My psychological problem (CONTAINS VIDEO)
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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From Hama we bus back out into the bleak stony Syrian landscape, all rocks and wasteland, the type you might see in the industrial part of a city and think "I wish they would build something there." It makes you wonder why people get so worked up over this part of the world. Apart from the Fertile Crescent and the areas next to water, it seems like there really isn't much to us in the land. Nothing grows out here and it is too hot to live in most places. Yet countries will wage expensive and deadly wars on each other over the smallest section of land, seemingly just for the sake of pride.
Middle Eastern men are in general, I believe, violent, and I think this carries over into the politics of the region. Macho, violent kids grow into macho, violent men and get elected by other macho, violent men. Once elected, the macho, violent men need a target for their violent urges and this is usually another country or religion. Is this need for violence a reflection of the culture or vice versa, or are the two so intertwined that one is now part of the other?
"This is your answer," he snaps. His 'answer' is essentially a page of insults directed at Lonely Planet, claiming that they have "launched a brutal assault on Spring Flower Hotel". It's a largely incoherent diatribe against the guidebook, as if the editors of Lonely Planet have some long-standing personal axe to grind with him. In the second half of the page he changes tack and just lists synonyms for various negative anti-LP words. For instance, he'll say something like "the allegations are false, fake, bogus, fictitious, incorrect, wrong, fabricated, mistaken, untrue and erroneous."
I finish reading but with an unconvinced look on my face.
"If you speak French, we are recommended in Le Routard [the French guidebook]. Or if you speak German, we are recommended in the German guidebook too. They have no problem with me."
"So you only peep at English speakers then?" My attempt at humour does not go over well, judging by the look on his face.
"Okay. I can turn on air-conditioning", he says, pointing at the unit on the wall.
"Great. Thank you."
"It will cost you an extra 200 pounds for the night."
"But we have already paid for the fan, which doesn't work. We have also paid for the shower, which doesn't work and the toilet, which doesn't work either. Maybe you could just deduct the cost of those things from our bill and give us the air-con instead."
In spite of my foolproof reasoning, Ussam continues to be a dick. We discuss it further but his answers are just lengthy monologues that cover everything from the state of the economy to his law degree to the price of tea in China. The one common theme that he invariably returns to is the Lonely Planet and their vicious personal assault on him. Methinks he doth protest too much, perhaps.
He raises his voice and points his finger at me, drawing the attention of his other guests. We argue some more and reach an impasse. He refuses to give us air-conditioning and I refuse to leave him alone. He tries to get on with running his hotel and I follow him everywhere, pestering him about how hot it is in our room. He even tries to go outside for a few minutes but who should be waiting for him when he returns but me. Finally, he snaps.
"You have been negative since the moment you arrived and accused me of harassment!" he shouts. "You complain, I fix your complaint and you complain about something else. If I give you air-conditioning you will find another thing to complain about."
"I think you have a psychological problem," says Ussam.
"You heard. You are negative about everything here because of your little bible," he says, referring to the Lonely Planet. "You are creating a negative atmosphere in my hotel. I think it would be best if you would, uh, liberate the room."
"You're kicking us out because I complained about air-conditioning?"
He is trying to be careful with his words. "I just think everyone would be happy if you would evacuate the room because of your negative attitude."
"We won't be happy. It's ten o'clock at night and you want to throw us out on the street because I dared to complain about the fact that it is 40 degrees in our room? Sir, all we are asking for is a comfortable night's sleep. It's not as though we want you the change the colour of the room or give us waterbeds. It is a problem that you can easily solve but you are refusing to do so. Forgive me for continuing to be negative but this is, quite frankly, bad service on your behalf.
Ussam has had enough. He grabs me by the arm and tries to drag me somewhere. It is a new experience for me to be manhandled by a hotelier.
"Unhand me!" I shout in my best dramatic voice, making sure that the other guests see and hear me.
Just as things are looking like they might get nasty, Giulio steps in. He has been watching the whole time, smiling as I wind Ussam up.
"Sir, you mentioned earlier that the price of electricity is much higher before 11pm, which is when all the stores close up and people to go bed. Perhaps we could wait until eleven then switch the air-con on and turn it off at seven or eight in the morning."
Ussam and I both look at Giulio, surprised by his entirely simple and sensible solution to our argument.
"Yes, I suppose that would be okay," Ussam says and walks off.
As it turns out, the air-conditioning unit isn't great and we swelter in pools of our own sweat all night long. That doesn't matter to me; the main thing is forcing stupid Ussam to back down and give us what we want.
Upon reflection, maybe Ussam, in his own pigheaded way, did identify and character flaw in me. Perhaps I have become too negative, or at least cynical. How many times in the last few months have I thrown a sarcastic retort back at a tout who, despite being annoying, is just doing his job? How many times have I made a fuss at a restaurant over what amounts to a 25 cent discrepancy, a pittance to us but a big bonus for a poor local waiter? How many times have I entered a store ready for battle rather than for an enjoyable bargaining session and how often have I interrupted a local's attempt at chit chat with a comment along the lines of "are you about to ask me for money?"
In my defence, having barely had a day go by without someone asking us for money, either by buying something at their or just giving them a handout, it is easy to become cynical. The guys who start up a pleasant conversation on the street invariably have some kind of store just around the corner and are not genuinely interested in where you come from. And then you get the "Barbarians at the gate", as I call them, the swarm of taxi drivers and ticket sellers that ambush you as you arrive, bleary-eyed, from an overnight bus. These guys quite justifiably get short shrift from us but maybe we have been a bit harsh on some others. I resolve to be a bit more positive and patient.
No sooner have I made this resolution than we find ourselves wandering down the streets of Aleppo in broad daylight, looking for the souq, or market. Two teenage boys pass us on the sidewalk. Nothing unusual in this and I don't take too much notice. In passing, one of the boys has the nerve to grab Jane right in the crotch. I miss the actual incident but I feel Jane suddenly wheel around and chase after the boys. Before I know what's going on, she catches up to them and gives the younger one, a boy of no more than sixteen, a fearful open-handed haymaker to the back of the neck. The force of the blow sends him reeling onto the hood of a car. He springs back defiantly just as I arrive. Still not sure what has happened, I give him a good shove in the chest and waggle a stern warning finger in his face. The boys lose their bravado and scuttle off as quickly as their pride allows. When Jane tells me what happened, I want to chase after the little bastards but they are long gone.
It's a hot day today. With the inside of our hotel room providing no respite from the outside, and with Ussam being such an arse, we move on to an equally-priced, less touristy but completely adequate room. Wandering the streets in the full glare of the midday sun, we spot the Sheraton Hotel, a brand new massive monolith that occupies a whole city block in the centre of Aleppo.
"I bet they have a nice pool," I say to the others.
"Let's use it," says Jane.
Being foreign-looking, no one gives us a second glance as we stride into the lobby and head directly for the 'fitness area'. Fancy hotels tend to have a sign-in sheet for guests wanting to use the pool but the pool attendance is away from his post as we arrive. We quickly strip to our swimming togs and jump into the cool refreshing water. After weeks of being constantly sweaty, reluctantly showering in hot water because the cold water pipes have become heated from the sun, and finding only the briefest of respite from the heat in the form of an upmarket store, the perfect temperature of the Sheraton's pol is like heaven.
Today, Friday, marks our last day with Giulio, who is continuing down to Damascus, and Yoshi, who is taking the same bus as us to Turkey but then going to a different town. To mark the occasion we go out for what becomes our best meal in Syria. The Al Kommeh Restaurant boasts no less than three world records: the largest plate of fatoosh salad, at 3.5 tonnes, the largest Kebe Sajea (some kind of bread), two metres in diamater, and the longest Skeen Kebab (meat and veggies on a skewer) at 12 metres long. I'm tempted to ask the waiter to rustle us up a 3.6 tonne fatoosh but I settle on a cherry kebab. It is lamb meat in a thick cherry-flavoured sauce and quite delicious.
Where I stayed
Spring Flower Hostel