There has been violence in the Syrian city of Hama - only half an hour by road from that other town of carnage, Homs - since protests erupted there last March (2011). On June 3, protesters in Hama were targeted by secret police and the military, and more than 50 people were killed. Hundreds were injured. On 1 July more than 400,000 protestors were estimated to be massed in the streets. Two days later, tanks rolled in and killed more than 20 civilians. Many more were injured and raped. At the end of that month the army went in again, and in this so-called “Ramadan Massacre” at least 100 more people were killed in the city.
The struggle against the regime continues, though, and by the end of last month activists claimed control of four Hama neighbourhoods. Government-paid snipers, active since at least last summer, continue to shoot civilians.
Hama remembers even worse days thirty years ago, when Assad’s father was in power. In April 1981, in revenge for a “terrorist attack”, the army massacred 400 of Hama’s male Sunni Moslems, picked out at random. Then in February 1982, as Wikipedia describes it, “the Syrian army, under the orders of the president of Syria Hafez al-Assad, conducted a scorched earth policy against the town of Hama in order to quell a revolt by the Sunni Muslim community... the attack has been described as one of ‘the single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.’ The vast majority of the victims were civilians.” At least 25,000 people were killed, including 1000 soldiers. The city was sealed off for a month, electricty and water supplies cut. That was the scale of the violence.
Yet Hama is also an attractive city, and in the mid-1990s it was possible to go there, as I did, and find peace and warm hospitality.
The river Orontes flows sedately through the middle of the city, and, back then at least, the riverbanks were cool and green, with gardens, parkland and deciduous trees. It might almost have been England except for the magnificent, vast wooden water-wheels - the norias - some of them survivors from the middle ages, built to pump water for irrigation. There were four of these huge structures - perhaps sixty feet in diameter, yet slender, almost fragile-looking - attached to one end of a ruined warehouse, with two smaller ones closer to the weir that served them all.
I sat on a park bench to watch and listen as they made their slow, rickety rounds. They’re often described as making a groaning noise, but the sounds were more like an old motorbike revving. A coot bobbed along on the water, and a huge butterfly circled a limed tree nearby. There was a sudden, strong smell of mint on the breeze. A little way off a rat crouched on the riverbank. (Could Mole be far behind?)
Up in the town, as darkness began to fall, the streets began to throng. I queued in a shop that made and sold only long strings of sugary doughnut (xurros). It came winding out of the hot machine as it was finished, curling around onto a waist-high circular bed of shining metal. You pointed to indicate what length you wanted, and a fat man in an apron chopped off your slice and charged you accordingly. The place was steaming and crowded, like an unaccountably popular fish and chip shop. I was the only non-local, and most of the customers were young and friendly. Later I looked down from a Restaurant and Coffee Shop terrace at the pretty convergence of river, roundabouts and roads, where shops glittered and the central circle of roundabout was strung with a crown of yellow lightbulbs. There was light too behind the water dripping from the largest norias. Wailing musak was put in its place by the far more amplified muezzin.
Hama also rejoiced in its fleet of working vintage taxis - as good a collection of 1950s Detroit monsters as you’d find outside of Havana. They were mostly painted yellow, as seen in Yankee movies, and they were wired so that whenever they were parked, their headlights blinked in a frantic alternating sequence.
I wandered into the back lanes, fell into halting conversation with a local English teacher, and after handshakes and cinnamon coffee outside his house, I was invited in, and was happy to accept. We stepped through the front door straight into an open courtyard, with one room off at each end, each lined with chairs as around the edges of a dancehall. One room was for the men, and the other for the old men. (It goes without saying that no women were in sight.) The house, I was told, was 300 years old, with a traditional ceiling of reeds and wood, and tiled floors. The owner’s uncle had died only the day before, aged 103.
It was all very polite and seemly. As everywhere, the formal rituals of greeting had humane purpose. It’s a formality that allows warmth - warmth through decorum, mutually savoured. The small group of men I spoke with, via my host, said they thought their lives were “easier” than ours in the West: less stress. The teacher asked me, though, with polite puzzlement, why it is that we need to drink alcohol when we get together with our friends. Why can we not enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company without drinking? It was a good question, and one I’ve often remembered since. I still don’t really have an answer.
Today, of course, I have to wonder whether the men I met are still alive. Have those back lanes been shelled? Does that 300-year-old house survive? Do the gigantic medieval wooden wheels still turn?