A take-away food vendor waits for clients in Syria's former economic capital Aleppo
Aleppo - Arab Today
Once-proud shop owners in Aleppo's picturesque old city market, the merchants of Syria's former economic capital now live on a pittance selling goods on pavements and stalls.
After a major rebel offensive on Aleppo in July 2012, the city's historic souk fell prey to a war that has killed more than 195,000 Syrians and forced nearly half the population to flee.
On Aleppo's storied Furqan street, still in Syrian regime hands, Hussein Abdallah is trying to revive the Arax restaurant brand -- famous for its pomegranate-laced falafel patties -- which has outlets in Lebanon and the United States.
"We used to own a 40-square-metre (430-square-feet) shop that was constantly full, just as well-known among Aleppo residents as it was among foreigners," said 30-year-old Abdallah, as his workers fried the chickpea-based delicacy in hot oil.
"But the war forced me to shut down the shop my grandfather founded," he told AFP.
Abdallah's old shop was in the Saqtiyeh neighbourhood, next to a market where vegetables, fruit and traditional local dishes were sold.
"Things aren't as good as they once were, but I can't complain. We have to work. This is our country," he said.
Aleppo's souk is the world's largest open-air market. Stretching 15 kilometres (10 miles) along the winding alleyways of the old city, its oldest sections date back to the 14th century.
But much of the UNESCO World Heritage Site is off-limits, ravaged by fighting in the divided city.
Part of the market has been burnt down and most of it is now under rebel control.
- 'I had to close' -
Merchants of all specialities complain bitterly how their earnings have plummeted because of the violence. They still dream about returning to their old shops.
Mohammad Atrash, 51, used to be a car dealer in the Sakhur neighbourhood, which is in rebel hands.
Nowadays he sells mushabbak, a traditional fried dough dessert.
"The store my grandfather opened in Bab Jnein burned down, and I had to close my car business. I had to join up with a partner and now we make traditional mushabbak sweets here," Atrash told AFP.
Before the war, Bab Jnein was at the heart of a commercial district that manufactured goods destined for nearby Turkey.
- 'Who will buy jewellery?' -
Abu Samer was a wholesale silver and oriental jewellery seller, but has now closed the shop he owned.
"At first, I changed my profession. (For a time) I sold electrical appliances like automatic razors. But there's no electricity in the city, so I went back to my original job," he said.
Now in his 40s, Abu Samer started his career working with his father when he was just 13.
"But frankly, who is going to buy jewellery now, when everyone's main concern is to find work and food to eat? My sales have slumped by 70 percent," he said.
Many merchants living on the rebel-held side of Aleppo have also lost their livelihoods.
Alaa Mubayyed made and sold copper goods in the old city. He now gets by selling fruit and vegetables.
"Tomatoes! Purslane!... Try them, they are better than yesterday's," he hawks to customers, amid the din of nearby gunfire.
"We used to own a shop where we sold oriental copper crafts, and we were very well off. But then the battles started. Barrel bombs and rockets have destroyed the copper market," Mubayyed told AFP.
"Everything was destroyed, but thank God, we are still alive. Honestly, I never thought I would have to start from scratch and suffer this much," said the 34-year-old.
"I hope one day to be able to start again, and that God will reward us. How long will we have to live like this?"