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Sizing Up Syria

THE FIRST PERSON I MEET IN ALEPPO is 60-year-old Ahmad Modallal. He approaches me casually. "You have just arrived in Aleppo?" he begins. "Welcome." He has embarked on a career in tourism, he informs me, after years as a civil servant. He'd like to show me around.

"My father is a famous singer," he continues, sensing my resistance. "He was the muezzin in the Great Mosque. He goes soon to sing in Paris, the Chambre des Députés, the Gare St.-Lazare." He pauses, arching an eyebrow. "He is now eighty-two years old. It is from him I get my love of music. I like very much American music—Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin."

Not everyone I meet in the city has Mr. Modallal's flair. Still, Aleppo is a surprise. It rivals Damascus for antiquity, yet it is more cosmopolitan, filled with traders from Russia and Armenia, Turkey and Uzbekistan, who come to buy and sell in the souks. And the goods are more outlandish: entire stores devoted to honeycombs or sheep's heads, animal pelts or rope.

The modern city, too, is prettier than the capital. The boulevards leading to the university are flanked with trees and elegant balconied apartment blocks. There is something extravagant about this place. Even the traffic cops seem obsessed with style, their motorbikes decorated with tall, brightly colored feathers.

For all that, Aleppo has the resentfulness of a second city. Where Damascus is easygoing, Aleppo is all hard sell. I spend half my time dodging merchants or guides or translators whose opening gambit I make the mistake of answering.

But Aleppo is at the beginning of its own mini cultural revolution. At the Shibani arts center in the shell of what was once a Franciscan school, I meet Issa Touma and his partner, Majed al-Bean. Issa has needed all the tenacity at his command to haul the Shibani Center into existence.

"I want to bring everyone in, not just the little world of the artistic community, but the people in the street," he tells me over a lunch of kibbeh and tabbouleh at his parents' house in the lovely Jdeide area of the city, where Ottoman palaces are being furiously converted into spectacular restaurants for the burgeoning tourist trade. "Soon, we'll open a photography and documentary film center. With luck, it'll take a year." He smiles at the idea. "It'll be the fastest project in Syrian history."

My arrival coincides with the last night of a festival for women artists at the center. Issa confesses that he'll be very upset if he doesn't get two hundred people. In the end, the event draws so many, they are spilling down the stairs and into the tree-lined courtyard; a writer struggles to read her short story above the chatter.

Then comes a pair of traditional Lebanese dancers, and the crowd falls silent. A local poet recites from his work. Finally, a frail old man in a red fez is coaxed from the audience onto the stage. His voice rises strong and clear through the hall and out into the night. At the close of the cycle of Syrian songs, there is an explosion of applause. Only later do I discover that this is Sabri Modallal, my guide's father, who will shortly depart for the Chambre des Députés, the Gare St.-Lazare.

Issa had told me over lunch that the greatest barrier to change in Syria was not politics but the quiet stoicism of the people outside Damascus and Aleppo. "Their religion is their family, their cows and sheep, the rain they hope for," he said. "A new political regime arrives and it is just another face, another set of slogans."

With such forbearance, Issa seemed to be saying, what chance is there of becoming a more open, more modern society?As a new leader takes over, a self-styled modernizer who may or may not be able to escape the past, that is a legitimate question. Recalling the unfettered joy of Sabri Modallal's songs, the legacy of the ancient Palmyrenes, and the long nights of talk and laughter in modern Damascus, it struck me that Syria's chances might be pretty good.

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