Early in our marriage, my husband and I liquidated or stored most of our meager belongings, hopped a plane, and landed in one of the beigest places we’d ever seen. We set out on our first adventure together — teaching at an international school in Aleppo, Syria (known regionally as Halab).
I want to share with you what that was like. I want to remember what it was like. There is virtually nothing else I can do to help Aleppo today, other than prompt you to think about it, about the very real people who are trying to survive there, who are dying there, who are burying their dead there.
I knew warm and kind people there. I had fun times there. Even the icky things left me with fond memories of there.
Don’t Flush the Toilet Paper!
We did have modern bathrooms, but the plumbing systems couldn’t handle toilet paper. Near each toilet was a receptacle for used toilet paper (ewww), which we emptied daily.
While this grossed me out at the beginning — and even now as I remember — it quickly became our normal.
Pre-Plan for Hot Water
It was very expensive to fill the household tank of kerosene that heated our water, so we did not leave the water heater on all the time like we do here in the US. Instead, an hour before we wanted to take a shower or wash dishes (by hand), we’d have to remember to turn on the heater switch. After we were finished, we’d have to remember to turn it off again.
Again, this was burdensome and weird at first, but soon became normal.
Amazing Sights and Sites
It was a teacher’s dream to teach Greek tragedies on stages of Roman ruins.
Our school observed both Muslim and Christian holidays, which made for many long weekends and weeks off. We used that time to travel all over Syria and the region. This is how we got to Palmyra (Syria) , Cappadocia (Turkey), Baalbek (Lebanon), Petra (Jordan), and Cairo (Egypt).
One of the cool things about our school is that we could join with a bunch of fellow teachers and hire one of our school bus drivers and a school bus to take us on a trip. He’d also be our interpreter and make-things-happener. He’d help us find a suitable hotel, and take us to the places the locals recommended for meals. It was idyllic.
In the Market
There were no supermarkets as we know them. There were streets that were designated as market areas. Go here for your chicken. Next door you can get your canned foods. Cross the street for the milk and cheese man. Fruits and vegetables are two doors down, past the egg lady. And if you need beef, the best place is around the corner.
We got used to seeing slabs of lamb hanging with flies buzzing around the flesh. It became normal to experience what most of humans throughout history have experienced in procuring their food.
If we were game to leave our suburb and drive into downtown Aleppo, we might go instead to the souk.
The souk was a feast for the senses — we’d see every color imaginable in fabrics and clothing and spices; hear a cacophony of seller banter; taste exotic teas when invited by a shop owner; smell coffee, and perfumes, and the iron odor of blood running in the gutters of the meat section. It was here we got a few carpets, a gold chain, and some handcrafted copper pieces we use as a coffee table.
About every month or two, we’d plan a Big Shop, in which we’d have to cross a border to get to a real department store or specialty grocery store. We’d pile into our company-issued Volvo and go north into Gaziantep, Turkey or west into Beirut, Lebanon.
It’s weird now to think of driving a few hours and crossing a border just to get a Thanksgiving turkey and all the fixings and a box of Golden Grahams. But back then it was all an adventure. We’d make a day of it with fellow expats from Canada, England, the US. Our passports got quite a workout.
No Strawberries in Winter
We ate with the seasons. When figs were in season, we feasted on figs. So juicy and yummy! Same with melons, bananas, tomatoes, all other produce, and for those without a nut allergy, pistachios. My husband loved those. The Latin name for them is fustou Ḥalabī. — pistachios of Aleppo.
When things weren’t in season, we didn’t eat them. Or we had to go on a Big Shop to find them.
Friends from Our Aleppo Days
Thanks to social media, I still keep in touch with many of my friends and former students. The other expats have spread worldwide, going on to additional adventures and destinations.
Many of our Syrian friends had the means and desire to flee the conflict. They resettled in other countries in the Middle East, in the US, Canada, Europe.
Many have stayed in Aleppo, living amid the ruins of their formerly majestic city, navigating fear, chaos, uncertainty, starvation, and lacking of basic things like drinkable water, medical care, and reliable electricity. We know of some who have died.
That will never feel normal.