silly hat?"

Among the stacked jars and bulging sacks was the legacy of the Silk Road, the exotic spices that had transformed the way Aleppians approached food. The spices were new to the Middle East in those early days, so the traders experimented with locally raised meat and seasonal vegetables to lure the punters in. It was this entrepreneurial spirit that created a cuisine that still flourishes today.

Only models and beauty queens dare walk past these cream pastries without trying one.

I was getting peckish and came to an abrupt halt outside a sweet shop. The sign said ‘Sweet Mahroseh’ in red and blue neon. Outside, there was a broad platter stacked with glazed pastries dusted with icing sugar. A jug-eared boy appeared, and told me they were warbat filled with ashta or clotted cream made from buffalo’s milk. I couldn’t resist. The wonderfully flakey pastry, which had been dipped in atar sugar syrup, crumbled into the thick ashta with every bite. Admittedly, there weren’t many bites.

I wolfed the whole thing down in seconds as I drifted through the crowd.

Aleppo: The souk, part one

Aleppo souk: the mother of all malls

I returned to the souk to find the silent, deserted passages of shuttered stalls and padlocked gates completely and dramatically transformed. The cool stone arches were the same, curling their ancient brickwork into vaulted ceilings, but the domes now reverberated with a tumult of noise and smells. 

Since the invention of the bin liner, it's become easier to carry your offal and lingerie home

Yesterday’s pillars of sunlight, which had planted themselves uninhibited through grated skylights, were now being bulldozed by an unremitting throng of people, barrows, donkeys, vans and motorcycles. Behind carts laden with sacks and boxes, sandalled feet scrambled on dusty cobblestones worn smooth over centuries of trade. ‘Yalla, yalla,’ came the cry from burdened porters, sweating beneath red-and-white keffiyeh headscarves worn like turbans. Come on, come on, keep moving! The crowd snarled at a junction in the narrow pathway, as women in drizzling black abayas steadied bundled packages on their heads, and men heaved their carts through the teeming jumble of bodies into side-alleys and away. It was late morning in the market and the hustle was building steadily before afternoon prayers.

The relaxed atmosphere of Aleppo's souk gives men the confidence to wear their white trousers a full six inches above the ankle.

This souk is like no other. The longest covered bazaar in the world, it winds in a serpentine tangle of stalls for more miles than a sane man can count. Yet unlike many of the great souks, such as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar or the Medina in Marrakech, the tourist count is low, the souvenir tat limited, and the hard-sell practically non-existent. You can leave the souk in Cairo, return to your hotel, open up your day pack and find a pushy trader in there still trying to sell you a copper teapot. 

Not here. This is a real, working marketplace and possibly the most authentic of all the traditional souks in the Middle East. It’s where the locals come to shop, browse and haggle for everything and anything, from embroidered cushion covers to bridal costumes. 

The men pretended not to notice the huge, angry boil on Karam's ear

Traders occupy alcoves sliced into the walls, and are organised according to guild – gold and silver over here, textiles over there – yet the main thoroughfares offer a bit of everything. Much of the current construction dates back to the Ottoman era, but parts of it were built in the Middle Ages, when caravans from the Silk Road would unload their goods and park overnight at merchants’ accommodation in the khans or caravanserais. 

Some of the khans branching off from the meandering lanes were built in the 15th century, but there has certainly been a marketplace on this site for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before that.

Aleppo: a potted history, part two

Today’s Aleppo is the banquet table after the feast. Its dishevelled streets are dotted with faded monuments to a glorious past, surrounded by the swirl of burgeoning modernity. With a population of over 2.5 million, it’s the largest city in Syria, though Damascus still calls the shots.

Many of Aleppo’s old labyrinthine alleys have been swept aside for broad avenues, which are choked with an incessant gush of traffic. From its belching buses to its chugging trucks, the vehicles here aren’t just environmentally unfriendly, they’re aggressively hostile.

"Hello. Taxi. Do you want me to drive suicidally, or just stupidly recklessly?"

The roads are how I imagine the insides of human veins to look after a fix of heroin. The yellow tide of clattering Iranian-made taxi cabs is the surging drug, coursing through every artery and capillary, rattling pedestrian corpuscles and blood cells in a maddening, quickening burst.

The Syrian highway code appears to consist of a mere two words: “Just drive.”

If that bus doesn't slow down, it's going to hi...

When I visited Aleppo, just before the Arab Spring, the traffic presented the clearest and most present danger. But events in the Arab world since then have exposed the nub of the problem in Syria. As we all know, Syria is a dictatorship and police state. Stiff-lipped portraits of President Bashar Al-Assad peer from almost every building, and it’s said the secret police and a network of informers keep a watchful eye on everybody, especially western tourists.

"Even in the lowliest alleyway, I'll be watching you."

Perhaps my friend Ismail was a stool pigeon, highly trained to extract information from foreigners with an act of disarming friendliness spiced with bonkers surrealism? Even if I was being followed or monitored, I wasn’t going to let it stop the splendid history and contemporary verve of Aleppo from sinking into my pores.

In Aleppo, Abraham gave milk to the masses, but he also had DVDs, handbags, sunglasses, the lot!

History had coloured the story of Aleppian cuisine. According to legend, the prophet Abraham let his cow graze on the hill where the citadel now stands. There he offered its milk to the people. Some say that the city’s ancient name of Halab – which is still widely used in Syria today – is derived from haleeb, the Arabic for milk. Or it might come from the Aramaic word halaba, which means ‘white’, and may refer to the colour of the limestone found in the area, or perhaps the white milk of Abraham’s ashen cow. Either way, food and Aleppo go together like Laurel & Hardy, R2D2 and C3PO, hummus and flatbread.

Aleppo’s position as a stopover for caravans on the Silk Road completely revolutionised its approach to food. It became a vital trading link between China and Europe, and it prospered with the flow of people, goods, wealth and ideas. It became an important hub for Muslims on the pilgrimage to Makkah, and the local hospitality industry flourished.

As the city grew, more of the surrounding fertile land was used to graze sheep and cultivate vegetables, fruit and nuts. Strange herbs and spices came in from the east, which alongside local cherries, olives, peppers and pistachios, inevitably found their way into the beating heart of Aleppo: the souk…