My Last Time in Damascus, 2003.

Through old Damas

According to the erudite Tim Mackintosh-Smith, the Prophet (PBUH) claimed that Damascus is one of three Earthly Paradises, the other two are Sana’a and Khurasan. At least I have been to two of them.

Last night, the lovely South African girls and the Kiwi Calvin and myself had landed very late in this “paradise”, but at that ungodly hour, Damascus looked like anything but a paradise. Ever the supposed erstwhile travellers, all four of us had neglected on obtaining visas prior to boarding our flights. As such, we were stuck at immigration for about 4 hours whilst the authorities decided whether to allow us to enter or not. We did not leave thje airport until 3 am.

I had an unsatisfying breakfast of day old pita bread, some wedges of Smiling vache processed cheese, luke warm chai, a little tub of some mysterious jam and a mini-block of frozen butter. Hardly sated, I headed off with my new friends towards the Old City of Damas. In conversation last night, I found out that all three worked in some triage unit in Durban. I guess this was a break for all of them from their South African trauma unit.

We stopped first for a mandatory photo of the conqueror of Damas and the scourge of the Crusaders, Salah Al Din al Ayubi or as we know him Saladin, who was actually a Kurd from Tikrit, Iraq.

Salah al-Din, Damas, 2003

The streets were almost vacant with scant traffic, yet well-groomed police who carefully controlled the intersections. The Damascenes we met were polite and quite friendly. We stopped briefly at a fruit stand to look at a wide array of fresh fruit, of which the SA had never seen a blood oranges before. Adjacent to this kiosk was a sweet shop selling huge trays of kanafa, baklava, and maghloufi. I opted for the latter was slightly sweet with a semolina base and a custardy top. The vendor then offered us free tastes of the baklava which was a favourite of greedy guts me. I was the only one to buy anything and I used my meagre Arabic breakfast as an excuse.

We proceeded along past gypsies who wanted to shine our shoes, plus others who were selling cheap Chinese socks and plastic slip-on shoes. Further along, young touts came up and jammed serviettes under our noses, but I had neither a runny nose nor owned a restaurant to warrant such a purchase.

The air was quite still with a slight tinge of lignite and the sun was still trying to b urn off the early morning fog and gloom. In this light, the city looked like the Chechen town of Grozy after the Russians had bombed the shit out of it. Many buildings were in various states of construction or disrepair. A couple of rivers were anything but flowing, in fact, one was quite turgid. Another one appeared to have flooded some time ago as there were tree roots sticking out like odd Giacometti string sculptures, concrete blocks hurled up and it looked like a bulldozer had run amok on the dried river bed. Could this be the Barada River that Mackintosh-Smith refers to in his latest book. The Persian traveller Mustawfi had complained about that “its waters are choked with mud, its air bestinks”. I don’t know about its bestinking but he was right about it being choked as for there being water–I couldn’t see any.

Off into the cavernous labyrinth called the Suq al Hamadiyyah, funny but the last time I was here in 1991, I swear there used to be a humungous canvas of a painting of Hafez Assad’s scowling mug looking down at us, but his portrait had been replaced by a boring metal awning. Most of the shops were closed owing to it being Friday, but the shops that were open were mostly pastry and ice cream shops. The Syrians can look as stern as the Iranians, but they both soften up when eating ice cream. A few curio shops were also open that were selling  the Turkish blue evil eye charms and the gilded hand of Fatimah which is placed over the doorway  to fend off evil spirits or bad luck. I thought these people were Muslims, yet they suffer from superstitions just good Christian folk.

We finally got to the end of the covered souk which opened out into a great square which was the Temple of Jupiter with gigantic Corinthian columns topped by acanthus flower capitals. This was built in 3rd century BC by the Romans. This also heralds the entrance to the legendary Umayyad Mosque. The mosque was off limits this day because it was the Sabbath and I didn’t feel like tempting the fates. It is built on the site of an original Christian church, and quite frankly, I don’t know what all the fuss is about because it looks more like a church than a mosque. Truth be told, the church was built over an earlier Roman temple. According to local tradition, when Jesus comes back, he is supposed to land on the pointy spire of this mosque-ouch!


The Aramaeans have been living in Syria since the Assyrian Kingdom time. Like their Arab brothers, Aramaean’s also speak Arabic, but rather a north-western dialect of the Semitic language family. However, the Aramaeans were Christian and part of the Syrian Orthodox Church. I met a few Aramaeans while I was working on the Tel “Atij dig with Professor Fortin in 1992. Many Aramaeans had settled in the nearby town of Hasseke. Our cook was one of them and because she spoke Aramaic, it used to drive our Bedouin workers crazy because it sounded almost like Arabic, but they could not understand it. Our cook’s sister and other members of her family would come to visit her on our dig and that would cause a flurry of excitement as she would walk around the tell in fancy clothes and high heel shoes which were not de rigure. The Aramaean girls we saw in Hasseke were stunning and quite brazen given the modesty of their Muslims cousins in the same town. The Aramaean girls would parade around in tight fitting jeans, high heels and revealing blouses which almost caused our driver, Hani the Druze, to have an accident while driving in Hasseke on our day off.

That was then, but this is now almost 10 years later. The women in Damas were equally stunning and a few were casting their glances at us four as we walked around the Old City. I think they were commenting on the SA gal, Marita, whose long, curly locks were attracting attention as we walked around.

We shuffled by curio and antique shops with all sorts of bric-a-brac, amulets, gold and silver rings plus some Circassian bracelets which I have come to like. A few nut nuts and coffee stalls were opening up and the owners were more than generous with their free samples. I couldn’t resist and bought a walnut, pistachio, almond and raisin mix.

One noisy bloody orange seller was screeching about his fresh juice and its price–“Ashara” or 10 piasters. I bought a glass and it was quite tart, and not the usual orange flavour that I was accustomed too. The two South African gals and the Kiwi guy Calvin were quite content to eat their tangerines that they had bought earlier from a stall. Maybe working around a hospital, they were more cautious about the cleanliness of the souq vendors. They were employing the old travel maxim–“If you can’t peel it; don’t eat it.” Silly me, I just threw caution to the wind. One of the South African gals didn’t think so much of the juice and only sampled a gulp before returning the glass to the vendor. Time will tell if I get the Damas two step. Further along, I broke down and bought a chicken shwarma for the outrageous sum of 25 cents. It was much larger than the ones in UAE and much more flavourful with a hint of cardamom.

HH and the Palestinian march, 2003.

During my short visit to Damas, I befriended a Palestinian guy who had been living in their refugee camp just north of Damas. Even though he had been living here all his life, he did not have Syrian citizenship but was still on a UN refugee passport. My friend HH called himself “FF” or fat fucker, but I called him “SD” or shit disturber. I used the name HH for security reasons as he had pissed off the Syrian authorities so much so that they have cut off his email. For that matter, earlier while Calvin the SA girls and I tried to use Yahoo and Hotmail, we found out that they were blocked. Luckily, I told my friends about my email and we were all able to send emails using that as the Syrian authorities had not cottoned onto it yet.

Hussam al Saleh, Damas

HH asked me if I wanted to join in a demonstration for the Palestinians in an hour or so. He said that later he would take me to a ‘refugee camp’ which sounded more like a group of apartments rather than the traditional squatter’s camp. He said–“Even Syrians live there.” First we went to the souk to find my elusive Assad keychains that a friend back in NYC wanted. We went to a couple of shops but they were run by Palestinians and didn’t carry what I wanted. Finally, HH took me to a shop that had what I wanted. I started talking to HH about the price, and he said–“NO English or they will charge you triple!” So I shut up and just pointed at what I wanted. I bought 5 keychains for 100 Syrian pounds (SP). As we walked away, HH said they would have charged me 100 for each one.

Hafez and Basil Assad

As we headed off to for the protest, we came to an impasse where water had collected from recent rains under one of the arches and we could go no further. Presently, a pick up showed up and they charged us 10 SP for a lift on the back of it. We were soon in a cabbie heading to the German Embassy where the march would start. there were quite a few friends of HH already there waiting for us. Many banners, flags and posters against the US going into Iraq and others about the atrocities against the Palestinians. A few Marxist flags, PPFD, Canadian flags as well as bullhorns and drums. A few men would get on the shoulders of others and shout slogans and war cries about “Bahabek Ya Falistine” with the audience yelling back. It was quite the march that grew in size as  we headed towards Martyr’s Square.

Syrian policemen lined  the sides of our march as well as shadowy mukhabbarat (secret police) figures in natty black leather Gestapo coats were busily taking notes on individuals or perhaps they were sympathetic reports–but I think the former. But, you would have thought they would have carried tape recorders or have a photographer in tow to do a good job of undercover surveillance.

Many  residents came out and stood and shouted encouragement or just aped at us from their balconies. As we marched by the Jordanian Embassy, a row erupted and everyone started yelling. Some of our group broke off and were milling around with a couple of Jordanian security guards and some Syrian police. The ruckus started because the police were trying to haul away some of the keffiyed youths whom I suppose got too emotional in the protest. A crowd had now formed a circle around the police and the boys much like drone bees protecting the queen. The Palestinian supporters were not about to let one of their own be taken away. Pushing, shoving, and keffiyed tossing erupted in the crowd and the youths were last seen running to the front of our march and being spirited away in a waiting taxi–to the cheers of the rest of us. We went by most of the foreign embassies but avoided the US embassy. We were now marching through a very ritzy suburb where there were lots of pizza joints, fast food venues, and fancy Mercedes Benz’s parked along the street.

HH introduced me to all his cohorts and in-laws who were participating in the march. Sometimes, women would take over the bullhorns and shout themselves hoarse as did others. Another donnybrook broke out and I thought the cops would tear gas us, but they did not have it. Again the Syrian police tried to arrest the youth troublemakers but to no avail. The youths managed to once again avoid the teeth of the law and they too escaped in a waiting taxi to our cheers. A couple of times, a number of American flags were set on fire which brought a surge in cheering from everyone and our march also stopped traffic for a time. Along our route, the roads had been cordoned off for the march and the police were vigilant in stopping cars from entering where we marched. We eventually got close to Martyr’s Square where HH left me to go back to his refugee camp. He asked me again if I wanted to come but it was too late and I had had enough excitement for one night. I proceeded to the end of the square where all the combatants dispersed peacefully. En route back to my hotel, I had a pomegranate juice from one of the stalls and called it a night.

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