Once Upon a Time in Aleppo by Lynne Grant
This is a story about what daily life was like in a Christian community in Aleppo in the 1990s from the perspective of a New Zealand woman, Lynne, who shared an apartment with a Syrian girl, Layla. The social problems prevalent in the Middle East today are featured, including inter-religious conflict between Christians and Moslems, sex, veiled women and security. However, at the heart of the story are the friendships and the daily experiences of warmth, generosity and hospitality that underpin the Arabic culture.
As Lynne learns the language and makes friends, she has the opportunity to witness aspects of Syrian culture that few foreigners have seen, such as the inside of a traditional Moslem wedding, a private club and dinner with a sheep merchant. Her friends share stories, their hopes and dreams with her. She also spends time in the famous Aleppo souks, which were destroyed in 2012, experiences bribery and earns some kickbacks herself.
The book also takes the reader to other parts of Syria, as well as to Lebanon where the destruction from the civil war in Beirut offers a sombre picture of what the future Aleppo would be like. An Easter excursion to Layla's home town in central Syria leads to rumours of Lynne's nuptials. Lynne also heads East for Christmas in the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Deir ez Zor where one of several brushes with the law takes place.
Lynne's affection for Aleppo and the people living there shines throughout the book and this is made much more poignant with the knowledge that what she describes is now all gone, having disappeared under a religious and ideological conflict that has destroyed the country. This is a story about what life was like in Aleppo, once upon a time.