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Burgers Took the Edge Off My Encounter with Syrian Rebel Fighters

While in Aleppo filming for a documentary, my crew and I were invited to the hotel of a group of al-Nusra fighters. Being polite (and cautious) guests, we accepted their offer to stay for dinner.
Foto: Christina Kadluba via Flickr

Around a year ago, I was in Aleppo, Syria, filming for a documentary. It was a tiny crew; just myself, the correspondent, and a Syrian producer and translator who was our fixer.

We were there under the protection of a group called Liwa al-Tawhid, who were part of the Islamic Front. They're moderate rebels. They want an Islamic state like Turkey but they're not as hardline as al-Nusra, and they're definitely not ISIS. To most people they'll be "scary rebels," but they were nice. They smoked cigarettes.


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At that time, Liwa Al-Tawhid had an agreement with al-Nusra—who were also operating there on a smaller scale—to work together against the Syrian regime, so we weren't overly concerned by al-Nusra's presence. It was clear that we were under the protection of the Islamic Front but we knew to be wary of them as they were known to have previously kidnapped journalists and sold them to ISIS.

What we didn't know was that very soon we'd be following a group of them through Aleppo's ancient alleyways on the way to the strangest dinner of our lives.

You see, the al-Nusra would come by the safe house we were staying at to use the internet and drink tea. We'd seen their press officer there a couple of times before. He was a little younger and more relaxed, friendly even.

We got back one day, exhausted after filming, and there was an al-Nusra fighter in an armed suicide vest just sitting there, drinking tea.

My colleagues and I exchanged an Is that what I think it is? look. I mean, I'd never seen one before. It's a weird thing to see. It resembles a really dangerous girdle, one with panels of shrapnel and explosives, wiring coming off it, and a visible switch. He was only wearing it in case he was captured by the regime, but there's nothing like a crazy-looking explosive device to put you on edge.

We got back one day, exhausted after filming, and there was an al-Nusra fighter in an armed suicide vest just sitting there, drinking tea.


The vest-wearing man and the press officer are talking to some of the other commanders and a Palestinian photographer we know. We didn't want them in the room while we edited our footage, so we were stuck trying to feel out the situation as best we could. I discreetly made sure my tattoos were covered, conscious not to seem disrespectful.

Our fixer, who has a wonderful way of making people relax, started speaking to the press officer. Apparently Nusra wanted us to make a film about them too, so we talk about it to keep things pleasant. They asked us questions about filming, like "What's the range of a GoPro?"

I explained it depends what it's for.

The reply: "Well, do you think you could film us doing a suicide attack next week?"

We need to be amenable so can't say "no" outright, despite all manner of ethical reasons why we couldn't ever do that. Then our fixer told us that the Nusra fighters have invited us round to their place. They can't understand a word of English so we ask, "Is that actually cool, man? We don't think it's cool."

"I think it's a bit rude to say no," he said. "Don't worry, it will be fine."

We accepted and started walking to their house. Most of the soldiers inside Aleppo at the time were based in the oldest part of the city and purposefully very close to the regime in order to minimise the chance of being hit by Assad's barrel bombs. The safest place was, unusually, right next to the enemy.


We followed the group through the Medieval warren of tiny, curving streets until we arrived at one of the most beautiful hotels I've ever seen in my life. Think super fancy Marrakech.

As we entered further, we see this kid, who's maybe fourteen, sitting in front of the television watching Tom & Jerry. Being in this near-deserted, luxury hotel with a man taking off a suicide vest nearby is already quite surreal and now there's a kid watching cartoons. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, Well, we should be really scared of these guys, but they're all quite young and being really hospitable. Is this a set up?

One of the fighters quickly changes the channel to the BBC news and Brits fighting the Taliban appear on the screen. We swiftly ask if they can switch to something else to make sure the conversation stays away from anything controversial.

The Nusra mostly talked among themselves but soon asked if we'd like anything to eat. Despite not having eaten all day, we of course say that we're happy either way but it's clear they're hungry too. A brief discussion followed about what everyone would like. Being the perfect guests, we say we don't mind at all and the nice press guy and photographer went off to pick up dinner.

Without any words, it was obvious to everyone that—in the way only food can—those burgers took the edge off everything. It was the most at ease I felt.

They return with cheeseburgers. I don't know if they came from their military kitchen or if they were bought in one of the last remaining cafes, but they were really, really good.


The bread was great. There was salad in them, a special burger-type sauce, and chips in the actual burger. That's not something I usually go for but they were still crunchy so it worked well. They had bought Coca Cola for everyone too and I gladly accepted an extra half a burger.

Our hosts were really generous with their food and kept checking we had enjoyed our meal and had had enough, which is a very Middle Eastern trait. Another regional custom is that people don't really talk during their meal. They talk before and after, but in my experience, not when actually eating.

But without any words, it was obvious to everyone that—in the way only food can—those burgers took the edge off everything. It was the most at ease I felt.

I was surprised by how good a lot of the food in Aleppo was, considering the problem of food shortages. Food is still being produced in the countryside nearby and the different armed groups seemed to have agreements with farmers to get it, but sadly local people don't have the financial means to buy any of it.

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After we ate, they took us on a tour of their hotel, showing us the opened up Hammam baths where they prayed and slept. They took us to see their lovely plunge pool and asked if we wanted to go swimming. By that point, we were all thinking, We've been polite. We've had the meal. Let's get back before anything political comes up, but they didn't seem to have an agenda.

Really, I think the situation was that we were young Western guys, they were young Syrian guys, and they were interested in us. They were stuck there, losing friends regularly and we were something different, a bit of fun.

Their higher command may have had a different attitude but I've heard of similar situations in Iran where even in a crowd of people shouting anti-US slogans, someone local will turn around to the American journalist, and say, "You're from New York. That's so cool. How is it? I really want to go there."

I guess we were a good distraction from the monotony of war for at least the length of a burger dinner. And we even wound up with hotel slippers.

As told to Suze Olbrich.