Elegy for Aleppo: 'The ancient religious harmony of Syria was not a myth'

For all its excesses, Assad's regime encouraged moderation and tolerance in religion. And, excluded from politics, a gentle, graceful culture flourished. Now it is destroyed, says Dr John Casey, it can only be rebuilt in the imagination

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The Independent Online

On my last visit to Syria, five years ago, the restoration of the Great Mosque in Aleppo was finally complete after many years' work.

The courtyard was thronged with elegant Aleppan women in sunglasses, wearing long coats down to the ground, because it was still cold, and richly coloured headscarves. (Outside the mosque some women were wearing tight jeans and smart calf-length boots.) Children ran and slid on the marble pavement, wrestled and did cartwheels, except when occasionally shooed off by a guard. The restoration work had been done with care and judgement, for the Syrians have by far the best visual taste in the Arab world.

I liked to frequent a hamam in the heart of the local souk. This was not the grand touristic hamam of Aleppo, but a largely working-class one. Sometimes I was accompanied by a local who was a friend of the owner – in which case, instead of the normal cotton fabrics in which one wrapped oneself to cool off after the baths, fine antique silk ones were produced.

I was introduced to this hamam by Sebastian, a young man famous in the area. He kept a shop near the Citadel that sold fine silver and carpets. No, no – he didn't want to sell me anything, only to discuss literature. And it was actually true, he wanted to talk about some of his favourite authors – Emily Dickinson, Tennyson, Blake, Walt Whitman, TS Eliot. In a corner of the shop was a shrine to Oscar Wilde, with a large picture of Oscar, some of his best witticisms, and a picture of Saint Sebastian transfixed with arrows, accompanied with a poem to Wilde of Sebastian's own composition.

Sebastian was openly and unashamedly gay in a country where the official penalty was several years' hard labour. His recklessness and dominant personality seemed to have created a sort of local sexual climate. When I walked with him through the souk it was obvious that the locals assumed I must be his latest conquest (in spite of the disparity of ages) and accepted it without comment or discomfort. He had friends and followers who were also openly gay. One old gentleman – a traditional theatrical queen – idolised him as a sort of gay Moses who would lead his people to sexual liberation.

This co-existed with the intense religious conservatism of Aleppo, which had been involved in the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1981 that resulted in a massacre there of thousands. One day in the hamam a gang of young farmers had burst in shouting and chanting what I thought were football slogans. It was the Syrian equivalent of a stag night, and the young men were giving the bridegroom a good time (and touching him continually as though they wanted to share his good luck). They had some fruit, bread and soft-drinks – the whole evening would cost just two or three dollars among all of them. I asked someone what they were chanting: "It is, 'Revere the Prophet, and honour the family of the Prophet'."

Meanwhile, Sebastian had draped a towel over the little doorway that led into one of the dry-heat rooms to discourage anyone else from entering and was determinedly anointing me with a deliciously fragrant and expensive balsam. ("It is what a bridegroom is anointed with on his wedding night.") I had wrapped my towel very tightly around my waist to limit the area of his ministrations: "You are conservative! Will you recite me some TS Eliot?"

The Syrians were remarkably relaxed about access to their ancient monuments. In the empty Roman theatre in Palmyra, I was able to stand on the stage experimenting, with a speech from Shakespeare, whether it was possible to be heard in the farthest seats.

Why this collection of memories? Because the Great Mosque has now been reduced to rubble, its minaret destroyed in bombardment and much of the rest in fighting. The whole of the souk has been burnt out, including the hamam. Sebastian's shop has been totally destroyed, along with his shrine to Oscar. Sebastian himself, were he still there, along with his friends, might have been thrown bound and blindfold from the roof of a tall building. No young women would now venture out in jeans and calf-length boots. Vast areas of Aleppo have been reduced to piles of rubble reminiscent of Berlin in 1945. It will not be restored in my lifetime. Days ago, on that very stage of the Palmyra theatre, 30 or 40 Syrian soldiers were murdered, each with a bullet to the head.

Syria was complex, varied and unpredictable. Hearing loud, hectic music that had been going on for two hours, I found a room full of Sufis chanting, sweating, jumping up and down and even whirling. They invited me to supper where they argued about the resurrection of Christ ("Wasn't the only witness a prostitute?") and said they wanted to give Saudi Arabia back to the Hashemites. Isis hates the Sufis – as do its friends, the Wahabis – and would certainly kill all of them if it got the chance. Perhaps the ones I met have been killed.

The ancient religious harmony of Syria was not a myth, and the secular Baathist regime has actually promoted a liberal version of Islam, including Sufism and religious toleration, partly in the interests of its own survival. (President Assad personally drove Senator John Kerry and his wife to midnight mass in Damascus.) One Muslim cleric said to me: "Judaism, Christianity, Islam are one religion, the Abrahamic religion, but with different legislations. It is the clerics of the three religions who do not understand this." That man is now Grand Mufti of Syria, and a pillar of the regime.

The regime is tired and Damascus may yet fall, in which case a complex and subtle society will have ended in fire and blood. But at least we can try to remember what it was like.

Dr John Casey is a Life Fellow of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

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