This is about Damascus, the city where I was born and raised. Today I live in London and my contact with Damascus is painful.
I met a lovely old lady in our community allotment garden a couple of months ago. We had a nice chat about growing plants and growing children. My daughter was running around, her grandchildren too, we talked about the beautiful things in life. And then, in the conversation, I mentioned that I was Syrian. She looked at me and said:
“Oh, you poor girl, I want to hug you and cry.”
It’s important that the memory of a place survives the horror that overcomes it. So I find my Syrian voice in the sweet memories of a grand city.
I woke up that morning and my room was orange. It smelled of heaven. My mother had made apricot jam and poured it into big round silver steel pans, to sit in the sun, on the balcony outside my room. The sun was shining and it was hot. The sun was cooking the jam and infusing the air with its scent.
I was born during apricot jam season. My mother was pregnant and due to give birth any minute. She had bought her usual 20 kilograms of klabi apricots—the only type you should make jam with—from the 30 varieties of apricots in the city.
Meshmosh Klabi are only in season for one or two weeks, at the end of June or beginning of July. When they appear on the markets, you have to sieze your opportunity. They have red cheeks and orange flesh; they flip open and the stone pops out; they are dry and slightly bitter when raw. But when they become jam, they are royalty jam. People say you will never taste a better apricot jam than the one you taste in Damascus.
On the morning of July 3, 1976, my mother deseeded the apricots, piled them up in a large pot, added some sugar and gently brought the pot to a boil. She poured the mix into large shallow pans and took them out into the sun to bask in its heat. She always said that was how they stayed golden bright and didn’t go dark.
The next morning, my mother went into labor and gave birth to a little girl in a city she would learn to love and to leave.
It’s July 2011 and I’m walking the streets of Damascus, my streets; nowhere else in the world have I taken ownership of the streets. The pavement and the dirt, it’s all mine and no one can take it. The air smells of orange blossom and jasmine. It smells of onions and garlic frying up for lunch in every single house along my way. The air is so dry you can hear yourself breathe.
I decide to go up the mountain of Qasioun. I hail a taxi, a yellow car with a driver wearing a printed shirt, polyester trousers, worn flip flops and a towel around his neck. He has a plastic bottle of water at arm’s reach. All sorts of furry things are dangling in the interior of his car. Flashing “i love you” signs with little red lights, teddy bears, miniature triplet dogs sitting on the dashboard whose heads wiggle with the car’s movement; fuchsia feathers, heart-shaped pillows, a small Quran and prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror. By the steering whel is a picture of a belly dancer with a lot of make up and glamorous oriental clothing, and a picture of the driver’s children. The radio is on; it’s the woman with the sensual voice.
It’s a city of contrasts.
I remember walking into a kinky lingerie shop in the old market. It was run by an old pious man. He was selling women’s underwear with zippers and feathers and bright coloured flashing lights. You could clap and one pair of underwear would fall off, top and bottom. A friend of mine bought that one. It actually works. It falls off if you clap. It falls of if you whistle, too.
There are fake birds and fake phones positioned strategically on the tiny pieces of lace, and the old man was explaining the quality of the product. He would tell me, “Ammo, these are very good, trust me, they work.”
How is it possible that a 70-year-old devout Muslim—this big, round, kind man—was advising me on kinky underwear?
The driver of the taxi takes me up to the mountain, Qasioun.
I get out and I look down at my city. It’s hot and dry; a layer of sand and dust covers everything. The city lays at the foot of the mountain, spread out like a coffee stain. And beyond it, nothing. Endless land with nothing on it. The city came to life through the river, Barada. Today, Barada has almost dried out. There is no life without it.
I locate the buildings I know, I locate our home, in the far east of the city on my left. I see flocks of pigeons circling above the roof tops, and the men and women who keep them. Wherever I am today, when I hear pigeons cooing, I feel I am home again. The real home. The first one.
Night falls, the sky turns indigo and the city starts to twinkle from up there. Every green light represents a mosque. There are many, many green lights.
The prayer sounds, Allahu Akbar, God is great, and resonates from as many mosques as I can hear where I am standing. The voices of the Damascus imams are divine. I go into a sort of trance as I hear, even now as I remember. And I am not Muslim.
Everyone relates to the prayer of the imams in Damascus. Foreigners and locals are called alike, some for prayer, some for contemplation, and some just to hear the wave of magic coming through the air. My father studied economics and sat for a Ph.D. in Paris at the Sorbonne. He says that he wrote his whole thesis listening to a set of five tapes of a famous imam chanting the whole Quran.
The timing of those five prayers every day are as meaningful as the call itself. Dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk, and nightfall. I don’t know if I think that because I grew up in a place that marks those five moments in a day, or if it’s a natural pattern with which we relate to the world around us, but I always pause.
It’s Friday, and that’s the only day off in the city. Men have brought their food and drink, chairs and mats, shisha pipes, wives and children, and have spread them out along the side of the roads, all the way to the top of the mountain. That road has been planted; it’s the way to the president’s palace, so it is always green and beautiful. People picnic on the side of the road for that reason—for a bit of green and fresh air. The women are veiled. By sunset, there is not one inch of grass free.
Other people, those who can afford it, are in the cafes and restaurants dotted along the top of the mountain and overlooking the city.
I catch a ride down back to the city’s beating heart. I feel so big on my way down, like I have taken it all into myself, this beautiful place and all its grace.
The cactus fruit appears on the streets in August. The prickly pear, or sabbara, as we call it. If you are going home in August after a night out, you have to stop for a few pieces of the fruit.
Vendors set up their stands all over the city. They decorate them with carpets, plants, and lights. They are masters of cleaning, peeling, and offering the fruit free of prickles. The pears are cold and sweet, juicy and so satisfying on a hot night.
I’m on my way home, and I’ve had a few prickly pears. I stop at the glass-blowing factory by the east door of the old city.
The old city of Damascus had a wall surrounding it, and seven access points. I used to live close to Bab Sharki, the eastern door. And there, a small glass factory that you wouldn’t notice walking by works 24/7 and only stops for a week twice a year, for the Eid holidays. The ovens melting the glass mix are never turned off; they would need too much time to reach the high temperature again if they were. So the men with big round cheeks take turns, all day and all night, at making sand glow and form, to become glass. They always have a glass pot of black tea sitting on the oven, and they always offer a small glass to whoever drops in.
They usually won’t talk to me, as I am a woman and they are men. They will kindly welcome me: “Hello sister, welcome,” and that’s it.
The tiles on the floor are a beautiful geometric pattern as is often the case in the old houses of the city. But no matter how rich the house or elaborate the décor, no matter how intricate the floor tiles, there is always one tile that will be misplaced on purpose: perfection is for God.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.