Sharia ath-Thawra was a jumble of shining yellow taxis, fearlessly zipping between moving metal. Their drivers rested weary elbows on horns, hooting, blind to all but their destination. A pedestrian flyover was visible in the distance, beyond a mammoth neon Sony sign, about a ten minute walk away. But Iain and I had slept too late; we had things to see, a city to explore, and so stood, peering onto the street, waiting for a gap. A truck chugged along further down – at a safe speed, it seemed. We took the chance, darted across the road, and began a sprint as one of the faceless yellow vehicles sped toward us, its horn hooting profanities. A leap forward and we were out of its path, balancing on a white line. Cars swished behind and in front of us, displacing bulks of air that slapped you in the face; ‘idiot’ they screamed. I exhaled, stood jelly legged in between the two rows of speeding traffic, and clutched Iain’s hand in terrified futility.
Across the road, vegetables were laid out on pieces of sacking, spread over the bare tarmac. Women sat in front of a few shrivelled vegetables, headscarves hanging over their foreheads as they stared at me, blank. Hundreds of people manned a makeshift market place that curved along the pavements and led to a wider avenue of street sellers. Arranged before them, on tables or the street, were bundles of shoelaces, polyester socks, flimsy plastic toys or seed bars: a handful of meagre items formed their livelihood. Men squeezed lemon juice into yellowed glasses and water was doused onto tired cucumber slices, refreshing their chance of purchase. All around me, people stood or sat, hoping to make a sale, and a living.
Rows of tiny workshops with busy men inside, welding metal, made sparks fly. Then began the rows of butchers, their wares hung outside on hooks: cow carcasses, whole chickens, ballooned intestines, ready to pop. Trades clustered together, juice bars with juice bars, pastry shops with pastry shops, shoe shops with shoe shop; why, I couldn’t fathom. Surely spreading themselves out would lessen competition?
We continued through the market, further from the skyscrapers of modern Damascus, feeling more and more conspicuous. My trousers, long Turkish tunic, and modestly tied up hair were not enough to keep the scrutinising looks at bay. I smiled meekly, walking through the sea of Arab faces, and wondered what compelled them to stare, what they were thinking, and what made me so different in their eyes.
Iain fancied that his relatively dark looks – tanned skin, brown hair and eyes – allowed him to pass as a Syrian, despite his height and tattered jeans. But it wasn’t racial characteristics that separated us from the hundreds that we passed: many Syrians’ eyes were as blue as mine. But mine was the only uncovered female head in sight, gliding through a rainbow of headscarves, speckled with black burqa-ed faces. Perhaps the way I walked; self confident, independent – regardless of my sex – oozed immodesty in the eyes of these market people.
Beside the citadel, we found the entrance to the Souq al-Hamidiyya, the city’s main bazaar. Built in the 19th century, the souq’s curved metal ceiling soared sky high, punctuated by bullet holes which let in streams of dusty light. The bullet holes were left by the French, who occupied Syria – with League of Nations approval – from 1920 until 1946.
Strolling with scores of shoppers, I snatched glances at brightly coloured tunics and dresses, sparkling in glittery excess. I passed jeans, knit wear and Lycra – the clothes of home – handmade perfume stores and shoe shops, chock full with ‘Nika’ and ‘Rebok’, two pounds sterling a pair.
We came across a shop dedicated to the sale of women’s headscarves. Rows of mannequin heads modelled all number of colours and fabrics, and each headscarf was displayed with its matching counterpart: a wide headband of the same colour to be worn underneath, lest a strand of disobedient hair reveal itself.
A girl about my age strutted up to the shop to browse. She wore skin tight jeans, a figure hugging sweater and maroon leather boots, knee-high. A black headscarf was stylishly draped over her head and chestnut wisps floated about her face. I wondered: would a token headscarf redeem me too?
Daylight shone onto an archway, glowing white at the end of the souq. We exited, into a square, and were confronted by several ornate columns, standing independently, supporting nothing but a decorated lintel: the remains of the 3rd century Roman Temple of Jupiter’s western gate. Beach umbrellas in primary colours shaded parts of the square, and tinsel-decorated stalls sold books and mother of pearl treasure chests. Men’s vests and sesame bread rings were stacked up on wagons, balanced between people and palm trees. A pomegranate juice vendor served us a chilled glass, freshly squeezed; a deep burgundy colour that stained my fingers. We sat sipping liquid health, beneath the columns of ancient ancestors, watching the bustle, mesmerised.
Umayyad Mosque stood across the square, behind a high wall, amongst the Temple of Jupiter’s ruins. The temple had become a Byzantine cathedral, and then a mosque. It had a rather staid appearance from where we stood, outside the wall. No graceful domes rose skyward and, at first glance, only the minarets that had been added to the original architecture signified a Muslim place of worship.
We had inadvertently entered the old city through the souq and now weaved our way into the narrows of old Damascus. A few random turns and we were in a maze of impossibly interlaced homes, their doorways hidden amongst dim alleys. We stooped under an archway, layered with black basalt and white limestone stripes: typically Damascene. Continuing beneath gothic arches we crept through the peaceful quietude, as lost as in Venice’s winding streets. This city within a city had the pleasant isolation of an island: beyond the souq, its pulse was unhurried; these residential streets were free of cars, and the web of alleys was left alone to float in the centre of traffic-crazed modern Damascus.
Wading through the muted light, we followed the brisk steps of a slight woman, down an anonymous lane. She wore a brown trench coat, a black headscarf tight around her bowed head, and clutched the shoulder strap of a handbag closely. Daylight streamed towards us as we were spat out into a busy shopping street, leaving the shadowy afternoon behind us. The lady disappeared into the flocks of shoppers, many wearing the ubiquitous trench coats: an autumn solution to the figure disguising that Islam dictates – for women.
Plastic containers of all shapes and sizes were stacked high, spilling onto the pavement outside a shop, scattered with other locally made cheap odds and ends. A million potions and lotions lined the shelves of a shop clucking with cloaked ladies. We retreated into the quainter depths of the city’s old part, and found our way back to Umayyad Mosque, which we intended to visit.
The stone paved streets returned and a distant melody wafted towards us, plucked nimbly from a guitar we could not see. We followed the mosque’s eastern wall, where in its shadow, a group of young men sat smoking a bubbling nargileh and drinking chai with a pony-tailed guitarist.
Across from the group was a teashop with a few outdoor stools, from where we could savour the music. The pony-tailed man played Spanish guitar beautifully, and for a minute my mind drifted back to Santiago, where a midnight musician had played Iain and I an impromptu tune. Our chai arrived, tannic and strong. The tea leaves merged with fresh mint; the ultimate refreshment.
“Ek-skews me,” said a strange voice; gruff, yet somehow shrill. “My name…” The man drew breath. “…is Hussein. Professor Hussein… Mohaaammed. I am… a teacher.” He spoke with a long drawl, which flavoured his words with the tinge of an American accent. We introduced ourselves and repositioned our stools closer to his. He obviously fancied a chat.
“Thees cafay… its name… it is Khabini. It meens… hide me… where nobody… can find me.” He wheezed and brought a cigarette closer to his lips. “Hide me… where nobody… can find me.” The café had apparently sheltered several Syrians when the French, in 1925, reacted to nationalist agitation with violence – hence its name.
Hussein looked about sixty, wore a tired navy blue blazer, black trousers and a peaked cap. Stark black eyebrows framed his hooded eyelids and a thin black moustache was streaked onto his pulpy tan coloured skin.
“I am an Eengleesh teacher,” he told us proudly. “An’ Arabic… French, Spaneesh… an’ geetar. I teach the geetar… but I am retired now,” he continued. “You have good hands for the geetar,” Hussein told Iain. “Good long fingers…good for reeching the chords… the notes… the harmonies.”
Hussein’s own left hand had two badly damaged fingers. One had a gnarled stump of a nail, the other was amputated at the first joint.
We chatted for a while, and he suggested we go for tea at his house the next day. “But my seester… she has not cleaned my house… my house is vary dirty now…”
Instead, we agreed to meet him at Khabini at the same time the following day, and left.
Back in our hotel’s pedestrianed street, the barber was shutting his doors and the tailor kept on sewing. Chickpea balls were being dunked into hot oil at a regular, unhurried pace at the falafel stall, and further down, a few street-side tables and chairs seated hungry men. We sat down beside an urn of chai, its tap waiting to be turned, and I ordered the meal on offer: fatta, it was called. Within minutes, a bowl arrived, filled with pita bread that had been baked into layers of chickpeas and hummus with olive oil drizzled on top. I ate with relish, scooping the hot creamy hummus up with bread, served on the side. Curious as to how tasty such a sloppy vegetarian dish could be tasty, Iain sceptically dipped a piece of bread into the bowl. A virtual carnivore who had recently discovered the joys of falafel – turning up his snout at any vegetable that wasn’t a potato – Iain began dunking the bread into my bowl until I was forced to restrain him, and order another.
Dusk was creeping up on what is debatably the world’s oldest continually inhabited city; this vibrant gem of frozen tradition that simultaneously sprouts emblems of modernity. The city’s multiple identities stare each other in the face and warped mirror images are reflected back, to look at one another with curiosity.
It was a crisp, cool morning, and Star Crossed Lovers café – where we had drunk our last chai the night before – was already awake. Wooden tree stumps were laid out in the spreading sunlight and the café’s dwarfish owner, wild curls on his balding head, noticed us immediately.
“Good morning!” he called, bustling about the café’s matchbox sized kitchen. “You take chai?” he offered, smiling at us.
“Well…” I looked at Iain. “We’re on our way to see Umayyad mosque,” I told the man, with purpose. He didn’t consider this an answer.
“No charge!” he said, his grin growing.
To refuse an offer of tea in Syria is considered strange, and decidedly antisocial.
“Well… we’ve got time for some chai Iain, don’t we?”
A delicately carved wooden treasure chest lay open on a low table, containing various herbal teas. We went for the original Arabic sort, served in tiny gold rimmed glasses, always black, sugary and strong.
“You take fruit,” the owner said, and gestured toward a bowl of bananas and oranges beside the wooden box.
We slurped the tea, politely declined a second glass, and set off toward the mosque, taking the same route as on the previous day. We crossed manic Sharia ath-Thawra, this time using two unsuspecting men as human shields, darting parallel to their every move. Then through the market and into the souq, where Iain strode briskly and I scurried behind, slowing at the dripping gold jewellery that flashed past in shop windows.
Umayyad Mosque had a flurry of people at its entrance, all eager to make it inside for the day’s third prayer, which the muezzin had just loudly declared from the top of a minaret. Prayer times differ by a few minutes each day – according to the exact position of the sun – and the third call resounded through the square at a few minutes past eleven that morning. Gaping at the mosque during people’s prostrations would be disrespectful, we thought, and decided to postpone our visit. We skirted the mosques walls and followed a beautiful cobbled street, covered by an autumnal awning of red creepers that dangled from the electric wires above.
A miniature wooden camel and a pair of brass palm trees were arranged outside a shop, draped with glittering patchwork wall hangings, beside a case of stone studded jewellery and a tall teapot with a slender silver spout.
“You like to have a look?” the man outside the shop called softly.
“No thank you,” I answered, half waiting for a second more persuasive invitation, but he just smiled and I continued on my way.
Bags of oranges hung from a canopy adorned with crisp maroon leaves. Shaded by the canopy was a fruit juice counter with a man in a white crocheted skullcap behind it.
“Salaam ‘alaykum!” the man said.
“Alaykum salaam,” I said hesitantly, suspecting that this was a word or two short of accurate. My attempt was nonetheless enough to produce a smile wide enough to fit one of his oranges in. We succumbed to a glass of fresh juice: a blend of everything, from carrots to pomegranates, like we’d sampled in Aleppo. A call came through on Iain’s phone – it was Jassem. He had arrived in Damascus a few days before, and wondered if we were free to meet.
“What you think of Damascus?” Jassem asked excitedly, as the three of us sat in a wood furnished teahouse, snug with rich coloured rugs. He was in the capital to start the process of applying for the elusive European visa that would be his ticket out of Syria.
“We love it!” I exclaimed. He smiled and nodded, pleased; unsurprised.
“It’s very different to Aleppo,” Iain added. “Not as traditional, like you said.”
Iain produced a book he had just bought in a nearby shop: ‘What Went Wrong? The Clash of Islam and Modernity,’ its flimsy cover said. Jassem began to flick through its photocopied pages, not commenting on the book being so obviously pirated.
“Aren’t there any copyright laws here?” I asked him, amazed that shelves of reproduced books had been on sale in broad daylight.
“Yes,” he said, looking at me, straight faced. He gave in and smiled when the confused look on my face did not go. “But not really.”
Certain laws were relative in Syria, it seemed, and many locals couldn’t afford books imported from the West.
The book spurred a political discussion between Iain and Jassem. And despite their respective pursuits in reading unbiased history, both found one of each other’s ‘facts’ utterly preposterous. Jassem could not accept as true that Mohammed had ever had Jews executed, and Iain simply wouldn’t believe that the crusaders had eaten the babies of their enemies.
Iain and I had decided not to disclose our intentions to visit Israel to any Syrian, given the hostile relationship between the two countries. The presence of an Israeli entry stamp in your passport – which implies recognition of Israel – means that entry to Syria is forbidden. Begging the Israelis not to stamp your passport is a trick that no longer fools Syrian border officials: an exit stamp from Taba, where Egypt and Israel meet, could give you away. Syria’s immigration officials are, in any case, entitled to search your possessions for any evidence of a trip to Israel, such as a hotel receipt or stray shekel.
Although we’d avoided the topic so far, we now knew Jassem fairly well, and, recognising his open mindedness, wanted an opinion on the relative safety of visiting the country. It was a topic so tricky that we swayed from day to day between avoiding a visit completely, and just going.
“If you had the chance…” I began, “and the situation in Israel was as it is now… would you go there?” I asked him.
“I am Syrian,” he said with a smile. “I cannot go.” He looked around, as if to see whether anyone was listening. “If I was not Syrian,” his voice was softer, “if I get a different passport, then of course I would go. It is a very important place.”
Jassem lived in a country where the media coverage of Israeli military aggression is near excessive. But he didn’t consider sporadic violence a deterrent to visiting to the world’s most controversial country. He was either braver than me, or less naïve, I reasoned. And then I remembered how Syria’s misrepresentation in the media had almost prevented me from visiting this fascinating country, and how my fear of the country’s proximity to other ‘volatile’ Middle Eastern regions had made me categorise it as ‘untravellable’, at first.
I thought back to the words of an antique shop owner in Aleppo, spoken over a cup of cinnamon chai:
“There are not many tourists here in Aleppo. I think people are scared to come to Syria. Many people they go to Jordan and to Egypt, even with the bombs that were there. Egypt, she has had the most bombs, but also the most tourists. Jordan has three bombs in big hotels, but many people they go to see Petra. Syria has not had any bombs, any terrorism in this country… but still, the people are scared to come.”
Jassem, Iain and I whiled away most of the afternoon with strong chai and good conversation, until it was time to meet Hussein at the Khabini teahouse. Jassem said he’d prefer to avoid meeting the odd man we’d described, and agreed to stop by the teahouse in about half an hour, should we need rescuing.
Hussein was planted on a stool in the middle of the stone paving, across from Khabini, with the guitarist and his friends from the day before.
“Hello frens,” he said, rising to shake our hands. “It is my frens from Cape Towwn… Cape Towwn in Sowwth Africa. You have come to meet me…” he drawled in a smoky voice. “Yesterday we arranged to meet… an’ now you are here.”
“Yes,” I said, nodding.
Chairs appeared, and we sat down. The chai was already on the way.
He asked us what we had seen of Damascus so far, and Iain began outlining our pleasant day.
Hussein soon looked distracted. He gazed at the guitarist longingly, and sung a few hoarse words of the tune being played. Iain’s words trickled to a halt.
“I am… a geetar teacher,” Hussein began. The pony-tailed guitarist smiled and continued plucking. “An’ Arabic… Franch, Spaneesh… an’ Eengleesh…” His voice creaked like the engine of an old rust bucket. “Thees cafay… its name… it is Khabini. It meens… hide me…” he gasped, “where nobody… can find me… Hide me… where nobody… can find me.” And then the easy laugh of the truly mad.
A young man approached, and greeted Hussein with a firm hug. He was of medium height and muscular build, with shiny black shoulder-length hair that swung as he moved. Hussein announced that this was one of his former English students, though the young man’s use of the language surpassed his tutor’s.
He introduced himself as Salah ad-Din – the name popularly anglicised to ‘Saladin’ – but everybody called him Salah. We chatted to him, Hussein occasionally interjecting, until Jassem strutted up, hands in his pockets.
“Hi,” Iain called, and offered him a chair (not part of the plan, Jassem’s reluctant expression reminded us). He sat down cautiously, looking to us for a signal.
We introduced him to everybody and tried to convince him to have a glass of chai, but he declined, and sat quietly waiting for us to finish chatting. We politely excused ourselves, saying we hoped we’d bump into the group again. It was Friday, Salah pointed out: the best night for the Cave Bar, a club in the Christian quarter of the old city. Happily, we agreed to meet him there that night.
Near eleven that evening, in the Christian quarter of the city, a bakery churned out manaeesh: a crispy pizza-like bread, smeared with zataar (sun-dried thyme, sesame seeds and olive oil). We passed a bustling kebab stall, turned right, and found the Cave Bar at the bottom of a deserted street, identifiable from the presence of a chunky bouncer who manned a small wooden door. Jassem pulled his wallet out of his pocket and leaned toward the doorman, speaking in Arabic. I had anticipated this, and swiftly handed over the correct entrance fee for the three of us, refusing his protestations. Always fighting for the bill, because we were “guests in his country”, Jassem had taught me that Syrians love to pay.
It was a typically darkened club with a crowded bar in one corner and a small dance floor in the centre. A seating area of plush couches was arranged around the club’s themed rocky walls. The amount of Westerners inside was uncanny. We could have been in a nightclub in any modern metropolis. But we weren’t; we were in a tiny crevice of an ancient, enchanted city, whose centuries were reflected in every cobble stone. A city that lived and breathed vitality – and a diversity that became apparent that night – which captivated me further.
Salah had brought his French wife, who stood at the bar chatting to a friend from Bologna. Travelling Spaniards were shooting tequila beside a German would-be politician, about our age, who was spending a year in Damascus for his latest language pursuit, Arabic. He had recently lived in Shanghai for a year, studying Mandarin, which he added to a repartee of English, French and German. Arabic was one of the most valuable languages of the future, he felt.
The entrance fee had included two drinks each, which we had already consumed. Beer number three was going down nicely, when Jassem declared himself drunk.
“I drink beer some times before,” he bellowed into my ear. “My British girlfriend, she liked to drink wine… and I drink a beer sometimes with her,” he went on. “I have had two beers before, but not three… This is my first time for three.”
“Oh,” I shouted back, trying to remember what that first wave of tipsiness felt like, when it was still exciting. “Oh! I love this song!” I exclaimed. “Let’s go and dance,” I said, heading for the dance floor. Jassem hesitated, shouted something in Iain’s ear (who was chatting with a Syrian currently filming a documentary in Palestine) and followed me, grinning nervously.
We danced to the usual Western mix of R&B, pop and house tunes and Jassem’s eyes scanned the crowd as we bounced along with the throng of strobe-fragmented bodies. The females wore strappy tops and above the knee skirts – the kind of clothing that had been buried deep in my backpack since I reached Turkey – and looked guiltlessly sexy.
“Is my dancing okay?” asked Jassem suddenly, as we stood on the edge of the dance floor.
“Yes, of course,” I answered, somewhat surprised at such a candid question.
“All the dancing I have done, it is traditional dancing,” he explained. “There are certain steps that you have to learn. This dancing, I don’t know any steps, I think the people just do whatever they want. So I want to know, am I doing it right?”
I assured him that his dancing was fine, and could see that he enjoyed the dance floor as much as me, so I waved to Iain to bring some more beers and join us.
It was 4am when the club shut, and we walked with Jassem to a crossroads, from where he would get a bus back to Aleppo, and we would get a taxi back to our hotel. He was firm about leaving for Aleppo that night, despite our offer of the extra bed in our hotel room – Iain and I usually shared one of the two singles anyway. We hugged him goodbye, promised to stay in touch, and perhaps to meet in India in the next few months, should he make it there. And so – still wearing the clothes he had arrived in three days earlier, and carrying nothing but himself – he turned and left. I was sad to see a good friend go.
A hangover hit me the next morning like rarely before. Three weeks of replacing beer with chai, and the toxins danced about in my recently detoxed head, which groaned in protest, begging me to revert to my tea totalling ways. Another symptom of the past returned: the appetite of ten men for the one hangover cure that never fails, an English breakfast at a greasy spoon café.
Ahmed’s café, opposite Star Crossed Lovers, was the closet thing to a greasy spoon I could find. He had cooked his way illegally through western Europe, and served as authentic an English breakfast as is acceptable in a Muslim country. Beef chipolata sausages half made up for the lack of bacon, and the meal began to slowly revive me.
Umayyad Mosque loomed before us in a final confrontation. That day – our last of seven in Damascus – we would finally enter its walls. I glided past the chocolate croissants flaunted on a wagon, determined to bypass all temptations in my still vulnerable state – treats or offers of chai from chatty Syrians especially, which had a particular knack of luring me.
For days we had devoured the enchantment of Damascus, finding delight in every cobbled nook and cranny. Strangers had listened to our travel tales with the interest of a close friend or relative. And when asked, “Do you like Damascus?” we couldn’t begin to name all the Syrian subtleties that had made us fall for the city, nor explain the vibrance that floats inside the old city’s walls.
“Why don’t you stay here and teach, instead of going to Shanghai?” Jassem had asked us plainly one day.
When Iain’s mother heard what a wonderful time we were having, she’d joked, “You could always slowly change London to Shanghai to London to Damascus.” Both had eight letters; it would work.
We didn’t have any real answer, any concrete explanation as to why, in fact, we couldn’t stay. But I felt a firm pull eastwards; a pull that, by then, had begun to move us across Asia.
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