Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani wrote many poems about his beloved Damascus. I just spent 4 days there. And this poem, Damascus, what are you doint to me?, describes almost exactly what I experienced. Still, I will share my own words about it. This is going to be a long post.
We arrived the morning of Day 3 of Eid Al Fitr to extremley quiet, almost deserted streets. Syria has the entire week off and most shops will be closed, we're told. Inhabitants of Damascus travel to Latakia and other holiday destinations to get away from the city. Nice of them to clear out for us. Almost all 3 million of them. I wondered then about Cairo. What would Cairo look like if all of its 20 million inhabitants left for a week. I wondered about Cairo a lot on this trip.
So we checked into the Cham Palace and proceeded to the first tour. An interesting group of people traveling from Dubai on this Emirates packaged tour: Egyptians, Iraqis, Emiratis, one Australian, 2 Brits, one South African and a Morroccan. That's Dubai for you. Anyway, driving through the quiet streets in the direction of the Lebanese border, heading to Zabadani & Bloudan, we meet Nabil - our tour guide for the next 3 days. Nabil is quite a character. He's been a tour guide in Syria for 15 years, speaks fluent English, German and French. Neglected to get a photo of him, but I found that other people did, so here he is. It's not easy to communicate with and please every tourist in such a diverse group. He addressed everyone by name, was always pleasant and is an information mine.
First stop - Zabadani. The shrine of Abel. It is said that Cain slew Abel on Mt. Kassioun in Damascus. There is no explanation as to why, in that case, Abel's body was buried all the way in the Zabadani valley (at least 50 km away).
In the evening we walked through Old Damascus. The people appeared. It was jam packed and really difficult to walk without losing everyone. Got to see the Ummayyad Mosque by night, which was nice. But this wasn't the best impression I got of the old town. But... we were fortunate enough to spend another entire evening there on our last night. I'll save that part till the end.
Anyway, so we had dinner in Beit El Jabri restaurant in the old town. I had the greasiest shawerma in the world, and needless to say, the next morning my stomach was very unhappy with me. I always thought having eaten street food in Cairo for years (and more recently in Jakarta), my stomach could take anything. But not this, apparently. And so I had to skip the next morning's trip the National Museum.
Eventually felt strong enough to move and joined the group at the Umayyad Mosque. A Roman temple, turned Christian church, turned mosque -- all clearly visible in the architecture of the place. Nabil emphasised a great deal that Syria is a secular society, free of any religious conflict or discrimination. "Religion is for God, Syria is for all", he repeated. I have to say, this came as a surprise to me, because, well, frankly all Arab societies have some level of religious intolerance. But then, throughout the 4 days I spent here, I didn't see any signs of extremity, intolerance, or anything. Not around this old part of town or even later in Sednaya and Maalula (location of the oldest Christian convent). Comparing with Egypt again: if you get into a Cairo taxi, you're bound to see an obvious sign of the driver's religion: either Quranic verses or a cross hanging from the mirror, or a Quran or a photo of the Virgin Mary on the dashboard. Didn't see any of this in Damascus...
Next it was time for some unavoidable must-do tacky tourism! The studios of Bab El Hara. I never watched any Syrian TV drama before this one, but I watched all 4 seasons religously :) Anyway, I won't dwell too much here, but needless to say one forgets how disillusioning seeing the real thing can be. It was the location where they filmed the street scenes and the exteriors. So it's a bunch of little roads that look like an old village, with some big wooden doors and a couple of shops. Hehe, sorry, but that's really all there is to it!
Then we went to 1001 Nights restaurant for lunch... Random. A gigantic genie's lamp stuck on a super high pole for lost drivers to find this place, which is on the airport road. Looks like something out of the tale of 1001 nights - and there's a replica of the leaning tower of Pisa there. Like I said, random.
Then up to Mt Kassioun for a view of Damascus from 1200m above sea level. All the green lights are the minarets from the mosques. There are 4,000 mosques in Syria, Nabil said. And 800 churches.
And of these 800 churches, are Mar Sarkis and Bakhos in Maaloula and the Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya .
A handful of us opted to go on this tour. Nabil couldn't join us, so that morning we met not one, but two new guides. Omar and (I can't remember the other one's name, but let's call him Amjad because it sounded like that). So Omar and Amjad have just graduated from high school and are about to start their freshman year at college, to get a degree in tourism. They are both 18 years old and have been training with tour guides in Syria for 2 months. I wasn't cynical at all, you know. I thought, ok, cool, young, enthusiastic boys with a passion for history. We arrive at Mar Sakis, and Omar starts to mumble something about it being built in 325 A.D. and that there's s souvenir shop downstairs. Oh dear.
We walk down towards Mar Taqla, the shrine of St. Taqla, the daughter of a pagan ruler. She converted to Christianity and fled to escape her father's wrath. She prayed for help and God split the mountains for her to hide, and so we walked through that split.
At this point, we decided Omar and Amjad need to study harder. So we called Nabil. Although he had the morning off, and he works with a different company, within 40 minutes he drover up and came to the rescue! What a gent! We went back to Maaloula and started from the top, to learn that Mar Sarkis was a temple dedicated to Apollo, converted to a shrine for Saints Sarkis and Bachos, the last martyrs of Christianity. The cedar wood in the walls is said to date back 2000 years. Maaloula and Saidnaya are the only places in the world where Aramaic is still spoken and taught.
Thank you, Nabil.
We checked out of the Cham Palace and relocated to the old town for our last night, which we spent in Beit Zaman. As of this moment, the experience changed completely. Away from the schedules, the guided tours and the big bus, we spent the next 8 hours, not exaggerating, 8 hours, walking through old Damascus. Guided only by Salah, a friend and a real Damascene, this was simply beautiful. Starting from the Via Recta, through the spice souk and every alley in the area. It was a Friday evening, so although quite a few shops were closed, it was still relatively busy, but clear enough for a pleasant walk.
Again I wondered about Cairo. Could I possibly walk through Khan el Khalili for example without getting a single nasty comment or even grabbed. In Damascus, none of that. Nothing.
Salah took us around the area of the Ummayyad Mosque again, and to Al Nofra coffee shop. This place is 80 years old. And just our luck, the hakawati was there! We sat down for some tea and listened to the story - from which I barely understood a word, but loved it, and laughed all the way through it anyway.
We stood for a minute taking photos, and along came the nuts seller from across the street offering us a taste. Salah then decided to buy some pistachios. So he crossed to other side. The next sequence of events was phenomenal. Along came another seller, so mum went with this other guy just to have a look and get an idea of prices. Oh. My God. Seller #1 lost it. "You thief! You stole my customer. You stole her from in front of MY SHOP" Seller #2 "No, I DID NOT. She wasn't even in your shop you @@#$^%^^^". And lots of "3#@%%@&^&*&&!!@$" , intense shouting, smashing and throwing of things. It was out of control. We barely escaped after seller #1 offered to sell us for half of whatever seller #2 offered! Turned out after that these two are actually cousins, who do this on a daily basis. I wanted to film this, but I was scared. You cannot imagine how aggressive they got, you'd think one of them set the other's shop on fire.
Through the alleys once again, and a few steps from here, I met Palestinian poet and writer Mahmoud Shahin. I walked in to browse through a couple of drawings that caught my attention, then saw a couple of books in German. So I asked him - "do you write in German"? He replied, in what was a very strong Palestinian accent, "no, these are translations of my work." "You're not from here...", I asked. No, Mahmoud is from Jeruslam. He's been in Syria since 1971 and in this shop for 6 months. Before that, he had another shop a few streets away, but he was evicted and his work thrown in the street, because he refused to pay double the rent. After a long chat, and a couple of purchases, Mahmoud smiled and humbly showed me his menion in the Lonely Planet guide to Syria.
Will I go back to Damascus? Maybe. But this is how I want to remember it. From that last 8-hour walk. So maybe not...