2009, July the 2nd. I still vividly remember how I first met Ali. He came to fetch me in the courtyard of Aleppo's Grand Mosque. A digital panel in the hall displayed 40.3 degrees celsius, just next to where the five prayer times were listed. Elderly men sat on plastic chairs under the arcades fiddling with their prayer beads. There was a comforting silence that contrasted with the hustle and bustle of life outside.
Ali had short black hair and a tiny chin beard. He was a smart and soft-mannered 24-year-old student of English literature. Just two weeks before reaching Aleppo, I had turned 18. A year short of my high school graduation, this trip was an initiation. It was both a journey of maturing and the discovery of a culture that deeply fascinated me.
Someone I met while doing research for my first solo journey to the Middle East had introduced me to Ali. I had prepared for this trip for months. As a grantee of a German travel foundation I set off with my own research project. I wanted to study how the three Abrahamic religions coexisted in Syria. I had drafted a route and studied the basics of Syrian history. But my meeting with Ali could not have been planned.
We left the Grand Mosque through a back door and entered the maze of the souq. Ali knew the alleys like the yard of his own home. This was ancient Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. We turned behind a row of spice shops and walked along a stone wall that had witnessed centuries of change. Then we stepped through a gate and climbed a flight of stairs. Had I been on my own, I probably wouldn't have found my way here.
We stepped into the courtyard of yet another mosque. It was more modest than the Great Mosque and marked by age, serenely tucked away from the busy souq. Al-Adiliyah was a worship site built in the mid-16th century, one of the oldest monuments of the Ottoman period.
We sat down in the mosque's reception hall. Ali told me he was responsible for receiving foreigners at the mosque. Before I could explain him why I had come to Syria, he had already produced a breakfast of flat bread, hummus, cheese, olives, cucumbers and tomatoes for me. I said I was here to speak to Syrians of different religious backgrounds. I mentioned that I felt particularly drawn to Sufism, having experienced a Sufi ceremony at an interfaith gathering in Germany earlier that year.
"This mosque belongs to a Sufi community, didn't you know that?," Ali exclaimed. My heart leaped. I realized I had come to the right place. How things align when you search for something with a pure intent!
Ali invited me to stay as a guest in the mosque which – as I learnt later – was associated with a branch of the Shadhiliyya order, a Sufi movement with North African origins. I was overjoyed. This was the kind of experience I was looking for. "I can hardly believe it. I just exchanged my hotel for a mosque! What would happen if a Syrian wanted to spend the night in a German church?," I wrote into my diary that evening.
For a whole week, I got to sleep on a balcony overlooking the mosque's domed prayer hall and facing the prayer niche that indicated the direction of Mecca. In Al-Adiliyah I experienced the best of Syrian hospitality. I was fed and taken care of like an old brother. Whomever Ali introduced me to, I was received with kind smiles and words of appreciation. There was so much warmth and heartfelt connection in the way community members treated each other. Soon I felt like one of them.
In the early mornings I would be woken up by the call to prayer and meditate to the sound of Qur'anic recitation. There was beauty and depth in the Islam I experienced at Al-Adiliyah. This experience sparked a sense of recognition in me. As if I had known all this from before. Ali showed me the movements of Islamic prayer. It almost felt like an oriental version of yoga. Ali was not only a friend, but also my door to a lived spiritual tradition that I would come to explore deeper in the years that followed.
Then I left Aleppo to travel cross-country for 19 days. I visited the port city of Latakia, the town of Hama, the ruins of Palmyra, the mountain monastery of Mar Musa, the Christian village Ma'alula and finally the Syrian capital Damascus. Little did I know that roughly one and a half years after my journey this land would sink into a bloody civil war.
2009, August the 1st. Aleppo, again. It was my last day in Syria. Early the next morning I would board the bus to Istanbul from where I would hitchhike back to Germany. Ali was getting married. I joined the circle of men swaying their heads to Islamic hymns accompanied by the beats of a darbuka. Clad in a shiny silver suit, Ali seemed in trance. He was at the center of attention, surrounded by jubilant friends, family and well-wishers. They lifted him up on their shoulders and danced across the courtyard. Around 2 AM the dance reached a climax. Now it was time for Ali to leave the circle of men, fetch his wife and take her to his home.
That night I wrote into my diary: "On his way out, I briefly stop Ali to say goodbye. We look into each other's eyes and I am close to shedding tears of joy. 'In only a month we forged a friendship, but it seems to me like a year,' Ali tells me. I hand him an envelope with three photos of the time we spent together and a postcard from my hometown. I feel so grateful for having met this man. I am convinced that this journey could lead to a lifelong friendship..."
2012, summer. Three years after I left Aleppo, war arrived in the city. The place that had given me so much became the epicenter of the Syrian civil war. 30,000 were killed in Aleppo alone during the months of bombing. Horrible images of terror and poverty flooded the media. The old town was falling victim to vicious fighting. The souq: destroyed. The towering Umayyad-era minaret of the Grand mosque: crumbled into pieces. What about Al-Adiliyah? She didn't make it into the news. It was only years later that I made a painful discovery: Images on Google Maps showed the mosque without its dome, the portico strewn with debris and the minaret riddled with bullet holes.
When war raged in Aleppo, my thoughts naturally went to Ali and his family. Not being able to reach him by email, my worries increased. I tried to contact some friends from the community, only to learn that Ali's neighborhood had been heavily shelled by the regime. Had he been able to escape?
I felt helpless, sitting with the memories of my Syria that would never be the same again. Thinking of my time at Al-Adiliyah filled me with nostalgia and grief. My relaxed student life in Berlin was so far from war and destruction, it was sometimes difficult to accept. I had to make peace with the fact that I might never hear from Ali again.
2014, April the 13th. I'm walking through Istanbul with my girlfriend. It's one of those moments that come with a long-distance relationship. In a few hours I will be on a plane back to Germany. After 1.5 years of togetherness having to say goodbye is still as painful as ever. We're strolling through the alleys of Sultanahmet, the historical center of Istanbul. 'I know a good café to sit,' my girlfriend has told me, but it seems we're only getting lost in the lanes. My agitation increases and I remind her that we have little time left. Are we meant to spend our last moments running in circles?
Suddenly I feel two arms squeezing me from behind. Someone's giving me a tight hug. It is not my partner, she is walking next to me. I turn around and can't believe what I see.
We look at each other in amazement, electrified. After a few seconds I notice his wife Fatima and two children next to him, a son and a daughter. We sit down on the grass of a nearby mosque, not knowing where to start the conversation. So much had happened in the five years since I left Syria.
Later, Ali told me that this Sunday was the first time he had taken his family out on an excursion to the old city. What were the chances that our paths would cross in this city of 16 million? If Ali hadn't decided to venture out on that very afternoon and if we wouldn't have lost our way, we could as well have missed each other. But it was all perfectly arranged.
A few years later – I was living in Istanbul by then – Ali told me his story:
"After you had left Syria in 2009 I started working as a tourist guide at the Grand Mosque. In spring 2011 war broke out in the south of the country. One day I heard that the police was after me. They were checking our IDs. All those who had not served in the military were being rounded up to fight in the war. I quickly exited through the mosque's back door and escaped into the souq.
"My parents had a house on the outskirts of Aleppo. I left the city center and spent almost two years in hiding. During this time I didn't have a mobile phone or an internet connection.
"That area was rebel-held territory. Many times rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army would knock on my door and offer me money to work as their translator. I declined, telling them I was just a simple teacher. In summer 2012, the Syrian regime started dropping barrel bombs on our suburb. One day a bomb hit the neighbor's home. I was not at home, but Fatima and the two kids were. Startled by the explosion, Fatima rushed out, our daughter Bana on her arm. In panic she stumbled. Bana, who was seven months old, hit the ground. She didn't wake up for 24 hours.
"When Fatima rushed her to a hospital in the center of Aleppo, doctors detected a brain hemorrhage. Without an urgent surgery she would have to die. This was when we decided to escape to Turkey. Family friends helped smuggle Fatima and Bana across the border. Brain surgery at a hospital in the Turkish border town of Kilis saved Bana's life, but the accident left her disabled with epilepsy.
"After joining my family in the border areas which were then teeming with Syrian refugees, I decided to travel to Istanbul to see if I could find a job. I slept in a basement that was full of fellow Syrians. During my first week in Istanbul I went to pray at a mosque among the Turks. I often speak to Allah after my prayer. In desperation I told him: 'Allah, you created these people. Please send someone to help me.' After my prayer, someone in the mosque tapped on my shoulder and, speaking in broken Arabic, asked how he could help. I said I needed a job.
"The man helped me find someone who hired me as an odd-job man at a medicine-producing factory. I was paid badly, but enough to bring my family to Istanbul. The factory owner helped us find a modest apartment to live in. It was a struggle for survival. After some years of hardship I found a job in my original profession, as an English teacher. The salary I earned at the school helped me pay for my daughter's medical expenses."
When Aslınur and I visited Ali and his family during the month of Ramadan in 2019, he told me he wanted to take his family to the West. Since 2017 his files are being processed at the UNHCR office for resettlement to Europe. When asked about his country of preference, he told the officials: "Preferably an English-speaking place." After a while they called him back and said: "We sent your files to the German embassy."
In Turkey, Ali and his family are tolerated like hundreds of thousands of other refugees. They don't have a permanent residency. This means the Turkish state could send them away any time. Recently, cases of deportation have increased. "If I go back to Syria, they might arrest me," Ali said.
Ali's oldest son Mohammed is now ten. He is an exceptionally bright boy who already speaks fluent English. Bana continues to need specialized medical care. The youngest daughter, Beylasan, was born in Turkey 3.5 years ago.
When we broke fast with Fatima's delicious Syrian meal, we also revived some of our memories from the days we spent in Syria together. To both of us it seemed like ages ago.
"I don’t remember many things from Syria," Ali told me. "A lot seems blurred. Once Fatima scolded me 'How can you forget? It’s your home.' Then I replied to her: 'My home is the place where I live happily and safe.'"
Note: My trip to Syria in 2009 was made possible through a 600 Euro travel grant offered by zis Stiftung für Studienreisen, a German foundation that funds self-explorative journeys for young adults aged 16-20. It comes with a set of conditions: The journey has to be a minimum of four weeks, you're not allowed to spend more than the grant amount and taking airplanes is forbidden. In that way you learn to live on a tight budget and rely on the hospitality of strangers. By traveling slowly to your destination, you get more sensitive to the gradual change of cultures along the way.