I rarely need prompting to discuss political issues but when, on the streets of a dictatorship I am asked, “would you like to talk about politics”?, I may as well reply, “that’s why I am here”. So it was that I encountered Havin, a Kurdish Zoroastrian, on the pavements of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Naturally such hobbies are probably best not undertaken loudly in public as an extended stay at the invitation of the secret police would tend not to demonstrate the better face of Syrian hospitality. Consequently, we adjourn to his family’s home in the Kurdish quarter. Being a somewhat marginalised community, the Kurdish area obviously gets few visits from the Highways Department, the merely irregular surfaces of the city centre have by this time petered out into a rubble based composite, serving the function of both road and pavement. I suspect the social services departments efforts fade away at a similar point on this bus journey to the outskirts. The police however, do not demonstrate such a lack of civic duty, in particular when the Kurds decide to protest about any one of the numerous issues worthy of it. Havin and his friends have no shortage of tales of the State administering justice via the democratically deficient means of assault rifles or of nervous, trembling figures, unwilling or incapable of relating their experiences after 6 months detention at His Excellency’s pleasure – these being the lucky ones who actually returned.
Havin invited me to return in a couple of days for Newroz celebrations, New Year, which falls on March 21st for the Kurds, as well as Iranians and much of Central Asia. His words had prepared me for something modest, probably family festivities, nibbling olives and drinking sweet tea , but on Monday around midday as we strolled towards the fringes of Aleppo, with everyone else seemingly going in the same direction I suspected this may be something bigger. Not however, as big as the tens of thousands of Kurds spread across the hillsides that came into view once the city’s homes fizzled into wasteland. Makeshift stages had been erected for performances and PA speakers had been hung awkwardly from lopsided poles as families spread picnic blankets over the barren ground.
The Kurdish dedication to hospitality soon became apparent as I was led to a special seated area with a clear view of one of the stages. Introductions were made with the leadership of the Patriotic Union of Democratic Kurdistan Party and as successive artists came offstage they were lined up in front of me to offer their respects. A band played the national anthem and despite not understanding a single word (my knowledge then and still only extends to “happy new year, thank you and two beers please”) it immediately became my favourite, for the simple reason I have yet to hear another which you can get up, clap and dance to. These linguistic limitations may have curtailed much possibility of a career as Kurdish theatre critic for the Aleppo Times but the moving theatrical interpretation of Saddam Hussain’s gassing of the Kurds in Halabja required little explanation as this relatively recent episode holds an unsurprisingly raw and potent power for Kurdish populations everywhere.
Come late afternoon, when the entertainment ceased we returned home for the daily ritual of olives bread and cheese. More socializing at a family friend’s apartment preceded the evening’s New Year’s eve party at a nearby club. The date also doubles up as mother’s day and demanded numerous lengthy speeches in praise of I knew not what, apart from mothers of course. Being the only representative of the wider world I was obliged to make a modest contribution to the interminable series of speakers but my wholly justified praise of Kurdish hospitality seemed to hit the right note. Thankfully music and dancing commanded the remainder of the festivities where, unhindered by any natural talent and grace for traditional dancing I opted to whirl around like a prat and revel in my inability.
Thus, near 2 in the morning, after cheerful goodbyes I am obliged to make my first financial outlay for the entire day: the grand total of 45p for the taxi journey back.
When the day finally comes that Syria can again welcome tourists I am left with no doubt Kurdish hospitality will have withstood the years of pain and stand ready to receive us with the warmth and courtesy I came to know.