Hama Weekend, Part 2: Hospitable Friends

Monday, August 1, 2005 | Hamah, Syria

'Arif poses in my sunglasses, beside his gang at Hama's fruit market.
I hopped off the bus late that afternoon in Hama and set out to find some food, but didn't get far. Across the street from the bus station, as I made my way past a large produce market, I was intercepted by an excited middle-aged fruit seller, who introduced himself as 'Arif. He sported a well-trimmed mustache, and wore a grey dishdasha robe like many of his friends, to whom he introduced me. Soon, I was being fed free samples of every fruit they could find in the market, from peaches to tangerines to avocados to melons to apricots.

At first I was a bit confused—would I have to pay for all this fruit? But 'Arif and his gang reassured me that they were just happy to have a new friend. At their urging, I did my best to tell them about myself, and to follow their replies, though my knowledge of the Syrian 'ammiyya dialect is limited. Soon they knew all about me, had stuffed me full of fruit, and were urging me to join them in songs
as we sipped glasses of some sort of herbal maté tea. The evening was boisterous—'Arif and his buddies, who ranged in age from 7 to 70, were extremely animated, and alternated between fighting each other and planting smacking kisses on each others' cheeks. (I got one of the latter from 'Arif.)

The sun now set, I mentioned that I hadn't yet really seen Hama. 'Arif leaped to his feet, and rallied a small band of his closest associates—an old man with a cane, a middle-aged fruit vendor, and one young kid—to join the tour. We jumped into his rumbling Mercedes station wagon, its bright yellow paint rusting off at the fendors, and set out on an evening tour of Hama.

The city is built along the banks of the Orontes River (وادي العاصي), home to its most iconic attraction—the waterwheels (s. ناعورة / pl. نواعير). Hama's 17 surviving wooden waterwheels dot the river banks throughout the city's historic center, trundling ceaselessly around in the current, lifting water skyward into a series of stone irrigation canals. When fully operational (during the Ottoman era), this ingenious system allowed for the irrigation of miles and miles of surrounding countryside. One of them is apparently the world's largest waterwheel, and each has its own name.

It was all I could do to learn these most basic of facts from my enthusiastic tourguides, exhausted as I was from a long day of traveling and walking in the Syrian sun. 'Arif and company nonetheless chattered away tirelessly as they drove me from point to point along the river and up to a scenic hilltop viewpoint, urging me all the way to snap more photos, and showering me with more proud facts about their city.

After an hour or so, 'Arif finally took pity on me and dropped me at the door of the Cairo Hotel, but only after I refused his invitation to dinner ten times, and he extracted solemn promises from me that I would return to visit the next day.

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