Last year, I already wrote about my favourite restaurant in Palmyra. Today, I found myself thinking about Aleppo. I had a flashback to a desert road. At that time, dotted with bustling service stations, which I got to view from a nice air-conditioned car (because wow, walking along a desert road in 40 degrees is unpleasant). I spent hours upon hours looking out of the window. Mum even reckons I got sunstroke from it. Anyway, I remembered trying to squat over a really horrible, dirty, service station toilet on the way to Aleppo, and wondering how I had ended up there. Thoughts included: ‘why did I not go before we left’, ‘why could I not wait an hour longer’, and ‘ohh, did I remember to bring emergency toilet paper?’. It never once crossed my mind the entire road would be deserted and broken two years later, service stations abandoned, people hiding. I guess it is something you should always be aware of when travelling; just so you see and do and appreciate everything possible. I remember driving through Croatia when I was very little, and seeing bullet holes in buildings. Walking through Beirut, and seeing bullet holes in buildings. This can happen anywhere.
Palmyra is largely gone now. I do not even know how I can write that. Gone. Erased from the map. A hole in the desert, and as soppy as it sounds (go ahead, get a bucket), a hole in my heart. But – I have a poster of the Bel Temple above my desk. For me, and many other archaeologists, it is still there, in a way. That is precisely the thing. Why I am writing this post. Ruins have been meticulously recorded, and they have always (even if very badly) been re-constructed. There is even a new 3D Palmyra project floating about the internet. It is an indescribable loss to humanity, the destruction of these sites, but … there is another kind of destruction that saddens me even more. The places of people of the present. The ones no one bothered to record so meticulously. Like my favourite restaurant in Aleppo. This is not just some Dutch girl`s favourite restaurant that got demolished, obviously; it is just one of the places I am able to describe.
Some places can be re-built. If anyone in Palmyra survives who knows how to do those pancakes, I am certain the Pancake House will return. My favourite restaurant in Aleppo however, I am less certain about. Sissi House (named after the Austrian Empress!) was a combination of unique factors that are hard to put back together. The building itself was a mansion in the Christian quarter Jdeydeh, a beautifully restored 17th-18th century merchant`s house. In Arabic ‘jadida’ (never mind my spelling by the way) means ‘new’, since it was built outside of the old city wall – first in the 15th century; and hopefully once again in the 21st century. The inhabitants of Jdeydeh were primarily brokers who facilitated trade between foreigners and locals. The modern neighbourhood had a great time benefiting from this past, displaying traditional crafts, and turning the imposing houses into boutique hotels (and fancy restaurants). Not annoyingly, busily, tourist-y and crowded-ly though. Nicely. Sissi house was hidden away in one of the small narrow streets just off the main square. Upon entering you would find a spacious central courtyard, the kind in which you can heard your footsteps echo. In the evening, footsteps were replaced by live music. The place was decorated in grand oriental style, with dozens of interesting objects hanging from the walls. I am not talking faded grandeur, like Pera Palace Istanbul. I would say it was still grand. It was kind of posh I suppose, considering a 25 p Syrian pizza from a street-corner would do me just as well.
The food was a unique mixture between Arabic and French. Oh I found a few fantastic oriental reviews online, but that is not what is happening in my particular memory. I remember the French food. It is the strangest thing, to eat a Roquefort salad in central Aleppo. I am going to guess it might be the traces of the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon (1923 − 1946). After weeks of Syrian flatbread with hummus (and I do not especially love hummus, apologies) it is a very welcome change. It is like… going on the hunt for Dutch pea soup at a market in Bangkok. Amidst all the fantastic local cuisine, it is just totally the wrong thing to do. Oh, but delicious anyway. I cannot actually remember what else I ate there, and I never took any photos. I thought I would be back. The essential, crucial, mistake.
Another restaurant with an absolutely amazing Roquefort salad was La Guitar in Damascus. I know, I am sorry – advice on French cuisine in bombed restaurants is probably not the most useful thing you read today. Because yes – several people have reported that Sissi House burned down in 2012. I remember reading an article about it accompanied by a photograph. It is very clearly edged into my mind. The courtyard in ruins, the stairs crumbling down. One moment you are there, the next it is gone. I tried to retrieve the picture through Google, but I am not sure where it has gone. It is probably for the best, because the image still haunts me. I am not trying to say that you should enjoy every place like it is the last time and then never return. I am saying you should enjoy every place like it is the last time, and hope to return. It may not be possible. So, this record of my memory is how it is, and sadly, it will have to do.