I just wanted to report in and let all of you know that things are still OK here in Aleppo. But I’ve been doing a lot of eating lately. A couple of nights ago, late in the evening, I walked a few meters from my apartment to a popular restaurant street. I wish you could see it. It’s a boulevard with many large fountains, colorfully lit, stretched down the wide center and flanked on both sides by an assortment of restaurants that move their tables out on the wide sidewalks during the spring and summer. It has a very European feel. The area, as usual, was busy with people walking by and cars passing.
I sat down at a table at the popular Wannes Restaurant and the tuxedo-dressed waiter came to take my order. I knew what I wanted and didn’t need to see a menu. I ordered kebbeh nayye (raw lamb the way we ate raw beef) served covered with olive oil and crushed pistachios, a glass of wine, and a nargilah (the Turkish pipe). Why I enjoy that when I don’t smoke is a mystery to me, but it’s probably just the atmosphere of it. I smoke a nargilah sometimes here at my apartment, but it’s too much trouble keeping hot coals on it.
Everyone else outside was having a nargilah and something light to eat. For the most part, it’s all men who sit outside and couples and women sit inside. As a matter of fact, when my Syrian friend, Samer, took me to Wannes the first time a couple of year ago, the matre’de tried to sit us outside, but when it was explained that I was new to Aleppo, he allowed us sit inside with the families. It’s part of that Muslim culture of separating men and women but I’m sure it has to do also with being courteous to women. In the Arab countries you will see many men eating out leaving their wives home with the children, I’m sure.
Well, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, even though I don’t like sitting at restaurants alone. The wind was blowing like it always does in the evenings cooling the streets and the fountains were refreshing both aurally and visually. I plan on doing that more often.
But yesterday, my neighbor Fayez invited me to lunch at his home. His daughter had just gotten married to a Syrian who lives in Los Angeles and he still had some family with him who came to the wedding from Venezuela, Egypt and Canada. As you can imagine, it was quite a ceremony.
But lunch was served in the middle of the afternoon. I went to his place around 2 and was given a choice of drink along with pistachio nuts and chips. These are Orthodox Christians so we were drinking beer, whiskey or arak. We sat around and visited but because the others only spoke Arabic, French and Spanish, I could only speak to Fayez and his English-speaking Canadian brother. After a long wait, we moved to the dinner table to eat. And eat and eat! It was the typical family meal, not the kabobs and mezzes you get in the restaurants. I don’t remember everything that we had, but it included lubieh (green beans like Mother used to cook), hommos, tabbouleh, kebbeh nayye, kebbeh sajieh (grilled lamb), a huge fruit salad and a large platter of raw fruit (apples, plums, peaches, etc.).
But they said that the next day (today), Fayez’s mother was going to prepare yabra (grape leaves). So today I went with Fayez to her house on the next block. It was the same scenario. We sat and “visited” some while drinking, and then moved to the dinner table. His mother told me, mainly through sign language, that she had spent 4 hours rolling the grape leaves around the rice and meat. She showed me how she does it holding the leaf in one hand and rolling it in her hand. Of course, it was delicious tasting very much like we all remember Mother’s grape and cabbage leaves tasting. It was the main course served with hommos, pickles, labneh (yoghurt, which I hate) and, of course, topped off with fresh fruit.
As you can tell, I’m enjoying the Arabic culture. The people are all friendly and hospitable here and I would suggest that you be careful in forming your opinions about all of these issues concerning the Middle East. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is not a right or wrong or a good or bad in any of this. For any argument you might come up with, I can historically, culturally or ethically argue the other side. You could too if you could ever hear the other side. Well, enough politics.
You can tell I’m not working, yet, and I have all this time to write letters. Don’t worry, it’ll end soon and I will be too busy to write this much. Inshallah.