Posted by Joshua on Sunday, November 23rd, 2008
Dispatch from Damascus 10 (23/11/2008)
By Ali Khan
It is exam time again and the authorities seem to know and so have cut off the power supply. I am writing this with the help of a single candle that is threatening to go out. Unfortunately I cannot quite trace where the draft is coming from. Maybe it is flickering because of something else! The whole area is drenched in darkness. The sky has been looking ominously grey for the last two days and today it poured. The rains have stopped now but like in England there is an annoying drizzle that refuses to go away. Rainy weather does not flatter Damascus.
The city is normally so dusty that at the slightest hint of rain the roads become muddy. Obviously, the harder it rains the grimier the streets. All the dust from the various nooks and crannies of the old houses is washed into the street. The cobbled roads are mostly uneven so that one doesn’t know whether the next puddle is a missing stone or just a shallow dip in the road. On the bus back from the university it was nice to see the palm trees and shrubbery looking cheerfully green for a change and not bothered and dusty as usual. The vegetable sellers had decided to remove the covering from their shops. The bright red tomatoes, emerald green cucumber, fuchsia pink radishes and brown potatoes that normally look grubby proved distracting as I maneuvered my way around puddle of various sizes. Normally, a thin film of dust covers everything, including fruit and vegetables, and so it was a feast for the eyes to see all the colours. Damascenes do not use pavements here and most of the time the pavement doubles as an extension of whichever shop happens to be on the roadside. This inevitably means that cars and people share the road and when it has rained people take the chance of getting soaked by a speeding servees or car. On the smaller streets people tend to be more stubborn and take their time in letting the car pass. The danger lies more with the cyclists who, like mad escaping hares, try to weave and squeeze through the smallest spaces while hissing at pedestrians to get out of the way. Some people also tie a small motor to their bicycle. Unfortunately, even though the riders might think that they are on a motorcycle, the cycles are generally rickety and so, all the more dangerous at high speeds.
A couple of friends and I were invited by a mutual Syrian friend to his village for one night. You might remember Rami from the last dispatch. His mother is form Halab (Aleppo) and so Rami was eager to introduce us to Halabi food, which of course, as a good son, he considers to be far superior to Shami (from Damascus) food. We have started having class on Saturdays and so if decided to leave on Friday as that was the only day free. After a short servees ride to Karajat Abbasiyeen, we took another servees to Dumaiyyara. The bus took off on the road towards Palmyra and Baghdad and then at some point turned off on a smaller side road. The suburbs looked the same as the last time I left Damascus in this direction. However this time it was interesting to see, how, as we went further from Damascus the car showrooms became smaller and had less well known brands. Initially huge signs screaming ‘Toyata, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Mercedes’ dominated the roadside but as we started to leave the urban sprawl behind, signs for Korean, Iranian and Eastern European car companies fought each other for space.
After leaving Damascus and driving for about twenty minutes or so one cannot help but see enormous smoke belching factories and the sad and wrinkled mountains in the background, trembling in the haze. The land on both sides was arid and was sparsely dotted with shriveled shrubs and the occasional olive tree. Rubbish was strewn everywhere and plastics bags took off and landed in the wind. Obviously all the ostensible effort of cleaning the streets in Damascus means that the area outside the city is completely neglected. The people too do not seem to care about littering and often one sees a hand reaching out of a wayward servees to get rid of a plastic cup or an empty chips packet. Some of the buildings look like copies of the Eastern Bloc and most of them look forbiddingly Stalinist in their architectural style. We passed the French Military Cemetery and I could not understand why it was located so far away from the city. The cemetery was enclosed by a wall and a worn out sign above the rusty gate informed us of its name. There were a lot of trees inside but it looked like no one had gone in for many years. The wall was spray-painted and a proclamation of undying love for Leila was followed by a declaration of loyalty to Hafez al-Assad. Even though Hafez al-Assad died a while ago, his name and photos are ubiquitous and often even accompany the photos of the current president, his younger son Bashar al-Assad. In fact a couple of times while speaking to people I have discovered that they were actually referring to Assad senior when they said president.
After driving through another weary looking town we finally reached Dumaiyyara. It was more of a town than a village and the only indication that a village once stood there was the occasional single story mud house with wooden beams protruding from above the door. Mostly the buildings were made of stone and had been designed by someone who had combined the easiest geometric shapes to produce various mutations of a cube. The street was not well maintained like the roads in Sham and everything was covered in dust. I think we were dropped off on the main street but most of the shops looked subdued and unused. One of my friends had already visited the town and so we marched off towards the house quickening our pace because of the thought of home made food. Rami met us outside. Instead of his usual Stefanel pullovers and jeans he was wearing a gallabiyya. His house too was built in the style of the others but it was more welcoming because of the two olive trees on either side of the door. On one side there were green olives and on the other there were black ones. As soon as the main gate clanged shut behind us I turned around to find a clean passageway with a large, warm and welcoming tan coloured door. Rami said ‘Ya Allah’ loudly before we entered to ensure that his sisters knew that we were coming. The inside of the house was built in the style of the semi-detached houses in England or the modern housing in some areas of Delhi. There was nothing in the style to suggest that we were in an Arab’s house and it seemed to be designed to fit a universal template. We could have been in any middle-class neighborhood in the world. We were led into a bright yellow living room. It was a pleasant change to be surrounded by bright colours rather than the monotonous stone buildings, dusty red earth and withered looking plants. On one side of the of the room there was a verse from the Quran written on wood and on the opposite side of the room was a picture of Rami’s grandfather surrounded by luscious greenery (amateur Photoshop job) and next it was his father’s engineering degree. We all collapsed onto the oversized sofas and switched on the television. Even though normally I would wander around or talk, I avidly watched Al-Jazeera international because I had not seen TV for more than two months. We sipped steaming Arabic coffee while we saw an interview with a Congolese rebel leader and then saw huge crowds in Baghdad protesting the new security pact. Al-Jazeera even had a statement from the spokesperson of Moqtada al-Sadr, something which I had not seen on Western or Indian news channels. The analysis was sharp and focused during the program and I was able to follow it all the more closely because I have been reading ‘Moqtada’ by Patrick Cockburn; a highly recommended read! Some of Rami’s friends came over and after the usual pleasantries I quietly asked Rami if I could take a picture. I am glad I caught the slight shake of the head followed by the lifting of his eyebrows. Rami, as you might remember, is Hanbali and his friends too seemed to be from the same school of thought. Some practitioners of Hanbalism frown upon photos and other things, which could be used to create images that in turn could be worshiped. I quickly put my camera away after pretending to look at some old pictures. After his friends left we took lots of photos! The only girl in our group had gone off to see Rami’s mother and sisters in the kitchen and obviously enjoyed their company because by the time she came back, she had already eaten and was looking very pleased with herself for having eaten before the men.
For dinner, a large tablecloth was spread out on the floor of the drawing room and Rami went in and out of the room, each time returning with bigger steaming plates of different food. When we had entered the house, the aroma wafting out the kitchen was so strong that I nearly followed the smell into the kitchen, a bit like the cartoon characters when they smell something good. The main dish was a steaming bowl of meat cooked in a tomato gravy with squash and some small kibbeh, made of potato and meat, was served separately with it. Both these parts were combined in the people’s plates depending on how much kibbeh they wanted. Obviously Rami insisted that we all eat at least three bowlfuls. Then the second dish came out. Even though the stomach was unwilling, thoughts of Indomie (Ramen) noodles and quick fry ups for dinner ensured that we ate more than we should have. The second dish was kibbeh bi-siini, literally kibbeh in a tray. A lot of work had evidently gone into the layered pastry and the meat inside was equally delicious and exquisite. I suppose it was the Syrian version of Shepard’s Pie. Just from eating the two dishes it seems to me that the Aleppans use more spices and flavours in their cooking than the Damascenes. Apparently, Aleppo has the greatest variety of kibbeh in the Arab world and to me seems to rightly be a contender for the city with the best food! Of course, I have yet to go to Aleppo so, my opinions might change!! While we were polishing off the food we had managed to neglect the plates of salad and mutabbal, an aubergine based dip, and so I helped myself to a generous helping of both; always imperative to have fruit and vegetables too, as my mother would say!! After we were suitably satiated, we heaved ourselves back onto the couch and I tried to learn vocabulary but was distracted by TV5, the international French channel. While watching the TV I noticed that someone was peering over the screen that divided the living room into two parts. I looked to my friend and he silently indicated that they were Rami’s sisters. Even though we were not allowed to see them, they definitely got a good look at us. As soon as our eyes would meet they would jump back, probably so that their brother would not notice and get upset.
After eating crunchy green apples and roasted watermelon seeds we decided that we would watch make Rami and my American friend watch Khuda kay Liyay, a Pakistani film. The film tries to show the brutality of both American and Islamic extremists and even though the content is original and thoughtful, the acting often makes one cringe. The story is about two musical brothers, one of whom gets mixed up with the Taliban and gives up his musical career and the older brother who goes to study music in America is wrongly arrested and imprisoned by the Americans. We piled into Rami’s room and watched the DVD . We were given piping hot cups of tea with fresh camomile, ginger and mint by Rami’s mother who came in front of us. She was wearing a pretty blue sequined hijab and a dress with rainbow stripes. The weather is cold in the evenings now and so the warm cuppa was exactly what we needed. Since it was the fifth or sixth time I was watching the film I went off to bed after a while but the next day I asked Rami what he thought. He said that the arguments presented about why music is not forbidden in Islam were weak and that he could have argued against the priest more effectively. What is interesting to me is that he did not say that the arguments were completely erroneous, as he is liable to say about things that he disagrees with. This was probably because the producers of the film had researched the arguments and received the approval of various notable clerics. This ensured that some parts of script were in conformity with the various books and sources of the Sunni schools of thought. Conversely, my American friend, who is also a part time film critic, had just about managed to put up with the acting and interestingly he said that the ‘idea’ of discussing whether music is permissible or not did not seem important to him. Of course, in poor, less developed and therefore less educated areas these are exactly the kind of issues that Muslims are often concerned by and are the issues that can reflect wider trends in a particular society. After a morning cup of coffee we set off for Damascus and as we managed to hail the same drafty and rickety servees we had taken the day before. The morning passengers were mostly students and manual labourers who periodically got off near various factories and workshops. The day was less hazy and so the rubbish lying all over the area was all the more visible.
I was struck by the battalions of satellite dishes on all the rooftops, as we entered Damascus from higher ground. They almost seemed to be straining forward, waiting for some kind of revelation as they all eagerly pointed in the same direction, noses up and ears spread out. The sky was forbiddingly grey again and I hurried home to take my laundry off the terrace! I too have a satellite but not of the receptive variety. I asked my landlord for a heater and it seems that he decided to make one himself. The heater has a wires wrapped around a ceramic block that in turn is nailed into a large salad bowl. When I plug it in, it initially looks like one of the old laser machines from the Thunder Bird series. I must go and sleep now! Until next week,