Ginger Syrians

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Up at 7:15am, I go for a shower and find a random man presumably another of my Syrian housemate’s friends, train-wrecked fully-clothed on a bed in one of the vacant upstairs rooms across from it.

Taxi to university in a Soviet-made car which must  have been at least thirty years old and had no suspension (or much else) to speak of. I pay the driver my fare of 40p and as I leave, he says in broken English “myy carr naiss, yess?”.

Returning after class, I sit down in the common area of my house with my housemate with some cheesy pastries purchased nearby and a door opens from another vacant room and another random man walks out. All he can muster is a gravelly baritone ‘ahlan’ before he simply lets himself out. Going to the Maronite church this evening, the formal Arabic of religious devotion proved as wonderfully inaccessible as ever. I ran into the bishop outside afterwards and sat down with him for green tea. We were soon joined by a few of the other priests and had a conversation in Arabic and French about the state of employment in Syria, the age of the site of the church in which we had just worshipped (the foundations of a previous church were laid in the sixth century, making it the oldest site extant in Syria) and Margaret Thatcher’s political policies, amongst other things.

On the way back I was greeted randomly by a passing man who talked with me about my trip to the northern city of Lattakia, his home, which I visited among others last week. I bade him goodbye as I went for a shwarma, a wrap of shaved goat meat with lemon mayonnaise. Heading back from the fast food stall to my house I ran into a professional Kurdish musician who invited me into his house for sweet mint tea and bizarre, mournful Kurdish music played on a theorbo like instrument. After which he discussed that the modern attitude towards Jews in Syria dismays him, as he lived in the Jewish Quarter with a Jewish man for ten years until recently when he passed away.

On my arrival back home I had what was written of my essay/dissertation on the fall of the Roman Republic critiqued by a housemate (I’ve never written a 3000-word uni essay even in English before…). Just another day.  Every one has the potential to surprise, awe and downright confuse. That’s the thing with such an ancient and diverse country. Last week was a holiday for ‘Eid al-Fitr‘, the festival for the end of Ramadan (thank fuck), so I went travelling with some people around northern Syria. Where, believe it or not, ginger barnets punctuate the general demographic of this old town.

Ginger Syrians, or ‘Gyrians’ as we know them (affectionately) are not simply a curiosity in Aleppo, but a phenomenon. There are around five million Kurds in Syria by some estimates, and these men are only the most obvious of them. They’re your average looking, moustachioed Syrians except… ginger. It’s fucking bizarre, let me tell you. Like the cast of Helensburgh Central hanging about at the start of the Silk Road.


Something lost in translation from Arabic to English is the drinking of alcohol. Ignorant Westerners assume that all Arabs are fanatical Muslims wearing Sikh-style turbans filled with explosives bent on carnage with no fun allowed afterwards. It goes largely without saying that this is completely false. Nevertheless, I did assume when I arrived that, just like in Britain, drinking in public and open public drunkenness would have a certain traditional social stigma assigned to them. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a bit of Aleppo and found out that this isn’t the case at all, and, if anything, the opposite can be true. Trying to arrange a car for the day after, at just before three in the afternoon two of us were sitting outside a hotel marvelling at the most bizarre scene I have yet beheld in all my days.

A group of around thirty men, including two or three Gyrians, were trying to arrange taxis, but really just causing complete chaos on a stretch of pavement in the square, to some moderately distant location on the outskirts of the city. All seemed to be varyingly intoxicated, but one man was absolutely, ridiculously battered. Honestly probably the drunkest I have ever seen anyone. He was shouting incoherently, spitting, trying to drink more lager, attempting to assault taxi drivers and generally falling all over the place and making a complete tit of himself.

Two of his slightly better-off friends were trying to hold him back. At one point, he flailed his arms all over the place and exclaimed something about his friend’s blood and passed out (literally in a second) onto the bonnet of a taxi with a sickening thud. In an attempt to rid himself of this menace, the driver started to reverse away, only to reveal that rather than the Arabic equivalent of  ‘WARNING, VEHICLE REVERSING!’ his rear bumper played a gobsmackingly hilarious monophonic rendition of ‘It’s a Small World After All’, complete with a drumbeat which sounded more like an ocean with something really wrong with it.

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With that going on, the drunkard fell from the front of the taxi to the ground, rolled around a bit in either agony or ecstasy or probably both in equal measure before being picked back up by his friends, being scolded by them and then continuing to make a (most pricelessly humourous) scene, amongst all the general havoc that continued to go on around. Meanwhile, a group of slightly older men in maybe their early thirties stood across the street drinking Heineken and smoking cheap Syrian cigarettes. Seeing our jaws wide, one explained to us that the offending gentleman had been married earlier that day and that they were trying to go to a site near the airport where they would consume inordinately excessive amounts of ‘arak’ (the Arab equivalent of absinthe) and then fight each other in a frenzied manner, using half-sharpened daggers. They asked if we would join them, and we politely responded that we would wait for our friends inside the hotel. They came out a few minutes later and we managed to head for the aswaaq and the citadel, dodging certain death.

What happens in Syria…sometimes differs drastically from Western news sources.



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