I walked around Aleppo all day yesterday: the souks and small workshops, 10 second cooked bread skimmed down the handle of the paddle used to put them in there and flip them, wholemeal for once and I want to try it, but lose the place, and am shy to try to negotiate the price of a single fresh one.. tea in numerous situations offered, sometimes accepted. A man repeats assertion that the scarves would be perfect for my mother or my sister over and over, ‘..very light, very nice…’ Very salmon pink, I think. Like him, I’m single it emerges. He’s not married; he’s a vegetarian. Doesn’t eat fish, he says, and explains what this implies about his sexuality. An analogy curiously tasteless, incomplete it seems, though speaking volumes about culture and conformity here. But only with foreigners, he hastens to explain, by the way, I like your beard and your hair, very nice. I thank him for the tea and the seat, and am on my way.
Later I watch a man filling moulds with pressed sand ready to cast some appendage for the steering wheel of a minivan across the road, of the kind that zoom and beep through the streets here all the time. I can’t explain about the craftsmen project that started with the watchmaker, but he seems fine with my photographing him anyway. The men opposite sat in the shade, his friends or colloegues, bring me cold water and offer tea and a seat after a while, which after a while I accept. The two low workshops opposite are 3 feet beneath the level of the street, may have been there a long time. On the left a young guy- I try to catch him washing his hands with the sparkling pouring from the ritual washing jug he’s holding between his thighs a bit later, but don’t make it- grinds the edges from cast door furnishings with a wire brush motor, over and again with assured concentration, and the high pitched buzz is rhythmical and piercing, but blends over whirr of the fan that cools him and sends the dust and smoke out into the street, thickening the light, and the roar of the furnace at the back of the vault, which glows hungry, and accepts the scraps left from the separation of the moulded pieces. The other side of the wall, facing the same soot-encrusted arch, the older man, squat and powerful, fills mould after mould with sand in the shape of what he will cast when the time is right, not now I guess.
This kind of thing is fascinating, but not in the same way as the watchmaker, though interest grew out of that. On the Cuba page on this site you can see the portrait of his I shot in 2000 as he worked on a Swiss Omega my Dad gave me when his died. When it had been cleaned, which was all the repair it needed, he showed me its shiny ticking in the loupe he unhooked from his glasses. He said it was the most beautiful thing in the world, ‘la cosa mas bella del mundo’, and I believed him. I like the idea of it being the world, but that’s a different story kind of. So I conceived of a series, incomplete of course at this point still, that would follow the love for machine you can see in the careful frown of his brow in the picture. But later the idea became a frustrated enactment of my lack of agency, the lack of utility in the whole enterprise of my photography- the films, the dissociative framing, the frustrated job offers, the putting things in boxes and piling them up, the distortions of silver gelatine moment selection on time and memory. In short doing something, by photographing men who did something, but seemingly doing nothing. Post-modern convolution. In England it’s different as I’m interested in the nostalgia for the golden age of British engineering, the train spotters for this, the surviving few. But here, I realise this is dwarfed, irrelevant, as the whole working city still functions in this way. The boys making band blades for the saws in the neighbouring shops, for the furniture workshops round the corner. This is still a city of a thousand trades.
My ice cream dinner is melting. I went to a hammam in the evening that I’d seen south of the Great Umayyad Mosque of one of the souks in the old part of town, a bath house. 600 syrian lira for entry, massage, soap, sponge, rub down, drink. About 6 quid, which I question a it seems steeper than the 250 advertised in Arabic, but hey-ho, just my neo-colonial-economic expectations kicking in I realise later, when I see a similar list in Arabic elsewhere. The valuables go in a locked drawer, and the key on my wrist, then I hang my clothes on pegs on a raised and pillowed bench, now wrapped in a fresh red checked thin towel one of the attendants gives me. I’m ushered in Messieur, and shown to a kind of domed ceiling tiled room, by a man in shorts and t-shirt over his paunch, and Gumby wellingtons cut short. Exotic, I think. There are old stone basins with no holes in them, and I wonder how they become dry. He tells me to sit down. I go to on the basin, and he says no messieur, motioning to the floor. I feel like a child. He fills the sink with warm water, and starts to wash my hair. Now I feel like a child having his hair washed by his father, who happens to be a farmer still smoking a fag in the corner of his mouth. We’re in a possibly ancient hammam that’s been done up like a 1980s bathroom. The first room like a 1970s pine-panelled sauna. He washes my hair and head and beard with the local olive oil soap bar he gave me when I came in, twice. I have to do so again. Then he ushers me to the steam room. It’s chilly, but not in the actual steam room, where I sit and sweat, condense too I think. a group of men arrive and start to wash and splash and laugh and smoke in one of the wash rooms off the central hallway. Of course, I’ve the man in wellies cos I’ve got no mates.
Light-headed, I walk out and find him again, and he says, ‘massadge messieur?’ I nod na’am si yes oui, whatever, and he says sit- pointing to the bare tiles in the head alcove, almost like an altar, with two fonts. I’m sitting, then lying there, looking at the domed ceiling and the old irregular holes, the bare bulbs, one blown, and a load of kids come in and start sliding along the floor after their men-folk, smoking and chatting. A man comes in, starts to run water into the font. I think of Eastern Promises, the Cronenborg film. Nasty baths scene there. He looks Russian. He hawks and spits into a drain, a thick gob of mucous. He has me lie down on my back, then sets to rubbing me down with brillo pad gloves. Chest then legs, thighs between the robe almost intrusively, has me sit up for right then left arm. There’s two tattos, they don’t look gangster- one says leave me alone beneath an evil eye on his right arm, the other death or freedom over his heart. It’s almost sore, the edge of pain. And a strange business indeed for me. This is travelling I think, and I notice rotten teeth beneath the bushy moustache, and see the little rolls of exfoliate like grey playdough sleiuced away before he fills a steel bown with soapy water and the oil soap massage begins. And the bust chat of the regulars surrounds, the laughter of the kids. Again the edge of pain, but very good in fact. He could break my fingers, my arms, by back, as he grunts over me, not smoking which is good. I’m glad I wasn’t hoping to find this erotic. Though maybe if I was vegetarian this would be my… cup of bouillon…? He’s certainly quite rough. Slaps me on the back, ‘Halas, monsieur, finish’. ‘Skukran’ I thank him.
I go back to the steam room for a bit, but feel a spare part hanging around. There are 3 older guys now having the same treatment, and I sit and watch him slap a fat man around a bit. I don’t envy him his work. I notice a black stain on the wall, head hight. There’s a cockroach there no mates like me, but he’s not interested, he’s just looking the other way.
I leave back to reception, am hilped to change towels to a dry one in an anteroom, and lie down in my booth for a bit like i saw a sleeping man doing on the way in. Can’t keep it up that long mind. Groups arrive, are greeted ceremoniously, some eat chicken and chips round a plastic table. I dress, finish my tea, collect my valuables and leave, and am bid an enthusiastic farewell my my masseur, in a high pitched voice with habibi in there somewhere. I’ve no idea what he’s saying, but at least I’m clean.