There’s a card I plan to keep in my purse until it shreds. It says ‘Sawzani, Carpet Seller, Address: Old Town, Near the Temple of Jupiter, Damascus.’ That’s seven-gated ‘Damishq’ for you. The original, pleasure-loving ancient self of the Damascenes is layered over by the guilt-and-hellfire Abrahamic religions they chose later, just like their Catholic cousins, the Italians, across the pond.
The Damascene men are as matter-of-fact as, say, a Tambrahm, and not given to the flowery compliments that seem to endear other Arab men to women. But they are superbly polite, confident creatures and it’s nice to see so many handsome male faces at once. Damascenes show appreciation discreetly, making sure it registers but never in an annoying or crude way. As residents of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, they’ve seen it all, done it all.
It’s a bit startling nevertheless to walk into an upmarket shop near Bab Touma (the ‘Gate of Thomas’, but earlier the ‘Gate of Venus’) in the Christian quarter to look closer at lovely walking socks and discover inside that buying lingerie is something of a feminine pastime in Syria. Moreover, Syrian girls, like Indian girls, have to be married, and a bride must be equipped with at least 25 to 30 kinds on her wedding night, according to one young lady, or her groom may think she is not trying enough to please him. Despite their apparent freedom in dress, right-to-work and education compared to women in other Muslim-majority countries that we’ve seen or heard about, I got the impression that many Syrian women like other women of the Sharq (East) were firmly under the patriarchal thumb in their personal lives. (One Muslim girl wept quietly that her family wouldn’t let her marry her Christian boyfriend – so like in India).
Damascenes have seen many cycles of war and loss and it seems to have made them both festive and ironic in emotional defense. I learn to my shame that Indians, unless they are pilgrims, are normally not allowed in as tourists because Syria was the springboard to Europe for hordes of illegal immigrants. This ban may hopefully lift after President Assad’s successful visit to India last month. I hope so, for if ever there were a lovable lot, so much on secular India’s bandwidth, it’s the regular Syrians I met every day out and about.
However, the minder from the Syrian ministry of tourism was constantly stressed out, poor lady, because an Indian will stop, look, chat with every passer-by, exchange pleasantries with the peasantry and ask, ask, ask a thousand-and-one questions. It’s the nature of the beast. And what do you do when paying your respects at the tomb of Hazrat Zainab or of ‘Baba Habil’? (Abel as in Cain-and-Abel, can you believe it? The Golan Heights lie just beyond the hills from his supposed grave). If a swarm of Iranian women pilgrims, distinct in their heavy black chadors, excitedly hug you just because you’re from India, how can you not chirrup fondly back?
What to avoid in Damascus, meanwhile: books in English. They are shockingly overpriced because there is virtually no market for anything but Arabic or a bit of French. The Syrian Times has recently shut shop. I lucked out though at the fabulous National Museum, where such affectionate kinship with Syria wells up in an Indian heart seeing ancient artefacts like ours. I found an excellent book at the museum, the only copy around and now out of print. It’s Daughter of Damascus (1994) by Sihan Tergeman, a Damascene lady born in the 1930s and raised in the old quarter, a fascinating portrait of the city. It was originally called ‘Ya Mal al Sham’ in Arabic, meaning ‘the treasure of Damascus’ from the first line of an old song. You hear the inside view and are charmed to learn, for instance, that Syrians also have the custom that if someone sends you something to eat, you don’t send their dish back empty.
I noticed too that the ‘Muslim’ beard (long daadi, no moustache) is not so much religious as cultural in origin. Ancient Ugarit statues from 1400 BC show priests of the pre-Islamic religions barbered just so. This is why travel and history may be useful: can you imagine an educated public allowing the Taliban or whoever to get vicious about beards if they knew what the world’s oldest city had to teach them?
My most emotional moment? Surely at the grave of ‘Saladin’ close by the splendid Umayyid mosque. Salah-ud-din, caliph of Syria, who fought Richard the ‘Lion-hearted’ of England in the Third Crusade, still guards Damascus on horseback as a powerful bronze statue. Even bad Kaiser Bill in his day felt impelled to visit, for Salah-ud-din is a World Hero.
Syrian food could be a world hero, too. The best salads I’ve eaten, the sweetest figs, certainly the nicest olives and olive oil (took my time at the zeitunwala’s, choosing). Tiny baklava-ish rounds holding pistachio ‘eggs’ from Mouhanna (established 1935) called osh-al-bulbul, ‘the nightingale’s nest’… what I really want is to go back and spend a year learning Arabic at Damascus University.