Journalism

 

The Yellow Man of Aleppo: The man behind the legend

First Published Tuesday 12 October 2010, Baladna (original article here)

Mention the Yellow Man to
anyone from Aleppo and it
is guaranteed to cause a stir.

The Yellow Man, as one would
expect, is a man dressed in
yellow. From his shirt to his
shoes to his mobile phone,
refusing to tell people his
secret.
On first hearing of him, I thought
him simply to be an eccentric.
However, as I began to question
people about him, a different
story emerged.
“Definitely he’s a pimp.” said
Basel, from the neighbourhood
of Ibara Street in Aleppo where -I
was told- the Yellow Man works for a cabaret club, Hisan Ajjameh (Crazy Horse). “The yellow is a sign for clients, who he brings to the club. At the end of the night, he’s given commission. His father is an Imam. He refuses interviews because he doesn’t want him to find out.” As unlikely as this story sounded to me at the time, my worst fears were awakened when I struck up a conversation
with Mohammed, an English student, on the bus to the city centre. “The Yellow man has a bad reputation here, I’m ashamed to tell you what he does. All I’ll say is: if you came here to do your report on him, I wouldn’t bother. He’s a
dangerous man, he won’t want to talk to you.” Crazy images flashed
through my mind: hunted down on the road from Aleppo by a yellow
Mafia man in sunglasses and a sports car, yellow bullets strafing
the back of the coach. Among the host of theories- ”Everybody knows he’s with the Mukhabarat. It’s a double bluff!” said Abd Masiih from Aleppo- a more believable but more interesting idea was suggested by Ali Ahmed, a Professor of Arabic I met by Bab al-Faraj. “The Yellow man is actually a pretty normal, boring guy. He makes himself distinct, unique, from the outside, because there’s nothing in the inside. He wants to show off to everyone how different he is but behind his Yellow exterior, there’s nothing.” So why refuse all interviews, if one is so eager to catch the limelight? “To maintain the mystery!” said Ali, beaming.
In Aleppo, I found the Crazy Horse club, which had in fact closed down but Feras, who had guided me there, didn’t think the Yellow Man was ever associated with it. “People always make rumours about those who stand out from the crowd. The Yellow Man is a good man.” The Doorman of al-Caas Disco Club, next door, thought the same. “I see him wandering round here but he never comes in. He has a family, children, he would never think of doing these things.”
I could sense the Yellow Man was near.
Up by the Sheraton Hotel I was talking
to two security guards. “Since I can
remember, Abu Zukur has been

 coming here.” -The ‘Yellow Man’ defaced,demystified, into plain Abu Zukur.

“That’s what he likes everyone
to call him.” Then suddenly one
of the men shot out of his chair,
scanning the street. “Wait…there
he is! There’s Abu Zukur!” And
sure enough, in the middle of
the roundabout, was Abu Zuhur.
Sat on a yellow chair hailing the
shouts and cries from the passing
traffic, as he twirled yellow prayer
beads.
“From an early age” commenced
Abu Zukar, smiling a broad smile,
“I discovered I was someone who
was loved by all. Even when I was
in the Army, everybody was nice
to me. Politicians, business men,
heads of state are loved too, but
then they make false promises.
They lie to people, using this trust
that comes from love. Love comes
from God, it’s a sin to misuse it. I
chose yellow because it’s a colour
that gives people happiness and
joy. People loved me from the
beginning and I want to repay
them that love. Plus, no-one has
ever done this before! There have
been countless politicians, but
there’s only one Yellow Man.”
I put to him the rumours about
the salacious side of the Yellow
Man. “People are jealous, and
people talk. If I had such a bad
reputation, then I wouldn’t be
loved like I am by all the Aleppan
women; they’re always having
photos with me!” I asked him
about the mystery surrounding
his activities: “Mystery? What
mystery? It is people who create
the mystery, not me. I am just the
Yellow Man, that’s it. But journalists
are always looking to make
a bigger story out of me for their
own interests, and people like a
scandal. If you want to know my
activities, they’re pretty simple.
At 3:30 I get up for dawn prayer.
Then I read the Qur’an for two
hours. The rest of the day, I spend
talking to people on the street. In
this way, I know my religion and I
know my society. That is why I am
so popular. That is why I can help
people the way I do. If I see someone
who has a problem -he might
drink, he might be having affairs
with other women- I understand
that this situation calls for caution.
People don’t like being told
what to do, so I’ve learnt how to
curb their malpractices in a subtle
way, because I know how people
are.” At this moment a taxi pulls
up: “I’m sorry” said Abu Zukur,
“I can’t talk right now, I’m doing
an interview!” The taxi drove off.
“You see how popular I am?”
I talked to Abu Zukur about why
he refuses interviews. “I see that
you are a good person, so I accept
your interview and as one good
person to another, I advise you that
whatever you write, you write the
truth. Continue these rumours if
you like, but people who lie -even
though they may be famous for a
while- the wind takes them, blows
them away. But truth prevails.
Tell people that I am a good man,
a religious man…now let’s get a
photo!” As another group came to
have their photo with the Yellow
Man he said, as I left, “If you want
to talk to me about anything else,
I’ll always be here, after 8. ”
So no pimp, no agent, but a
charming man who talks to anyone
who will listen. After feeling
uneasy about ruining the legend
of the Yellow Man, I ruin it now at
his behest. This may seem to you
more mysterious. But, if you are
a good person, you should know
that there is no mystery in someone
who wants only to love and
be loved.
Tuesday 12 October 2010

‘Kiwi’, ‘Two-tooth’ and ‘The Cat’- Unknown Generals in an Unknown War

First Published Monday 15 November 2010, Baladna (Original article here)

Above the skies of Mahajreen around sunset,one can glimpse flocks of doves, gliding along the expanse of Qassioun, their feathers absorbing the rich red of the descending sun as on the rooftops, mysterious figures whistle and wave flags. You would be wrong, however, to think of this as a gentle pursuit.  For the Hamayatis (pigeon breeders) of Mohajereen, this is an aerial battleground.

 Around nightfall, the birds safe in

their coops, I go to speak to Sameer

Jahjah, a breeder for over 

10 years. He explains the rules of 

the game. “When our birds are in
the air, our aim is to get them all
back, but also steal some of our
opponents’. We do this by using
a ’TakhbeeTah’, our prize female,
to tempt them down. She’s just
like Haifa Wehbe. If I put her on
my roof, everyone in the
neighbourhood would come!
My TakhbeeTah is called
Oum Rasheed, all the males love her.
Any birds from an opponent I catch
I lock in the coop. If we have decided beforehand we’re playing a ‘friendly’, the breeder comes to collect them. If we’re playing for keeps – we call it ‘war’ – either I sell it back (prices range between 500 and 10,000 liras), or I keep it
for myself to fly or to sell at the market. In the meantime, I mate
any nice specimens I catch with my females. In that way, I’ve still stolen
them when the chicks come.” I asked Jahjah about how he                              
 started, and what it takes to be  a good breeder. “I was walking home one evening and saw a flock of doves in the sky. They were so beautiful I felt I wanted to be close to them every day. I knew a Hamaymati, Omar, and he taught me all I know. We only play friendlies together.” Then, getting more serious, he adds: “Also, birds are better than people. People cheat and are unfaithful.” I felt I had opened an old wound. Jahjah continued: “Only one person in a hundred is a dove, that is, they come back.” I told him I hoped he would find his dove one day and we moved on.
“Birds are very sensitive and theycome to the breeder they feel mostcomfortable with, who looks after them the best. The secret of this sport is the welfare of the birds,they have to be well cared for.” Looking around at his birds, his love for them is clear. Oum Rasheed had her own coop, with a welcome message: ‘The House of Lady Oum Rasheed, Wife of the Deceased Doctor Shakhsheerli’. “The Doctor – God grant him mercy - died last year, but I still have my other favourites. There’s Picasso. I call him that because he’s like an artist in the air, so agile. Then there’s Father Knuckleduster - he always shoves the others out of the way when it’s feeding time.”

On the wall opposite I see  written ‘marriage box’. “The birds that are suited for breeding , I put in the marriage box”. The aim of a breeder is to have a flock of birds of all different colours so the browns go with the browns, the speckled with the speckled and so on. The females, especially the beautiful ones, are very stubborn and refuse to mate with the male until the next night. If they’re still fighting after this, I separate them.” Jahjah adds, sighing, “Some relationships just aren’t to be.

I asked him if I could attend one of the matches, he agreed and the next day, at 4pm, Sameer set off his troops with a sharp cry. His birds in the air, he swirls the ‘isharah’, a red flag in front of him and the birds soar over his head. “Go!,” he shouts. I am reminded of a WW1 dogfight as squadrons of birds fly from all directions, I can almost hear the gunfire and roar of engines as they collide in midair. “Those are ‘The Cat’s,” explained Sameer’s friend Ahmad. “We call him that because he loves catching birds. Today Sameer and the Cat have a war.”

Looking up, Sameer can recognise
each flock from a mile away:
“There’s Oum Hatam’s birds.
Her and her husband are both
Hamayatis. There’s Al Kiwi’s and
there’s old ‘Two-Teeth’s’, and here
come ‘Nell’s’, from up the hill.”
Single birds begin to break away
from the flocks. The presence of
several eagles is also unnerving
them. Sameer makes the most of
this opportunity and he and his
young apprentice, each holding up
their TakhbeeTa, flapping furiously,
walk around the enclosure cawing
and cooing like birds ‘taa, taa, taa’
and waving the poor TakhbeeTah
around.

I found it hard to contain my laughter,

but it seemed to be working. A
handsome black bird takes the bait
and, tempted to the coop with a
shaker of bulgur, is locked in.
“This is worth 2,000, but I’m keeping
it,” proclaims Jahjah.
Suddenly The Cat’s squadron
veers south, straight for the Four
Seasons. “YES!,” shouts Sameer.
“They’ve gone towards Al-Bakhaas
and they have a war, he’s sure to
take them all!” Then, shouting in
the direction of the birds: “And
don’t come back!”

The evening comes to a close with
no birds lost and 3 birds captured.
The phone will no doubt start to
ring soon.
Post game, Sameer reflects on
the sport. “Of course some people
break the rules – pretend they
haven’t seen a bird when they
have it hidden in their coop, claim
they were playing keeps when
they weren’t, that kind of thing,
but competitions are genuinely a
good natured. We don’t have any
official meetings but
we all have each other’s
numbers and if
there’s any birds to collect, we stay
a while talking. We all share the
same love for the birds.”

Since Ottoman times pigeon breeding
has been a popular pursuit in
these parts, but as Ahmad relates,
popularity is waning. “Twenty years
ago, there were around thirty flocks
in the air every evening. Now we’re
lucky if we get ten. People are starting
to get more health conscious -
they think it is dirty and unhealthy
hobby, as bird dust is harmful to
the lungs. Once a breeder has a
wife and kids they usually stop,
and as Mahajreen is now becoming
quite gentrified, it’s embarrassing
if your Dad or brother is a breeder,
they don’t have a good reputation
these days. The neighbours also
complain more and more about all
the whistling.
Walking down the slope in the
dark, I feel exhilarated by what
I’ve seen, but also saddened at
the thought of clear skies over
Mahajreen, at the thought of the
end of a beautiful war. Let’s hope
the spectacle will continue.

Monday 15 November 2010

 

 Travel and trade on the holy pilgrimage

First Published in Forward Magazine 02/12/2010 (Original article here)

A caravan trading tradition marking the end of Eid al-Adha that dates back to the 7th Century arrives in town, but with inflation and faster travel options the custom is slowly dying out.

Around mid November, by the Zahira Autostrade, curious trailers, trucks and coaches bearing number plates of unfamiliar character line up around the square by Ayyubi Al-Ansar mosque, each flying the green flag of the Hajj.

Overnight this unremarkable car park is transformed into a buzzing market. Men with long beards, colorful hats or Asian features wander around and everywhere Russian, Turkish and other exotic languages fill the air. But only two weeks after the end of Eid, they have left as mysteriously as they have arrived.

The caravan route trading goods from Asia to the Middle East was established in ancient times. By the middle of the 8th Century most of present day Central Asia was under Islamic influence, so Muslims from that region were obliged to travel south for the Hajj, as well as for trade.

Tracing the route


First traveling north to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the pilgrims then head west through the Russian controlled Urals, Chechnya and Dagestan, skirting the Caspian Sea and continuing south to Azerbaijan. A quick cut through Georgia, Armenia or Iran and they reach Turkey.

Crossing the Anatolian peninsular south west, they end up at the Syrian border. From there to Aleppo and Damascus, from Damascus to Jordan and from Jordan, to their destination, Mecca, a route barely changed since the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) first demanded Muslims complete this journey.

But what do these pilgrims bring with them to sell?

“The winters in Dagestan are very cold,” explained Abu Sayyed, from Uzbekistan, “so we country folk stay at home and make woolen garments like jackets, socks and hats when it’s too cold to go out.”

Nadia, from Dagestan but now settled in Syria, sells jumpers she has knitted at home. Each one takes her a month to finish, she says. She remarks how strange it is each year to see so many people from her home country again and seems to be enjoying the atmosphere.

Language difficulties can be amusing.

“This one is $500,” says a lady selling antique clocks. No one is really sure if she means American dollars or thinks that this is the name of the local currency here. It is sold in any case.

Sensory overload


What of the food on offer? Most of the stalls have dark chocolate wrapped in rich red paper decorated with either a picture of the Kremlin or a blonde woman. There is halva, biscuits and children’s lollypops, handmade from candy, and a wide selection of more curious products.

There are also many types of fish: salmon, sardines and, of course, caviar. “In Dagestan we eat this caviar, spread on hard toasted bread with butter,” says Osman, a student at Abou Nour, in Rukn ad-Deen, who hopes to be an Arabic teacher in his native country. “With a pot of tea, there is nothing better.”

The best thing about the market is the honey. The range of color and taste, and all at a good price, is an amazing sight. Rustam from Kyrgyzstan has the biggest selection. Some in jars, others in Coca Cola bottles and even a honey comb with parts of the hive still attached, he lets me taste them one by one as his little son looks on.

How locals get in on the action


Syrians like Hisham, a market trader in Souq al-Hamidiyya, are also a vital part of the trading operation. He lets the traders use his storage space while they take pilgrims to Mecca.

“Each group has two buses, one for goods, and one for the journey to Mecca. I look after the goods and bus while they’re gone. I don’t charge them rent though, God will give me a better reward!” Hisham says.

“Plus, I also benefit because they let me work on their stalls, sell my things with them and we also do exchanges. The pilgrims are not as interested in making profits as they are in religious learning, so they want mainly Qurans, Islamic ornaments and clothes. We come to an agreement – say six children’s jackets for four Qurans – and we swap. The jackets come in handy at home for my family.”

As night sets, stalls are put away while the women get out their gas stoves, cooking a meal of dried meat, cheese and tinned vegetables they have brought with them on the journey.

Closer to God


Some, like the “Bicycle Man,” have taken an even more difficult mode of transport than others, completing the (4,015 kilometer) route between his native Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Saudi Arabia on a push bike.

“The trip took me a month and 10 days, I was exhausted,” he said.

“I didn’t have the money to take the bus. I took all my food with me, on a trailer I attached to the back of the bike.

“Along the way I usually found a place to sleep in petrol stations or bus garages, and many people took me into their home when they learnt I was on the Hajj so the costs weren’t that high. But the main reason was that I wanted to see more of the world, and I wanted to really push myself out of dedication to God.”

Unfortunately the Hajj trade is declining. A combination of an increase in the price of goods in the country of origin, Russian import/export restrictions and the availability of faster, simpler modes of transport direct to Mecca have led to the tradition of trading on the Hajj practically dying out.

 

Al Haarat al Yahoodiya (unpublished)

The Jewish quarter of Damascus is a ghost town.  Since 1968 all has stood still, save for the plaster that is slowly crumbling and the wood that slowly rots.  The dark and the damp have invaded and made the Jewish quarter, even in summer, a deathly cold and eerie place. Strange things are written on the walls, occasional figures shuffle and cough in the morgue night.

The Office for Jewish Affairs (Maktaba lil umuur al yahoodiya), people say,  has been paying compensation since 1968 on property in the Jewish quarter that its rightful owners, Syrian Jews, abandoned when they emigrated to Israel.  Some properties are currently occupied, often by Palestinian refugees, and one has been turned into a modern art gallery, but the great majority remain empty and locked.  As Syria and Israel have no financial links and Syria is not wholly integrated into the world banking system, I am not sure how this tiny amount of money reaches the kind of beach-side Tel-Aviv apartments I imagine these people to live in.  In fact, although many people told me this same story, I doubt whether in practical terms it would be at all possible.

Syrians seem to be surprisingly nostalgic about their departed Jewish community.  I have heard many imitate how they used to speak -the interesting fusing of the Hebrew and the Arabic guttural ’H’: the Hebrew more like a choking sound, the Arabic rasping, airy-  how they dressed, how, back in the day, the Jewish quarter was the richest and the cleanest of the city.  How so and so had a Jewish Aunt, or Grandmother, or Mother now living a lonely but privileged life by the sea in Israel.   Imagine, returning home from her morning swim, she finds, waiting on the doormat, a musty, tattered letter, the characters foreign and faded, transcribed into Hebrew by a hasty hand, embossed with a stamp, a stranger.  It cannot be possible.

I never knew whether the Bureau for Jewish Affairs was another one of those Syrian propaganda stories, or a wistful attempt to find pride and dignity in these times that for Syrians are ones of humiliation and social stagnation. In any case, the Jewish quarter of Damascus has become a painfully evident paradox for the future of Syria post ’68, especially when compared to the staggering level of urban development that can be seen across the border in Israel since that time.   Both nations acquired space from the other, but the fact that these ‘acquired spaces’ were used in entirely different ways reflect the two reactions to the war.  Denial in Syria, pride in Israel.  Denial has kept the Jewish quarter how it is, and whether the owners of its empty houses really are given some kind of annual compensation or not, this is only putting a moral dimension on this outward sign of a wayward and confused nation, reeling from the collapse of its past as well as its projected future.

 

4 Responses to “Journalism”

  1. Patrick June 23, 2013 at 3:09 am #

    Please somebody help me. I travelled to Syria with my wife and kids in the summer of 2010 and we went to Aleppo. We saw the Yellow Man there and my children took pictures with him. He seemed to be a very gentle and kind man. This upsets me to know that the rebels have tortured him. Does anybody know what happened to this man? Is he still alive? Please let me know if you have any updates.

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