Tuesday 30th November 1993, evening

This morning we were in the desert. Now it's raining. We are back on the coach driving through the steady rain towards Aleppo, the home town of our guide. As we reach the outskirts he is noticeably excited to be back and tells us that his four year old son will be waiting for him at home. Tonight is his night off and his colleague will come to take us to dinner and introduce the musicians who will play classical Arabic music for us.  Eventually we arrive at our hotel, we are all tired. The days are long with much travelling and so much to learn; so much information about the early settlements and cities and the current state of archeology in Syria.

Our evening meal is in the penthouse restaurant of the Amir Palace hotel, unimaginatively known as Top of the Tops. During dinner we are serenaded by a pianist, entertaining us with a wide repertoire, everything from Beethoven to the Beatles with jazz thrown in for good measure. The meal itself is different from anything we have been served so far on our tour.

In addition to the usual appetisers there is a raw meat dish of very tender and highly spiced pulverised lamb, served in pieces. I try one piece and it is quite tasty but the knowledge that it is raw and a lifetime of being told to make sure meat was properly cooked stops me from eating more. The main course consists of what I can best describe as warm yoghurt soup with mint, pieces of chicken and minced lamb meat balls. At first it is very nice and I like it but I can't eat it all, there is too much and each mouthful tastes the same.

As I eat I can look out from this penthouse position across the city.  The building opposite the hotel has a display in lights with words scrolling first from right to left and then, in Arabic script from left to right. It seems to say "Congratulations to our leader Al-Assad".  There are pictures and statues of him everywhere. He has been elected president four times. Maybe he is doing a good job but with only one official party and many other political groups banned I wonder how many of the people really want him as their leader and what those who don't can do about it. Then I realise that since I was old enough to vote governments in Britain have never represented me and there isn't much I can do about it. But at least we have an opposition and even Thatcher wasn't a dictator.

The classical musicians arrive shortly after dinner. One is playing a tambourine and a type of Tom-tom drum, the other has a type of stringed instrument which he places flat with the strings horizontal. While the string player tunes his instrument, in a way that reminds me of the old piano tuner, our stand in guide tells us what it is and that it has triple strings but I don't catch its name or how many sets of strings he says it has. 

The music performance starts. The first pieces are fast and rhythmical and the quarter tones make them sound, to my inexperienced ear, oriental. After a spell of traditional Arabic classical music the two musicians are joined by the pianist and the three begin a session of improvised music, jamming I think it's called. It takes them a little time to feel their way in to the improvisation but eventually it works and after a lively performance they finish to loud applause.

As we head back to our own hotel the guide reminds us of the schedule for tomorrow. Wake up time will be 8:00am, a welcome lie in.