We Still Like Ike
Volume III, Issue II - Fall 2012
  • The following is an excerpt from The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, which is set in the souk in Aleppo, Syria

    The doctor was looking for the medieval hospital, and as she walked along the narrow lanes of the souk, under stone archways draped with banners, stopping merchants to ask for directions, she fretted about losing her way so close to the street owned by her family for generations. There were more than thirty kilometers of stalls, courtyards, and khans or caravansaries to navigate in this covered market, and it was hard to keep your bearings among so many people and distractions. It seemed that everything was for sale—carpets and jewelry, silk scarves and wooden boxes, mirrors, miniature editions of the Koran, twigs such as the one used by the Prophet to brush his teeth. A tea seller with a handlebar mustache clacked tiny ceramic cups, two men in a spice stall smoked water pipes while a third weighed cumin for a woman in a burka, a boy gazed at a cart heaped with mounds of brightly colored sweets. The doctor pulled me from the path of a man tugging the reins of a donkey with an infected eye, then led us along a slick tile floor through a public bath, where one old naked man was soaping the back of another, their flaccid skin dull in the afternoon light. Through the lanes sounded the  ............

  • muezzin’s call to prayer, and while most men disappeared into the mosques some stayed behind to mind their stalls—and to flirt with tourists, male and female alike. There was the spirit of carnival in the air.

    “Are you Scottish?” one young man called to me. “Irish?”

    He sidled up to another man in our group.

    “Do you know the name of this store?” he said, pointing to a display of carpets. “We call it Oscar Wilde, because we are of the same persuasion.” Then he winked at him. ”Vegetarian!”

    The Aleppo souk, the largest in the Middle East, has long been a meeting place, in a city strategically located between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, dating to the eleventh millennium BC (Abraham is said to have provided milk to travelers), and for generations of traders the souk was the last stop on the Silk Road before they set sail for Europe. Nor did its dominant economic position diminish until the seventeenth century, when Europeans began to use the sea route to India, around the Cape of Good Hope—though under  ............

  • Ottoman rule it maintained its hold on the Western imagination as a site of mystery, if not of economic opportunity. Shakespeare mentions the Syrian city twice in his dramas, in the first act of Macbeth—“Her husband’s to Aleppo gone,” says a witch—and in Othello’s final speech:

              in Aleppo once,
    Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
    Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
    I took by th’throat the circumcisèd dog,
    And smote him—thus!

    Then Othello stabs himself—an act that links his noble younger persona to the lost soul, transfigured by jealousy, whose murder of his beloved Desdemona is likewise a betrayal of Venice. For in Shakespeare’s cosmology, in which personal deeds often carry political consequences, the Moor recognizes that he deserves the same punishment for his crime as he once dealt a Turkish cur: believing that he has been betrayed, Othello betrays everything that he loves; at the climax of the play his past merges with the present, and he sees both ways, registering the full dimensions of his loss. His is a form of double vision, if you will, which mirrors  ............

  • the dual nature of Aleppo, a crossroads of the East and West, where collisions of modern and ancient ways of being are commonplace. The city had lost its allure in the Western imagination before the collapse of the caliphate in 1924, but some modern visitors recognized its importance.

    “Aleppo,” T. E. Lawrence wrote, “was a great city in Syria, but not of it, nor of Anatolia, nor of Mesopotamia. There the races, creeds, and tongues of the Ottoman Empire met and knew one another in a spirit of compromise. The clash of characteristics, which made its streets a kaleidoscope, imbued the Aleppine with a lewd thoughtfulness which corrected in him what was blatant in the Damascene.”

    The lewd thoughtfulness of the merchants who stayed in the souk during evening prayers was the first surprise of my Levantine journey in the spring of 2007, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the Six Days’ War. I knew that the civil war in Iraq would complicate my itinerary, but I had not taken into account the extent to which the looming Israeli celebration of its victory and occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem made Arabs seethe. Traveling through Syria, Jordan,  ............

  • Israel and the West Bank, Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon, sometimes in the company of other writers, sometimes alone, I could not escape the sensation that I had entered the world of the betrayed, in which occupier and occupied alike were doomed.

    Aleppo was crowded with Iraqi refugees—men talking on street corners, clicking prayer beads in their djebellas and red-and-white checked kaffiyehs, which were available in the souk. The doctor suggested that I try one on, and when I balked at that she changed the subject: how the chaos in Iraq had made it impossible for her prodemocracy friends to speak out in favor of a system that anyone could see led only to murder and mayhem. She also blamed the war for all the women dressing in burkas—a new development, she sneered. She herself radiated health in her low-cut white blouse, tight black jeans, and gold hoop earrings—a fashion statement that carried political overtones.

    Through an archway we came to an empty lane, in the middle of which stood the bimaristan, a mansion transformed into a hospital in 1254, during the Ayyubid dynasty, which had operated for nearly eight centuries, under Arab and then Ottoman rule; now it was being renovated into a museum. Inside its high cool walls  ............

  • was a courtyard of stone rooms, each displaying a tableau vivant: of an apothecary mixing medicine out of lapis lazuli; of a lecturer in the healing arts; of Ibn al-Nafis, the discoverer of the circulatory system, examining a woman draped in a blue blanket. There were four seated figures on a mat by the space in which whirling dervishes performed, and as we continued down a dark corridor the doctor explained why the dervishes did not suffer from vertigo: how they found equilibrium spinning around a fixed point, how they shed the trappings of desire, how the music haunted her: Allah, Allah, the mystics sing.

    We entered a courtyard reserved for psychiatric patients, where small barred cells surrounded a fountain under a circular opening in the roof, through which poured the last light of the day. Birdsong, the sound of water trickling from the fountain, Sufi musicians playing through the night, readings from the Koran—these were elements of a healing regimen that included herbal therapies and liberal doses of opium.

    “Very humane,” said the doctor.

    This place was for her a reminder of the greatness of a civilization  ............

  • gone to seed—which now produced only nostalgia and fanaticism. The women in burkas, for example: in her medical opinion, the lack of sunlight on their skin—of vitamin D—was bad for their bones and their minds. In the old days, when houses like this mansion were built around interior courtyards, women could lounge in the sun in casual clothes, without fear of strange men seeing them. But there was no place to sunbathe in an apartment building, where most people now lived; with so many families taking in Iraqi refugees, in the midst of such economic and political turmoil, the doctor was not surprised that religious codes of conduct were replacing her cherished secular values. More and more women were thus covering themselves from head to toe. No wonder the region had gone mad.

    Christopher Merrill, from The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Merrill. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. www.milkweed.org

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