During the 15 odd years when I was an expatriate, living and operating first out of Dubai and subsequently out of Sri Lanka running my own business, I was more akin to a travelling salesman, pounding pavements of cities in country after country peddling my wares. The fact that I had transplanted myself into the ‘real’ world, from the boondocks of Assam, every single trip I undertook to whichever country, while a unique experience in itself, also was a new chapter in my ongoing higher education.
This higher education which, teaching me as much as it did, was for me at the level of a ‘doctorate’. Besides the endless learning with me getting a firsthand feel of different cultures, on every trip I would meet a cross section of folk, some so very interesting that I have had the pleasure of forging some very close friendships. What gives me immense satisfaction is that a number of those relationships, having matured over a period time, are still very much alive and kicking. Happily so! One of those very special ones is my bond with a Syrian gentleman. Chadi Kalbakji, a purveyor of tea operating out of Damascus.
The Syrian population, in addition to Turkish coffee, drinks massive volumes of tea, cup after cup all day long. To feed that ‘obsession’ the country imports humongous volumes of good quality tea. The bottom line being that Damascus became a very frequent destination for me. Over the many years and numerous trips to Syria, in us attempting to drum up some mutually beneficial business, Chadi drove me to almost all the major cities of Syria where we would meet tea merchants discussing business over many cups of tea before taking time off to drive around the city for some sightseeing. Every visit was an eye opener. Now when one sees the havoc that the senseless war has wrought on that once beautiful country, it literally breaks ones heart. Inhuman wanton destruction!
This was in the coastal city of Latakia when we sat down for one of those expansive Syrian meals during which just wading through the seemingly endless stream of appetizers, with one delectable dish following another and long before the entrée makes its appearance, one has food coming out of one’s ears, that Chadi asked me whether in India we like eating sheep’s brain. The image which immediately popped up in my mind was of that absolutely sumptuous Indian/Pakistani style brain curry “magaz masala” which has not even an iota of resemblance to its main ingredient and is a dish I do so enjoy. So proudly blurted out a “of course I do”. Having answered that casually thrown question, we got down to some serious eating, tackling the ‘parade’ of mezze which almost magically kept coming on to the table. Then came the pièce de résistance, a pink blob which, other than throbbing, appeared to be doing everything else that it’s designed to do! In response to my round-eyed incredulous look Chadi tells me “you said you like brain, so here it is – steamed brain”. Oh no Sir, a foodie I may be, but I do draw the line somewhere!
On one of my visits to Syria, Mike Jones who was at that time a senior manager with James Finlay and who, besides being a business associate was and continues to be a good friend, had for many years been suggesting that since he’d never been to Syria, he would like to accompany me on one of trips. The dates having been fixed, Mike called to say that he’d like to have his colleague come along. The three of us having linked up in Dubai, just as we were boarding the flight to Damascus, Richard Smyth let it be known to us that he had never, before this trip, travelled to any ‘dodgy’ destination. So here, unlike Mike who I knew to be an intrepid travaller who had been there and done that, we were saddled with a softy!
‘Dodgy’ being not quite the word I would have used for what is arguably the world’s oldest civilization, we landed in Damascus where over a two day stay, messers Jones and Smyth gorged themselves on delicious Syrian fare in some really quaint restaurants which Chadi introduced us to. On the third day, with Chadi at the wheel, enroute to Aleppo we got to Hama by the afternoon and decided that ahead of sitting down for another one of ‘those’ meals we should first visit the sights. We had only got as far as the Norias when, as I was taking this photograph (alongside), I found that Richard’s face had taken on the hue of one who had many days before handed in his dinner pail and instead of being shovelled in had been placed on a rack in a damp cellar to mature along with the blocks of cheese kept there for the purpose. Yup! Our softy had ended up with a classical case of what in India is quaintly described as ‘Delhi belly’. With Richards innards making strange and rather unfriendly noises, there being no other option, we bundled the two into a commandeered cab for a hurried drive back to Damascus and the earliest possible flight back to Dubai. Having waved the duo off, Chadi and I continued on to Aleppo.
Aleppo – one of the most beautiful old cities I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Reeking of history, it was a delight to wander through the narrow lanes of the souk, running my hands over stone walls which had probably been standing there for eons silently watching generations go by and pass into history. Makes one wonder where the human race is headed when one sees how that stunning city has been reduced to a pile of rubble!
While there are so many anecdotes which I could share of my travels with Chadi, there is this particular one which immediately comes to mind and which even now decades later, whenever I think about Syria, has me chuckling to myself.
In Damascus sitting alongside Chadi in his fairly new Mercedes, at an intersection waiting for a signal to turn green, a clutch of street urchins crowded the car to beg, shoving their hands in through the open windows. Suddenly one of them excitedly shouts out something and they all rush off. Totally flummoxed I turned to Chadi for an explanation who, with his standard ear to ear grin tells me “that little monkey told the rest of the gang to forget about the Mercedes because a latest model BMW had come to a stop behind my car and that there would be richer pickings there”! The signal having turned green, I remember us having held up the traffic till we finally managed to stop guffawing.
I could go on forever, but leave it with what a sage had to say centuries ago:
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
Could anyone ever have expressed it any better?