Once upon a time in Aleppo

Like a four-leaf clover, I found this without looking in the grounds of the Aleppo citadel overlooking the city. I’m told it’s not particularly old or rare, so I don’t think I was raiding Syria’s cultural patrimony. For me it’s a talisman, a connection…and if it were still lying there now, what?

I remember once, there were two of us waiting to catch a train from Aleppo to Baghdad – this was in 1973, ancient history.  It was winter, so it was freezing cold, and in the evening, and the train was going to be delayed for hours.  We were knocking around the deserted streets looking for somewhere we could get another hot meal before two days on the train.  About all we could find was tea and backgammon, but we met this young guy who offered to open a can of beans or something, you know what I mean, nothing fancy, back at his place, so we did that.   Traditional ethic of hospitality meets one-world, back-street travellers, right?  You could tell that we were stretching his resources but it wasn’t serious.  We were just sitting around – he was a Palestinian, a university student – it was interesting talking for a while.  Then it was getting late and my friend kind of suddenly mentioned he was thinking of heading back to the train station, and I could stay there longer if I wanted.  The only thing that went through my mind was, it was the middle of the night, I think I know how to get back to the station, when is the train going to be ready to go, what would happen to my checked knapsack if it went without me?  No, I was ready to go, and we left.  Later he said to me, that the student was trying to pick me up, and he thought I might have wanted him to go by himself.  All this was news to me, that’s how naïve I was.  Probably I wouldn’t have done anything different, and playing stupid was the best move all round; for actually not seeing it happening, I get no points.
Anyway, back at the train station, there wasn’t going to be a train anytime soon, and we wound up sitting in the stationmaster’s office because it was the only enclosed space and there was one of those little kerosene stoves where you could watch it drip, drip, drip into the burner.  We were always so grateful to be around one of those in that part of the trip, so we sat and drank little glasses of tea, smoked (everybody did), didn’t get much more to eat, and just talked and talked, about that, and a million-and-one things, all night long.  It was special, and I’ve always remembered it, although the whole trip was full of things like that, not because I almost got seduced, but because I didn’t, and went on from there to have a bottomless kind of intimacy, just talking, that doesn’t happen nearly so often.  Any two people can do that, they just have to be ready and open to it, and it’s nobody else’s business if they do.  It’s such a gift, and it shows how boxed-in we are in society that it’s so rare.

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~ by Peter Harris on 05/10/2012.

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