Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

A Turkish hotel that hosts all Syria's pains and memories

I realised we were part of another kind of regional spillover of the Syrian revolution, one that no one writes about, perhaps because they would be accused of "romanticising" the revolution

The town of Reyhanli is the Turkish capital for revolutionary activities in northern Syria, and the Hotel Ali Ce is the heart of those operations. Here the abstract concept of "regional spillover," so popular in analytical articles about Syria, becomes real and personal. The hotel was once a safe haven, as was the town. But now Syria's violence touches everyone you meet, from the concierge to the guests.

Unlike the lavish hotels that the Syrian political opposition has become accustomed to, the pink and yellow Ali Ce building on the main Reyhanli road is not known for luxury. It is almost impossible to make a reliable reservation, they don't take credit cards, their showers are extremely moody and you have to ask for your room to be cleaned.

But from morning till well past midnight, dozens of characters gather around the white plastic tables: FSA fighters and generals, aid workers, activists, journalists, Syrian expatriates and refugees and weapons dealers. Once a sleepy hotel in a sleepy town, the Ali Ce has witnessed it all: tortured prisoners, strategic political meetings, secret weapons deals and scandalous stories: "What happens in the Ali Ce, stays in the Ali Ce".

The out-of-touch political opposition, a world away in Istanbul, is forgotten and ignored here. The connection to Syria and the Syrian people is tangible in border towns like Reyhanli and Killis. Reyhanli's population has doubled to 60,000 since the revolution began. The town suffered deadly twin car bombings in May but concrete apartment buildings are sprouting up everywhere and the local economy is booming. The fact that the Syrian tragedy is behind this growth is never forgotten.

On my first night, bleary, jet-lagged and relieved that I had a room, I took some dollars from my wallet to tip Mohammed, who had lugged my bags. I was surprised when he refused to take the money, saying with pride "I don't want your money. I am Syrian". I learnt later that he had been tortured in one of Bashar Al Assad's prisons for a year and a half.

Later I opened the window - there was a distant view of olive-trees on Syrian hills, and listened to the morning athan. Everything about this place reminded me of Syria. Sadly, Reyhanli had not been spared my country's misery. Women and children begged for money on the street, in Arabic.

At Galaxy, a fast-food restaurant, Syrian-style chicken with white garlic sauce was our group's favourite meal. When I complained that food was much better in Antakya, my friend joked: "Wait 10 years, you'll eat here like you used to in Aleppo." We did not laugh.

The Turkish people we interacted with were sources of protection and loyalty. Ahmet, our tough driver, had delivered food to his Syrian friends who could not leave the house for days after the car bombings. He claimed he changed his former "sinful" ways after working for the refugees. He said that he used to commit "2,000 sins a day but now only 1,000". Ahmet suffered a massive heart attack and had bypass surgery during my trip. When we visited him on our last night in his modest home, he told me: "We are one people. One people."

At Nazli's, a hairdresser across the street, I learnt that the Turkish mother's brother-in-law had been killed in the bombings. I was quiet as she moved the brush through my hair and said over and over: "Why the bombs? Why the bombs?"

Moustafa, a Turkish hotel manager, surprised me one night when I walked in after being out for 12 hours: "Where were you? No one stays in the camp that late. I was worried." I explained we had dinner before coming back to the hotel. He made me promise to let him know every time we came back from Syria.

One Turkish man in particular affected the lives of everyone who crossed into Syria via the Atmeh border. Hussein, a skinny man with a pudding-bowl haircut that made him look like an ageing Beatle, went from holding a boring government job at this remote outpost to becoming one of the most important men in Reyhanli. He is responsible for signing every person in and out of the Atmeh border. Everyone tries to be on his good side to ease entry and exit, which is not easy because of his flaring temper. For instance, if your name were Bashar, he would change it to Bashir, yelling: "I haven't written the name Bashar in two years and refuse to start doing that now."

The last day I crossed into Syria, he learnt my personal information by his heart. He asked jokingly without looking up: "So when are you coming back? I hope you're not staying for a long time." Surrounded by dozens of people waiting for hours in the heat to get into Syria - some without papers, others separated from their families, each face etched with the same pain of uncertainty - I burst into tears. He consoled me: "I pray for this nightmare to be over every day. I pray for all of these people to go back to their homes. I pray that you will never have to cross into your country from here again."

Leaving the hotel after 12 nights, the broken shower head, the hard beds and the quilts and carpets on the plastic partition, were all but forgotten as I looked back at the unlikely group that had gathered on the side street to say goodbye, smiling Syrians and Turks wishing us safe travels and safe returns.

I realised we were part of another kind of regional spillover, one that no one writes about, perhaps because they would be accused of "romanticising" the revolution. Or perhaps in the feverish quest to hunt down and write about the revolution's horrors instead of its hopes, they just had not experienced it. This spillover was real and personal too - a bond between people and that bleeding land that was within hiking distance. A bond of compassion, determination and love.

By every conventional review standard, Ali Ce fails miserably. But it does what only the best hotels can do: it makes you feel at home. When a hotel or a town can make you feel at home, while you have become estranged by force from your real home, that's just pure magic. And just like in The Eagles' song, you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.

Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian-American writer

On Twitter: @AmalHanano

Updated: July 4, 2013 04:00 AM

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