Mar. 14, 2008

First Impressions

When the plane touched down in Aleppo and I made my way up the boarding ramp, I was seized by a fit of chills. I do not know whether they were caused by my tiredness, the cool morning breeze that was coming through open doors in the airport, or the anticipation that I was feeling as I stepped onto Syrian soil. I had arrived in Aleppo.

Aleppo International Airport is about the same size as Windsor Airport, but the similarities end there. The fields surrounding the tarmac are more rocky than grassy, signs inside the terminal are written in both English and Arabic, and Middle Eastern music plays over the loudspeakers. The airport was relatively deserted because it was 6:00 am local time. I had only to clear customs, pick up my bags, and meet a representative from my host school.

One of the first things that I was told by one of my hosts at the school was that Syria seems stuck in the 1950s. Whether or not this observation is true, it is undeniable that the history in this country comes in tangible and intertwined layers. During my time walking or driving though Aleppo, I have seen (and dodged) cars in various states of repair from around the world that are brand-new or fifty years old. I have visited beautiful, modern apartments and driven past homes that seem like they are half-falling apart. I have bought Kellogg's Corn Flakes at a grocery store and purchased vegetables off the street. I can sit at a computer to type an email and hear the call to prayer from at least three different nearby mosques – and I can tell you that that was a surreal experience when I was experiencing severe jetlag my first day here! It would be unfair of me to describe Syria as being stuck in the past though because such a description would categorize and pigeon-hole a country that is clearly in the midst of change. In the last week, I have encountered and met Syrians who are generous and friendly. People might be aggressive on the road – the meanest, most aggressive driver from Toronto or Boston (the two cities in which I have seen the craziest drivers) would not stand a chance on the streets of Aleppo – but nobody I have spoken with, whether from Syria or abroad, has spoken of concern for their general safety.

(The current and former presidents of Syria - Their faces are everywhere in the city)

Many people have asked me if Syria is
what I expected. Because I tried to purge generalizations from my mind, I really did not know what to expect. At the same time, I have been very happy to discover that kids are still kids here in Syria and that the sense of history, tradition, dynamism, and community are all so powerful and ubiquitous in Aleppo.

(Banners in one of Aleppo's many narrow streets)