I should have taken it as a warning sign when I was given a free coke, tea, AND coffee when I was just sitting around waiting at the border for my visa application to be processed. But it was still a surprise when, after my bus-to-minibus-to-minibus transport to Aleppo, I had walked less than half a block when two Arab guys my age saw me ask directions from a shopkeeper and asked if I wanted a hotel. I was friendly, but a little evasive, figuring they were touts trying to get me to stay at *their* hotel. But they just wanted to help me find a place. Then they asked if I was hungry. We went into a fast food place, I tried to pay, and was strenuously opposed. Then it was time for evening prayer, so they asked if I wanted to see the grand mosque. A few hours later, I was sitting in one of their uncle's houses, polishing off a home-cooked meal with homemade ice cream and homemade chocolates with hazelnuts and being told by everyone in the room that I should “feel at home” for however long I liked.
At one point about midway through the evening, we passed by a historic lane filled with traditional candy shops. Tareq, my eventual host, mentioned that candy was a traditional gift in Arab society. I immediately took the hint, and said I wanted to buy them some. But the plan completely backfired when Tareq and his buddy physically barred me from paying while they got out their own wallets. “Come on,” Tareq said, as he handed me the bag of sweets, “it would make us very very sad if you paid.”
And the trend continued for three meals out, at least ten rides in taxis, tea in a traditional hammam, two CDs of Arab music, a set of Muslim prayer beads, a Syrian flag keychain, and a build-your-own jewelry box with an Arabic inscription congratulating someone on completing the Hajj (pilgrimage).
Lonely Planet guidebooks usually have a color section in the front with their highlights of whatever country or region you are visiting. In the China guide, this had things like the Heavenly Temple in Beijing, The Great Wall etc. In Australia, it had the Great Barrier Reef, Ayer's Rock, etc. In my guide to the Middle East, one of the highlights is listed on the last color page: Syrian People. I've learned why pretty fast.
Overall it's been a pretty intense cultural experience, I've spent the last couple months in similar places where I was seeking out the differences between the place I was and my home. Now I'm back to territory so different that I'm seeking out the similarities between here and home instead. Just crossing the border, even from another majority Muslim country like Turkey, I really had to take a second to just absorb the scene, the carpet sellers, a couple camels, the uud and drum music playing through loudspeakers, the long, flowing clothes the men wore, the veils of the women, and mosque a ways across the rocky desert. There's something rewarding about a place seeming just how you imagined it.
Inside the house in Aleppo were a couple implicit guidelines. There were a couple times when I went to exit a room and was told to wait a few minutes. Even at one point when I went into my room to grab something, Tareq came after me, and said I wait to wait a second to exit again into the hallway. It didn't take long to put this together with the fact that I'd been introduced to the uncle, a brother, and two male cousins, and that they were the only ones I'd seen in the house. The men and women do not mix, even in the home.
The kids too were separate. When I sat down to eat with the men of the house, the kids would stick their head in and out occasionally, and the oldest would sit there to obey orders from the patriarch, like filling empty glasses with tea or bringing sugar when needed. Before leaving for school, the littlest ones would line up to kiss their father's hand and tap it to their forehead, the traditional way to ask for the elder's blessing.
Tareq asked me at one point why people in the west are afraid of Muslims. I answered the best I could, explaining that most people in the west don't really know Islam or Muslims, they only know news reports about war and terrorist attacks in the Middle East. I don't know if I'm right, and I'm sure there's more to it when it comes to perceived and real differences in culture. But a lot of the stuff that seems strange to me as a modern American is stuff I've either seen elsewhere or that I knew happened where I'm from in our past. In Mexico the kids don't usually leave the parents house until they get married. Not all that long ago, Christian women were expected to cover their heads, especially in Church. Yes, the veil is a bit different from a bonnet, but does it justify the attitudes we hold?
I'd encourage anyone who actually wants to learn about this to come check it out. Just be careful, you might get abducted by Arabian hospitality.
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