This weekend me and a couple of friends decided to go to Damascus to see Ziad Rahabani in Concert. We unfortunately could not get any tickets so instead we made use of our time by walking through the old city and enjoying what old Damascus and its souqs had to offer. And I realize that when in Damascus there are things that I like to do, things that become ritualistic and others that are habits.
On my last trip I was introduced to a lovely popular restaurant called Abu Al Ezz (أبو العز) which serves the best meat pies or pastries, sfei7a. They come in a yogurt sauce or a tomato sauce. Both are delicious and well worth the walk down the alleyway past the throngs of people. When you walk into this place, you see an oven and three men continuously making the delicacy. But walk up a short flight of steps and you walking into a restaurant of three levels that can seat around 400 people if not more.
I love this little place at the end of Hamidieh. Its on your right just as you walk out to the square in front of the Umayyad Mosque. Here you walk up windy old basalt steps lined with all sorts of handicrafts and antiques. At the top of the stairs is a little deck that is also littered with goods and in the center, beautiful old chairs that you can sit on and look out to the square and the mosque from. I like this shop and it is a ritual of mine to visit it whenever I am in Damascus. I like to look around and walk through and try and see if there is anything I like. Unfortunately this time there wasn’t. anything that caught my fancy, but I still enjoyed the view from the top.
The Nawfara coffee shop and its story teller Abu Shadi are staples in my visits. I can never really tell what he is saying but for half an hour I am back in my childhood listening to a theatrical voice, tell a story of some hero or other fighting battles, reciting poetry and wooing women. I keep saying this, storytelling is a dying art that needs to be revived and this man may not be the best but he is one of a few, and infact the only one I know of who does this on a regular basis and can be counted on to present everyday at the same time and the same place, without fail.
Do you know Mahmoud Shahin? An artist and a writer who has a little shop where he sits every afternoon painting away as times goes by? I stop at his shop every time to say hello and chat for a few minutes. This is a wonderfully old man who has a lot to say in his own way about how the world works in words and in colors.
On this trip I also did something new. We all went to the National Museum. This is a huge complex made up of about 30 large halls full of all sorts of artifacts from different eras and civilizations. Walking through I was reminded of the museum in Cairo and of the artifacts in Jordan. And just as I thought oh boy not another stone I walked into the last two halls, where I perked up with joy at seeing beautiful old books, and scriptures. On them was writing in all sorts of Arabic scripts and illuminated in the most beautiful of ways. I enjoyed pouring over every page laid out. And just when I was done with that I walked into the woodwork room to see some beautiful old workmanship. So exquisite, so detailed, so beautiful, I love every piece of craftsmanship in that hall and if I could I would have taken them home with me. We were also lucky to see the art exhibition that was up for the month. Six halls full of Syrian Art some of it old from the 1920’s and 30’s and some of it new. The museum which at first I thought was going to b e a letdown, turned out to be a wonderful way to spend the morning.
Damascus is an interesting place. I don’t know much of it outside the old city walls. And I am quite content to keep it that way. But I did make it out and got to see a different Damascus. One that is new, modern, and glitzy. I kept thinking I was in a different world, and was very happy to return to the old part of town. It never ceases to amazes me how there are different worlds, side by side. Old and new, affluent and poor, modern and traditional all in one small space. I like being able to move between them, but my heart is an old one that likes worn stone and wood, old cobbled streets, and history etched in the atmosphere and peoples bones.