Damascus Then

1 Feb

A satisfying steamy cup of coffee brings back more recollections of Damascus. It’s a fairly hot summer day. Everyone jokes that the newscasters never report the temperature as being warmer than 41, because otherwise, the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti tourists won’t bother coming up from the Gulf, when they hear it’s just as hot here. My sister-in-law is learning how to cook over the telephone to her mother. She’s 22 years old and has recently married my brother-in-law, Jamal. His mother was so angry that she was not the one to choose the bride, that she has decamped to her home in Homs. She is equally irritated by my presence in this household, but she complains to her sons and not to me. Next week, we’ll drive up to Homs to see her, and her mother, whose ancient home is about to be destroyed. She sends us back to Damascus with huge jars of maqdus (picked eggplant) so her thoughtless progeny won’t starve.

Today, Rasha is trying to follow directions to make a type of pudding. She never had to cook at home. Her husband and his two brothers are better cooks than she. She cries when the pudding won’t set. Today, I pitch in, and we also have carry-out kabsa from the “secret place” – a dark shop off of an alley in the Sha`lan. Every day, the cooks there prepare 3 or 4 hearty specialties like feriqeh bi-djaj, (hulled wheat and chicken) or kabsa (a Saudi Arabian dish), sambusik bi-labnah (stuffed dough cooked in yoghurt) or mahshi. Not far away is a small shop that exclusively serves roasted chicken with garlic sauce, and another vendor offers shwarma. Most of the customers are men who purchase the food on their way home for the extended lunch and siesta hours that break up the work day. In the afternoon, vendors set up little stands with cactus fruit cooling in trays of ice. People sit for a minute in the shade of these stands to enjoy a break from the heat. When autumn and winter arrive, there will be vendors with small wheeled stoves selling roasted corn and chestnuts in the streets. Women shop, but many men like to claim that they are the ones who purchase all the food, including produce to save women the effort (and from being harassed in the street).

We eat outside in the back garden at a large table on the stone paving. Canaries in cages warble to us. They have to be brought inside in the wintertime and today, they need shade. Not much is growing but a vine with a large clock-like flower and blue stamens that I’ve also saw growing in Bosra and a few roses. The house has another little addition – just one bedroom and bathroom off of an inner courtyard giving some privacy to the newlyweds. The street continues and is known as Arnus Square, and then on the left is a very large and imposing mosque built by Kuwaitis. Beyond is a small bakery where I walk in the early mornings to buy delicious croissants filled with za`tar and hazelnuts.

Rasha has one more party in the post-wedding blitz of events, this one attended by her mother and her mother’s friends – all fully veiled ladies of older Damascene families, who never heeded the Ba`th Party’s call to drop that archaic form of outer covering. As they arrive and are seated in the parlor, Jihad, the younger brother retreats inside the house. They remove their coverings and are fashionably dressed and coifed. Rasha dresses up in a sexy backless number. A few more gifts are presented. The ladies do not inquire about Jamal’s mother, even though she is the real mistress of the house. A few of Rasha’s friends arrive and after the older women depart, they put on music and dance, and then go out together. I leave as well with my daughter to walk her to karate class. The gym has separate hours for women and men, and we were happy to find a Shotokan teacher who taught girls.

On our way back from the karate class, we walk by a house where a man sits outdoors at the basement level with a little brown spider monkey. “Abu Yusuf, Abu Yusuf,” calls Natasha, my daughter, meaning the monkey. The man explodes with laughter at that. “Abu Yousef” (recorded by DJ Abu Youssef) was very popular Jordanian rap song, which swept into Syria in the year before we arrived here.

Amman, Irbid, Baqa’, Sawaylih
Everybody talk about it, Abu Yousef… Abu Youssef …

Mashi fi al-shari`
Shuft hilwa btirkud (and in the repeat of the verse – Shuft hilwa jogging)
Ruht irkud ma`ha
Qultilha yalla nuq’ud
‘Aalitli “ka’k bi `ajawi
Qultilha “ma’aki?”
‘Aalitli “la,” qultilha
“laysh?”
‘Aalitli “mish zaki “

Walking in the street
I saw a pretty girl jogging
I went and jogged with her
I told her let’s sit
She said “ka`k (like a biscuit or hard cake) with dates”
I said to her “do you have?”
She said no, I said why?
She said, it’s not tasty

Natasha giggles. It’s her favorite song to play at home too. Ziyad brings us cassette “cocktails” from the music store called Venus. Music copying (no-one thinks of it as pirating) is big business here.

Kahk bi-ajwa can be found at the Suq al-Hamidiyya. We go over to this ancient part of the city sometimes as I hunt for printed music, but it is touristy and there’s a lot of pressure to look, have tea and buy. We always go to the Great Mosque, and sometimes to the little side building where the head of Hussein is kept and the Iranian pilgrims are pushing us from the right and the left. There are two wonderful restaurants here – one outside the walls of the great mosque, turning to the right, and going underground. The other lies on a street parallel but further north than the main entrance to the suq. This one is above ground, and as you enter, a tiny man offers coffee. Unsweetened. Often, but not always there is a musical ensemble here, and the high ceiling and fountains create a beautiful atmosphere.

About coffee – sugar should be boiled first with the water. Then add the coffee, and hail (cardamom). Bring it to boil seven times. Finally take it off the flame and add a little rose water. I already knew how to make coffee before I came here. But I never bothered to boil it seven times and was oblivious to the etiquette of serving it with a glass of water for a guest. If the guest drinks the water, it’s a sign that the coffee isn’t good. No-one can understand why I heat up milk and add it to my Arabic coffee; it’s a habit that means that I must search in the grocery store for boxed milk and for my daughter, cereal – an incredibly expensive item sold on the black market, as are cigarettes, batteries, nuts and other products that seem to be smuggled in from Lebanon. I don’t smoke, but I buy boxes as cigarettes as gifts for the dentist and the employees at the Assad National Library.

At the Library, whatever manuscript or book I request is usually denied. And then, that’s the right time to offer cigarettes, and the item magically appears, although I usually don’t have time to read through it entirely, I must request that it be xeroxed (and we aren’t allowed to Xerox anything ourselves) since it won’t appear the second or third time I need it. Working time is brief at the Library – it doesn’t open until after 10:00 a.m. The electricity is usually cut off in this part of Damascus by 1:00 p.m. It won’t come on again until about 5:00 p.m. and the Library closes an hour earlier. When I first arrived, the Library officials question me about my topic; I meet the director, Ghassan Laham and his number two, a woman. They refer me to another man who concludes that I only need to read two books to know about Asmahan and her family since that is all he is aware of in the holdings. I explain that in fact, I need many other documents and books concerning the politics of the pre-war period, since I intend to write about her “times” as well as her life. This leads to a wonderful discovery of copies of all of Syria’s diplomatic files – from the turn of the century onto the Vichy period that I am particularly interested in. I read through everything, and the librarians become concerned about what I xerox. For example, there are interesting documents about the French treatment of the Druze and the Alawite areas, which are self-governed. I find a document with the stamp of Hafiz al-Assad’s father which opposes unity (with the central government of Syria). Closer to my topic are a few documents on the Druze, the role in the rebellion, the status of the post-1925 rebels (who flee to the Wadi Sirhan), and various assessments of Hasan al-Atrash.

It is difficult for the library officials to understand why I need to leave the library and begin fieldwork. They do understand the idea of conducting interviews, but the study of any setting, and how people behave in it, when these are not directly related to a narrow topic – well that seems rather ephemeral and silly, but I tell them (as it is true) that I will learn more about Syria.

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2 Responses to “Damascus Then”

  1. jhshannon February 1, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

    Ya salam. What a beautiful piece of writing! I can taste the cactus fruit, which I’d get at the little bridge near the Rawdah mosque in Abu Rummaneh. I think if we’re not careful you might run into my character, though he’s stuck near Bab Touma at the moment … but eventually will head home via the Old City and al-Maliki.
    -Jonathan
    PS I had a good relationship with the librarians but have no idea why (no gifts). Just luck, I guess.

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