At his­toric Aleppo ho­tel, nostal­gia for a Syria lost

Baron Ho­tel is a his­toric land­mark in Aleppo

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

On the ter­race of the Baron Ho­tel in Aleppo, the owner’s widow, Roubina Tashjian, sorted through old pho­to­graphs of its hap­pier past in a more peace­ful Syria. Founded by an Ar­me­nian fam­ily in 1911, the Baron played host to ad­ven­tur­ers, writ­ers, kings, avi­a­tors, Be­douin chiefs and pres­i­dents un­til war forced it to close five years ago. Tashjian sees the Baron as part of a Syria that val­ues re­li­gious and eth­nic di­ver­sity, open­ness to the out­side world, cul­ture and re­spect for the coun­try’s great an­tiq­ui­ties. “A Syr­ian is a mix­ture of all these eth­nic groups and cul­tures ... this is a big pot and it’s all mixed up. But we cook the same kibbeh,” she said, re­fer­ring to a Le­van­tine dish.

Try­ing to re­vive that vi­sion of Syria amid a war that has ag­gra­vated so­cial frac­tures would in­volve rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, re­li­gious sects and eco­nomic classes. But with hun­dreds of thou­sands dead, more than half the coun­try’s pre-war pop­u­la­tion dis­placed and fight­ing on­go­ing, there seems lit­tle hope of that for now. For the Baron, whose busi­ness de­pended on sta­bil­ity, safety and the draw of Syria’s cul­tural trea­sures, the 2011 upris­ing was a cat­a­strophic as­sault on ev­ery­thing that al­lowed it to thrive. Dur­ing most of the fight­ing, Aleppo’s gov­ern­ment-held west­ern dis­tricts were sub­jected to shell­fire, an in­flux of refugees and short­ages of wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and food. East Aleppo, held by rebels un­til De­cem­ber when the army swept through it af­ter months of siege and air raids, was left all but a waste­land.

The Baron, in west Aleppo near the front line, was hit by mor­tar bombs, in­clud­ing one that sprayed shrap­nel across an up­per floor and another that crashed through the win­dow of its “Ori­en­tal Room” onto del­i­cate floor tiles but failed to ex­plode. The tail fin from that round now sits in the Baron’s cab­i­net of cu­riosi­ties along­side such relics as pot­tery given by vis­it­ing ar­chae­ol­o­gists and T.E. Lawrence’s ho­tel bill. In the up­stairs room she al­ways took dur­ing her fre­quent stays in Aleppo stands the glass-topped wooden desk where Agatha Christie wrote part of Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press.

Sec­u­lar or sec­tar­ian?

For sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad it is the fault of rebels they de­scribe as ter­ror­ists, view­ing them as Is­lamist mil­i­tants who de­spise di­ver­sity and crim­i­nal gangs who loot cul­tural trea­sures. As­sad has cast his state as a sec­u­lar pro­tec­tor of Syria’s mi­nori­ties and cul­tural her­itage against Sunni rebels backed by hos­tile for­eign states whose ranks in­clude many hard­lin­ers. It was a view shared by some of the au­di­ence at a con­cert in an Old City church, flut­ter­ing fans in the sum­mer heat of the open basil­ica, its roof ru­ined by shelling, as they lis­tened to Mozart’s Mass in C Mi­nor.

But any char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of As­sad’s Syria as di­verse, sec­u­lar, open and tol­er­ant is re­jected by the op­po­si­tion, as well as some West­ern coun­tries and rights groups. Crit­ics say Syria’s gov­ern­ment has long been one of the most op­pres­sive in the Mid­dle East and this was a root cause of the war. The priv­i­leged po­si­tion of As­sad’s Alaw­ite sect un­der him and his fa­ther, the late Pres­i­dent Hafez al-As­sad, fed griev­ances among many in the Sunni Mus­lim ma­jor­ity even as other Sun­nis in­clud­ing ur­ban elites backed the gov­ern­ment.

While the gov­ern­ment has pro­moted the idea of a sec­u­lar Syria through­out the war, the con­flict’s sec­tar­ian edge has been hard to miss. As rebels ral­lied around Sunni Is­lamist slo­gans, As­sad drew on al­lies in­clud­ing Shi’ite Is­lamist mili­tias backed by Iran. They played a big part in the cam­paign to re­take eastern Aleppo. In the city, the con­flict’s so­cio-eco­nomic di­men­sions are read­ily ap­par­ent. Ar­eas where the re­bel­lion was strongest in­cluded places by­passed by eco­nomic growth and poor quar­ters to which ru­ral peo­ple flocked.

One west Aleppo res­i­dent, who had driven through dev­as­tated eastern dis­tricts af­ter the fight­ing ended, said the in­hab­i­tants had brought ruin upon them­selves by con­sort­ing with rebels. “Those peo­ple were the cause. Yes, it’s sad, but...” the per­son said.

Refugee fam­i­lies

In the Baron, the wood-pan­eled din­ing room, the bar stocked with an­tique bot­tles, the pink fur­ni­ture of the high-ceilinged smok­ing room and the bed­rooms all seem worn and tired. It stopped tak­ing pay­ing guests in 2012 bar a few old friends - when Syria’s civil war came to Aleppo and mor­tars and sniper fire be­gan to plague the streets around. Tashjian, a 66-year-old for­mer teacher, chases away street kit­tens that creep through bro­ken French win­dows into the din­ing room and tries to keep the mostly de­serted ho­tel from fall­ing fur­ther into dis­re­pair in a city with lit­tle elec­tric­ity or wa­ter. Her hus­band, Ar­men Ma­zloumian, the grand­son of the ho­tel’s founder, died in 2016, two years af­ter they mar­ried fol­low­ing a 30-year friend­ship. The Baron now be­longs to his sis­ters, who left Syria years earlier, she said. On the ter­race from which Egypt’s na­tion­al­ist leader Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser once ad­dressed a huge crowd, the boxes of old pho­to­graphs were sur­rounded by other de­tri­tus re­cently hauled from a base­ment af­ter the fight­ing abated.

Kil­ims, an­tique sew­ing ma­chines, a set of 1950s tow­els, and molder­ing linen im­ported from Europe and em­broi­dered with the ho­tel’s name, cas­caded from large rat­tan trunks. Dur­ing the fight­ing, the ho­tel took in refugee fam­i­lies from east Aleppo. While they were there they used so much wa­ter clean­ing the floors of their rooms each morn­ing that the el­e­gant geo­met­ric tiles were dam­aged, Tashjian said. In the late af­ter­noon heat, the ho­tel is cooled by a breeze that drifts in through bro­ken win­dows on the ground floor and up the grand stair­case. “Syria was the most com­fort­able, the most sec­u­lar coun­try in the Arab world,” said Tashjian. “It was em­bar­rass­ing if peo­ple asked if you were a Chris­tian or a Mus­lim.”— Reuters

A pic­ture taken yes­ter­day shows a graf­fiti by street artist “Axe Col­ors” por­tray­ing Bri­tish ac­tor Kit Har­ing­ton known for play­ing Jon Snow in The Game of Thrones TV se­ries in Barcelona. — AFP photos

A woman walks in front a graf­fiti by street artist “Axe Colours” por­tray­ing Bri­tish ac­tress Maisie Wil­liams known for play­ing Arya Stark in The Game of Thrones TV se­ries.

A dog walks in front a graf­fiti por­tray­ing US ac­tor Nor­man Ree­dus known for play­ing Daryl Dixon in The Walk­ing Dead TV se­ries.

A graf­fiti by street artist “Axe Col­ors” por­tray­ing Bri­tish ac­tress Emilia Clarke known for play­ing Daen­erys Tar­garyen in The Game of Thrones TV se­ries.

A pic­ture shows a graf­fiti by street artist ‘Axe Col­ors’ por­tray­ing US ac­tor Bryan Cranston of­ten known for play­ing Wal­ter White in The Break­ing Bad TV se­ries.

A graf­fiti por­tray­ing Bri­tish ac­tor Andrew Lin­coln of­ten known for play­ing Rick Grimes in The Walk­ing Dead TV se­ries.

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