Memories of Aleppo

Suraya Langston with scarves bought at Aleppo markets. Photos by Gerard O'Brien/supplied.
Suraya Langston with scarves bought at Aleppo markets. Photos by Gerard O'Brien/supplied.
Suraya Langston at the Khan Al Wazar building in the old city of Aleppo.
Suraya Langston at the Khan Al Wazar building in the old city of Aleppo.
The Hinemaia Tribal Dance Group at the Dunedin Botanic Garden.
The Hinemaia Tribal Dance Group at the Dunedin Botanic Garden.

For Suraya Langston the death and destruction of Syria's civil war feels very personal.

Memories of the magical time I spent in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, 15 years ago have been on my mind recently, given a new clarity by the horror of the civil war there.

One September evening in 2012, I was cooking tea for my family in the kitchen of my Dunedin home.

I heard the news of the bombing and destruction of much of Aleppo's ancient city and the loss of thousands of lives.

I remember walking towards the television with the frypan still in my hands, tears running down my face as I saw the pain and suffering of the people and the pictures of the ancient souq (marketplace), Al Medina, that I had happily wandered through, now lying in ruins.

I remembered buying glittery belly-dancing belts, enjoying the smells of exotic spices and watching donkeys walking through as my partner and I chatted to any locals who spoke some English.

Sometimes we practised a little of the Arabic language I had grown up with but since this had been mostly based around endearments, expletives and food, I had to supplement it with a little rudimentary ''travel guide Arabic'' I had learned from my dear Lebanese Uncle Victor in Dunedin before the journey.

As I looked back at photos of this journey, I remembered the kindness of Jalal, a lovely Muslim man who met us wandering near the citadel in Aleppo and offered to show us around the ancient heritage sites for two or three days.

He wanted nothing from us but to practise his English and for us to send him a photo of our time together once we returned to New Zealand.

We did that.

I wonder where he is now or if he is still alive?I also remember wandering the streets and markets alone and never once being harassed by the local men.

In fact, I was treated with great respect and delight.

They were so happy to have travellers exploring the beauty of their city.

Of course I do recall the near-total absence of women and children on the streets of Aleppo, and an occasional flash of black-veiled women hurrying by reminded me the country was under a dictatorship even in 1999, and that women's rights were severely curtailed under the al-Assad regime.

My heart ached for their lack of freedom.

Despite this, Syria was enjoying a flowering of interest in its world heritage sites, arts and culture.

Aleppo's old city was declared a world heritage site in 1986 and it had been enjoying an unprecedented number of tourists and travellers visiting its amazing array of medieval buildings and ancient sites dating back to 5000BC.

Now much of Aleppo lies in ruins, a city still under siege, with more than 20,000 people dead.

No-one is sure how many buildings have been destroyed, but there are brave Syrian people, some students of archeology, risking their lives to sandbag buildings and save artifacts from destruction and looting.

The United Nations estimates more than 220,000 people have been killed in the past four years in the civil war, including more than 6000 women and 10,000 children.

And the situation is worsening.

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), a British-based organisation, says 76,000 people were killed in 2014, by far the highest figures in four years of war, a quarter of them civilians.

I shudder to think what the figures might be for disease, mutilation, trauma and abuse of the civilian population.

Not surprisingly, more than three million people have fled from Syria to refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and other places.

Today Lebanon has more refugees per capita than any other country in the world.

How can I hold these awful facts and figures in my mind and equate it with the Syria I saw 15 years ago?

Then I had travelled initially to Lebanon to visit the ancestral village of my great-grandparents in Becharre, a small Maronite Christian village high in the hills of northern Lebanon.

I had grown up in the warm embrace of the Dunedin Lebanese community and had always wanted to see and explore this part of my heritage.

Becharre did not disappoint me.

We were touched by the warmth and hospitality of the local people and had a wonderful time soaking up the beauty and peace of the mountain village my great-grandparents had left 100 years before.

We left Lebanon to begin our overland journey through Syria and Turkey.

I had learned the ancient art of Middle Eastern dance (Raqs Sharqi) or belly dancing in India in 1994 and it had become an important part of my life as I introduced classes in Dunedin.

As well as being a wonderful form of exercise for women, I explored its history and found it is one of the most ancient dance forms in the world, dating back to sacred dance rituals for women, and a way of taking care of and honouring the sacred aspects of fertility and childbirth.

As this dance originated from the Middle East, I decided I would find out if it was still part of life in Syria.

We visited the northern city of Aleppo and marvelled at the beauty of ancient temples, mosques, and souks.

I found many clothes and treasures in the markets and thoroughly enjoyed haggling with the locals to buy a great load to squash into my backpack to take back to New Zealand.

However, with the near-invisible status of women in Syria and the strict code of wearing the burqa from head to toe in public, I was about to give up on seeing any signs of this ancient dance of the Orient.

Then I had some luck.

After a hectic day wandering in the heat and colour of the markets, I found out it was women's night at the local hammam, a beautiful and ancient bathhouse in central Aleppo.

As tradition dictates women and men can never use the bathhouse together, my partner went back to our hotel room to rest while I ventured forth.

It was fascinating to move through the beautiful marble rooms of the hammam, full of heat and steam, watching the Syrian women and their children bathing, laughing and talking together.

I realised it was quite a social event, during which they could quite literally let their hair down.

I watched with fascination as big strong female masseurs soaped up and scrubbed different women, and I tentatively agreed to join in.

Before I knew it, I was laid out on a cool marble bench to get scrubbed and pummelled by a woman with strong muscular biceps and a lovely (mostly toothless) smile.

It was blissful and just a little painful, so thanking her with a few Arabic words, smiles and some Syrian coins, I washed myself down with cold water and staggered out to a cool rest area to sip on sweet mint tea and rest my bright red pummelled body.

Just as I was calming my shaky limbs, I saw a large woman wearing a one-piece white lingerie outfit walk into the rest area with her two daughters, who looked about 10 and 12 in age.

They were laughing and talking in rapid Arabic when suddenly, after a few sips of mint tea, the mother clicked her fingers at her daughters and started to dance on the marble floor.

They joined in and I watched with amazement as they started to gyrate their hips and shimmy and shake the classic belly-dance movements.

''Y'Allah, Y'Allah!'' the mother called as she expertly moved and shook her large body with joy and laughter.

I understood this to mean ''Come on! Come on!'' as she urged her daughters into the movements.

Of course the literal meaning of this expression is ''go with God/Allah'' and truly they seemed possessed by the gods as they danced with such wonderful abandon.

I must have been watching with my mouth wide open when suddenly the mother spun around and called me on to the floor ''Y'Allah! Y'Allah!''.

How could I possibly stay put with such an invitation?

So I found myself dancing on the floor clutching the white towels covering my wet hair and body, trying to imitate their expert hip drops and shimmies.

The girls giggled and smiled as they realised I had done at least a little of this dance before.

I know I must have looked quite a sight with my bright red cheeks and body and shaky legs still in recovery from the punishing massage by my sweet toothless masseur of half an hour before.

But this was a spontaneous and magical moment when we moved in unison, the dance transcending our lack of ability to speak together.

They knew nothing about me and I knew nothing about them but in that moment we were like Sufis whirling in a divine space together.

''Y'Allah! Y'Allah!'' were the only words we could share as my light-headed brain would not allow any other Arabic words or sentences to come to mind.

Suddenly it was over and they whirled out of the room to change, laughing and smiling as they left.

I lay back on a couch to recover, delighted by my discovery of the dance so spontaneously in a bathhouse.

So this was how the dance survived over many thousands of years.

Even though women were not allowed to belly dance in public under the Muslim religion, it was obviously a dance passed from mother to daughter in the privacy of the home or bathhouse.

This was how it survived to give them freedom to be sensuous, alive women!

But there was another moment to this story, as I sipped my mint tea and processed the excitement of what I had witnessed.

I looked up and saw my lady and her two daughters heading out the door into the dark night.

I hardly recognised them at first as the mother was clothed from head to foot in the dark veils of the burqa; only her dark eyes were showing.

Her daughters were also dressed in modest full-length dresses.

They gave me the briefest of waves and headed out into the dark night.

I was amazed to realise this was their normal daily attire and that I had been privileged to see them dancing with such freedom and lack of restriction.

When I got back to our hotel my poor partner was wakened from his peaceful sleep to listen to me burbling excitedly.

I had truly found the dance at last!


So how can I hold this wonderful experience of Aleppo, Syria with the horror of what is happening there now?

These innocent and beautiful people who opened their hearts to us have been devastated by civil war and the senseless destruction of their ancient history and buildings.

It is hard to fathom.

It would be easy to say this is the result of extremist madness, but I hold dear the beauty of the innocent men, women and children who are suffering, or have died, for no reason but it being their home.

I hope by sharing a little of the story of my journey to Syria that I will contribute to increasing awareness of the dire situation facing the people in that part of the world.

Yes, it is so far away, and there are so many terrible things happening on the planet, but this is where I wish to focus my energy right now and hope to draw others to join me.

I would like to start by running a dance night in Dunedin that celebrates Middle Eastern music and dance next month to raise money to help the people of Syria.

As well as performance, there will be lots of time to dance for everyone!

I will focus on raising money for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, ensuring the money raised goes to Caritas Lebanon.

It will be a small drop in a vast ocean of suffering but it is a place to start.


You can help

• The Middle Eastern dance night fundraiser for Syria is on Saturday May 23, 7.30pm at the South Dunedin Community Hall.

Tickets are now on sale at Dunedin Community House, 301 Moray Pl (opposite Countdown) between 9am and 5pm weekdays and cost $15 each. Please pay cash or by cheque to the Syria Relief Fund. If you wish to make a donation or buy tickets online contact Suraya Langston at


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