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'Souk' in the culture!

By Christine Quirk, Portland, Oregon USA

Aleppo doesn't make a great first impression. Although its multitude of parks distinguish it from most other Syrian cities, it is smoggy, sprawling and a little down at the heels. Stalineseque monuments of the late Hafez al-Assad and his son and current leader Bashar, watch over traffic circles. The Assad family is everywhere in Syria, literally and figuratively, and corps of secret police keep the population's natural receptiveness to foreigners in check. In general, Syria is not a place that encourages free expression or non-conformity.

However, perhaps because of its proximity to Turkey and the influx of ";businessmen"; from the former Soviet Union, Aleppo comes across as more outward looking than other Syrian cities. It was once the terminus for the Orient Express and the proud but decrepit Baron Hotel still brags about its glamorous colonial guest list that included T.E. Lawrence, Agatha Christie and Teddy Roosevelt. Furthermore, what Aleppo lacks in charm, it makes up for in rowdy capitalism in its bazaar -- known as the souk.

The Middle East's souks are the center of the retail universe, and Aleppo is the mother ship. Twelve hundred kilometers of ancient, crowded passageways make up a vibrant warren of commerce in the Old City, where practically anything that can be bought is sold. If you need dripping animal entrails (fatty camel humps were a personal favorite), a wedding dress (a Syrian bride wears several in the course of her wedding, so the selection is vast) or a burlap bag bursting with freshly shorn wool, Aleppo's souk is the place to go. Sometimes these items can even be found in adjoining stalls, saving time and effort. Every shopkeeper, whether he's peddling spices or bolts of fabric, plies passing shoppers with a chatty compliment and cup of tea.

Aleppo's souk serves locals, and to a lesser degree, tourists. This is a sound marketing strategy --- Syria's image as a harbor for international terrorists scares away most western visitors. Since few westerners venture here, the souks are filled with necessities for everyday life. In contrast to Istanbul or Cairo, the teenage boys who work on commission here are still genuinely good natured. Going along for the ride with one of them rarely results in a bargain price on a unique treasure. Sometimes, however, it can peel away another layer of mystery in this contradictory part of the world and disarm you with what you find inside.

My husband and I were led by a gregarious teenager to the Souk Al-Atarin, the abattoir souk. He dropped us at stall run by Ahmed, who told us he was one of nine sons, nearly all of whom were stallholders in the Old City souk. Ahmed's stall was ordinary by every standard - stacks of precisely folded silk scarves, shawls and tablecloths lined the walls and a few cheap carpets were stashed beneath benches.

What made Ahmed's stall different from any other in Aleppo, and possibly all of Syria, and maybe even a good portion of the Arab world, were his two brothers who ";worked"; with him in his stall. Hasan and Mustafa were openly, flamingly and gleefully gay.

When he wasn't boldly trying to persuade my husband to leave me, Mustafa appealed to the passing crowd like a professional. He switched smoothly between the persona of a mainstream Arab merchant, speaking deferentially to women covered by chadors (";those are W-I-B,"; Hasan explained to me, ";Women in Black, also known as walking tents.";) and raunchy barker for a gay nightclub to talk to tourists. That he was so brilliant was less surprising after we learned that he was, in fact, a raunchy barker for a gay nightclub in Sydney, where he lives much of the year.

Hasan was quieter, and offered incisive commentary on his brother's preening with a devastating, deadpan wit. Both pumped us for the most-up-to-date slang to describe sexual acts of every variety, which they recorded in a notebook and immediately incorporated into their raw and utterly hilarious English. They speculated aloud on the sexual prowess of passersby, from Bedouin to Libyan tourists, without restraint.

During the two days we spent drinking tea in this market stall, we were given a lesson in the intricacies of daily souk society. We met various other brothers and cousins who all managed aspects of the family's empire of market stalls. They pointed out the stall where bootlegged Coca Cola arrived from Belgium inside crates of frozen chicken and was sold for a scandalous $4 a bottle. Meanwhile, Mustafa explained matter of factly that he's married and has children. As a result, however, of some vague arrangement, he was applying for Australian citizenship where he would remain with, as he described in vivid and somewhat questionable detail, his stable of well-endowed lovers.

With homosexuality punishable in Syria by imprisonment at the very least, it is impossible to understate the incongruity of Hasan and Mustafa. By our observation, the two suffered no negative consequences for their unconventional behavior and were respected members of the souk community. Nor were they harshly critical of conservative societal mores or smug about the significant amount of courage it required to be ";out"; in the Aleppo souk, one of the most traditional settings of Arab life in one of the region's most repressive societies. But then again, their brand of unreserved outlandishness resulted in, from what we could tell, a very prosperous market stall.

Later, on a long bus ride back to Damascus, we wondered. Was it a shtick? Were we drawn in by a clever marketing scheme and persuaded to buy cheap scarves at a greatly inflated price, like every other tourist? On the other hand, with few tourists visiting Aleppo's souks, using one's homosexuality to promote one's business seemed like a pretty risky strategy, given the consequences. Maybe Hasan and Mustafa, knowing that soon they would be safely ensconced in Sydney's gay community, felt that they could thumb their noses at Assad's Syria, and make a few dollars at the same time.

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