A travel moment in Aleppo

We shook off the government agent in Aleppo, the strange, suited, middle-aged man who had bought us tea and shadowed us through the city.

We twigged who he was fairly quickly, but he was still hard to get rid of. He did gain us entry into one of the gorgeous, surprisingly lush courtyards that hide behind the high concrete walls of the city streets. We would never have seen it we hadn’t been so strangely threatening. What were these two Western girls doing in Syria? With no men of their own?

Every time we wanted to do something further off the track, some man -- one of the many that would surround us whenever we stopped – would tell us: “Is very difficult for you.” No kidding.

Happily, our government agent didn’t follow us through the women’s souk, the most enticing part of the biggest undercover market in the Middle East, in the oldest inhabited city in the world. Easy to get lost there among the perfumes and fabrics, hundreds of metres of twisting alleys packed with tempting stalls. The women in full burqa, black from top to toe. The Bedouin with their bright colours and face tattoos, shyly wanting to touch my strawberry blonde plaits.

When we left Aleppo for a village in the far east of the country, we rushed for the bus, only to discover that armed soldiers were searching luggage on all buses leaving the city. There had been bombs. One of the soldiers grabbed my pack. Were my bras and undies about to be paraded in front of all these watching men? He opened the pack and dragged out a clear bag full of tampons, bought elsewhere since they weren’t then available in Syria.

The soldier had no idea what they were. He opened the bag, took several out, handed them around the usual cluster of men. Clearly all of them puzzled. We had no language in common, but the soldier’s angry demand to know what these were was obvious. I had an Arabic-English dictionary. I looked up the word for menstruation, showed the page to the soldier and pointed to the word. The soldier paled, horrified. He silently snatched the tampons from the men, thrust them back into the bag, shoved them into my otherwise untouched pack and all but threw it into the luggage compartment of
the bus. I kept a straight face until the bus door closed and we were off, but then my friend and I dissolved into helpless laughter, safe from retaliation.

Being a woman, sometimes it’s such a bonus.

C Hente

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