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The Silence of Hama

Abdulhamid is waving his hand indignantly and his eyes hurl flashes of sudden anger.  His soft voice has slowed to gravel syllables; his hostility is throwing us off.  Just minutes ago he was guiding us through his hometown, telling us, in gestured Arabic and with a warm smile, about the history of the citadel mount on the other side of the river and the water wheels to our feet.  After treating us to bananas and tiny pears on the market in front of a defunct train station, he pointed at his mosque with welcoming pride.  But now, inside the ice-cream parlor, he is clearly annoyed.

We had arrived in the central Syrian city of Hama a few hours earlier, parking the rented compact amidst the chaos of a vegetable market in full swing.  Heaps of eggplants and grapes covered the pavements, leaving only scant room for the barking vendors and darkly shrouded shoppers to engage in the necessary bargaining.  On our way downtown, the shouting was quickly replaced by the relentless rush of traffic, a cacophony of sputtering taxis made in Iran and old lorries of questionable intent.

Our stroll took us to the Orontes and the scene changed.  The water, bright green and home to flocks of discarded water bottles, flowed lazily but evaporated coolness and refreshing humidity.  The riverbanks were lined with cafés, their tables inviting but still empty this early in the day.  We crossed a footbridge and entered a park.  Hedges and trees muffled the urban blare, but we could still not hear the attraction we'd come to see.

Hama is famous for its wooden water wheels that were built, since antiquity, to support the cultivation of the arid plains around the city.  Seventeen of them, called norias in Arabic, rise from the Orontes.  Up to twenty meters tall, they lift the river's muddy waters into distributive channels that irrigate the fields.  Like an acoustic signature, one can hear them from afar, their rhythmic clatter filling the air day and night.

So said the guidebook, but the first water wheel we saw, black against the blenched sky of summer and rumpled with age, was absolutely silent.  In a picture of rickety elegance, two dozen slender spokes radiated from a central axle to hold a loop of flimsy blades.  There must have been a time when the wheel had carried endless buckets of water up to the aqueduct that disappeared behind it into the dense maze of the city, but on the day of our visit it stood still.

We headed upriver to a weir where the mightiest norias stand in a group of four, but we were disappointed again.  A park enclosed by a wall denied access on one side of the river.  On the other, an al-fresco restaurant sprawled, its enclosing metal fence blocking our approach.  Nevertheless, it was clear, even from a distance, that these wheels didn't turn either.

nouria

Nouria

Lost by the gate of the restaurant, we were contemplating our options when a young Arab with a thin moustache and a broad smile waddled towards us in a sandy ankle-long cloak.  With a cheerful, "You are Welcome," he handed us two small bottles of orange juice.  Though our shared vocabulary was extremely limited, we understood that he wanted to show us his town and another noria he knew, down by the Nuri Mosque.

Had he spoken English, Abdulhamid could have told us that the oldest evidence for the norias' existence comes from a fifth-century mosaic that's on display in the city's museum.  He could have also explained to us that they haven't served their purpose for quite a while now.  Their spinning, clattering and groaning, is only a gesture to the past and a nod to visitors, and they only turn in spring when the river runs deep.

Had we spoken Arabic, we could have asked about 1982, when the Syrian government had sent the army to quelch a budding Islamic resistance movement then sheltered in Hama.  The subsequent indiscriminate shelling of the city destroyed a few of the norias, but also leveled most of the old town and killed thousands, innocent civilians for the most part.  As Abdulhamid proudly showed us off to his friends in the streets, we sensed that some things are better left unsaid, that there can be a benefit to linguistic disparity.

We could already see the noria that marked the end of our walk when Abdulhamid pulled us into a small café.  Refrigerated buckets of battered metal held frozen sahlep, an ice-cream-like delicacy that's unique to the Middle East.  Its base is a flour obtained from the dried tubers of a certain kind of orchid.  Mixed with milk and sugar, the paste is then cooled and pounded with a wooden tool not unlike an oversize stonemason's mallet until it reaches a consistency of utmost stringiness.  Out of a Western sense of reciprocity, I got my wallet out, stepped forward to pay – and unwittingly drenched a kind man in insult.

He gestures karate chops with his left hand and kills me with his eyes.  Words aren't necessary to make it clear beyond any doubt that he will either pay for us or leave without a word, our fledgling friendship irretrievably broken.  We are his guests, and there is nothing to add.  As we savor sahlep, hospitality rises silently over the noise of the city, a much better symbol of Hama than the tormented wailing of strained wood could be.

16 August 2010