Posted by Joshua on Monday, December 8th, 2008
Dispatch from Damascus 12 (06/12/2008) Preparing for Eid
by Ali Khan –
I had my final exam for level 4 on Thursday. On Wednesday we had electricity the whole day and the whole night. Let’s see how this affects my performance! The whole university has been gradually slowing down and most of the students were becoming more and more tired. However, the lack of motivation on campus was given a boost in the last few days as the city started to prepare for the Eid Holidays. The activity in nearly every part of the city has slowly picked up and for the last few days most of the streets and souks have been flooded by waves of eager shoppers. Near Seyyida Zeinab, a few of the smaller streets have been blocked off and an open-air market has started. Most of the goods are sold from carts while neon lights and little colourful decoration bulbs hang precariously over the crowd’s heads as they closely inspect all the goods and bargain furiously with the traders. Normally, nuts and other dry fruits as well the Japanese rice crackers are ubiquitous only in the old city and the better off areas of town, with only the odd shop in poorer areas. However, for Eid there were stalls after stalls of all kinds of nuts, fruits, cheese, olives, jams and pickles. Often, poorer people only buy some of these things during festive occasions as they are expensive and a luxury. My friend told me that he had bought his teacher a jar of honey. Good honey is exorbitantly expensive here and can cost upwards of 10 dollars for a small jar. On the main road near the shrine there were more cloth merchants and they seemed to be doing brisk business. Leather jackets and tracksuits seem particularly popular and the stalls with gallabiyyas and keffiyehs were looking slightly ignored and neglected. Obviously, there was no dearth of interesting slogans on T-Shirts. “Elite Model #1: LONER” was a particularly amusing one. Another bright fluorescent purple T-shirt boldly said: “Shocked? Wait till you see me dance.” One of the vendors was wearing a black T-shirt that had a picture of a Colt .45 revolver and a bald eagle and in the colours of the American flag said ‘We are the ultimate.’ The other popular items seem to kitchenware with a lot of crockery and cutlery displayed in carts and in the trunks of people’s cars and vans.
The souks in the old city have a constant stream of people wandering around, tasting nuts, or sweets and I have seen people in the Hamidiyya even eating Bakdash despite the cold weather. Obviously, the crowds shopping in these areas are very different to those in Seyyida Zeinab. As I walked from one end to the other, I think I walked past people from nearly every corner of the world. The Japanese with cameras at the ready, Malaysians who study in the Madrassa Abu Noor, Sri Lankans who were having a tough time communicating with the vendors, Central Asians with their distinctive headdresses and clothes, Omani’s, conspicuous by the way they tie their turbans, tall Somalians, Spaniards wearing multi-pocketed vest while wandering around in a daze, a Englishman with a Panama hat, all kinds of Arabs and of course the ever present black chador clad Iranian women bustling about with more shopping bags than they can carry.
The normally deserted sweet shops have been teeming with customers everywhere. Everyday when I walk to the bus stop I see mounds of toffees and sweets with their gleaming colourful wrappers on the pavement outside the shop. The owners normally leave their shops and all sit in a circle nearby smoking and drinking tea. I have often walked into a nut shop to find it deserted and then when I start walking out of the door a man comes towards me like a freight train, rushing back to his shop from across the street. It seems that most of the nuts and sweet shopping is done by women here. My landlords have been working away furiously for the last two weeks and there has been a steady stream of ladies who come and bargain and then taste the sweets while they ‘hum and haw, saying “the pistachios aren’t fresh so you should knock off fifteen percent.”
Most of the time my landlords do not have orders and so they sit around in the shop and invite friends over, watch Bollywood films, smoke, drink tea and generally having a good time. But obviously there is a lot of demand for their sweets during Eid and so they have been working 18 hours days. This also means that my house smells of fresh pastry and steaming syrup for 18 hours a day. In Ramadan they only made one variety of sweets called ma’mool. This time I spent an evening with them and the sheer variety they manage to produce is breathtaking. ‘Ajway, Barazy, Gharaibey, Ballouriyay, Baklava, Mabroomay are just some of the sweets that have been ordered by people from all over Damascus. They keep a few trays of each kind in one of the rooms near my courtyard for people to taste when they come to place their orders. One of the brothers once caught me taking pictures of them a few days ago. He went down, probably to ask his father, and then rushed back up and announced that I should help myself to sweets whenever I want. Most of the helwayaat or sweets are various permutations of baklava and are made of layers of finely rolled filo pastry with walnuts pistachios, or cashews. Others are made using vermicelli. They use ghee, clarified butter, as the cooking medium and for a few weeks the entire family congregates to help out. The biscuits are also wonderfully light and just melt in the mouth. Scrumptious with a cup of tea in the evenings when the weather becomes chillier and there is a distinct nip in the air. The women come over at night to pack the sweets into boxes and label them for the different customers. During the day the young boys are sent to get lunch and they bring back a huge tray with various dips, like hummus and mutabbal, fresh bread, fresh mint leaves, some salad and often some phool or fattah. The latter is similar to phool but instead of lots of olive oil there is a lot of yogurt and bread with broad beans, tomatoes, mushrooms. All the work stops as they quickly eat from the same tray and then get back to work. While falling asleep at night I have gotten used to the rhythmic pounding of the wooden moulds as trays upon trays of ma’mool are produced. One person shapes the pastry, another stuffs it with pistachios or dates or other nuts and then a third puts it in the mould and hits it on the slab to get it back out.
A group of friends and I decided that we needed a change from our usual student diets. So, we decided to go and eat Mindi, a Yemeni dish after the exam. We congregated near Bab Sharqi and then walked towards Souk Sarouja in order to get a bus to Berzah where there are quite a few Yemeni restaurants. I was the first one to reach Bab Sharqi and it was amusing to see our motley crew assemble while throngs of school children, in their blue cassocks, ran past and piled into waiting buses. Once we had all gathered, there was a German, a Turk, a Greek, a Croatian, an American, a British-Indian and I. It was Friday and the buses were running slowly, so we persuaded a servees driver to go out of his way to drop us. The restaurant, with the imaginative name of Mat’am Yemeni, was unimpressive from the outside but as soon as we stepped inside, we were attacked by a riot of colour. We took our shoes off and went to the back of the restaurant, which was slightly elevated. The walls were covered in gold and blue curtains and on one side there was a large aquarium with some disinterested looking gold fish and one manic black fish that could not stop darting from one end of the tank to the other. We sat down and the waiter spread out a plastic sheet on the carpet. As we had no idea of how much to order so we left it to the manager. He was a short stocky man with a large bald patch and frenetically curly hair down to his shoulders. An unlit cigarette dangled precariously from his mouth and every so often he would shout at one of the young boys for a lighter and then would promptly forget about it. Each of us was given a bowl of yogurt flavoured with mint and a little cucumber and another bowl of chilly and tomatoes. The American and Greek started eating the yogurt and refused to believe me when I said that it was actually meant to be eaten with the main dish. Most of us had skipped breakfast in anticipation of this meal and just as we were beginning to wonder if the cook had slaughtered fresh meat for us, the large steaming tray arrived and was ceremoniously placed in the middle. There was a bed of yellow rice topped with huge chunks of roasted lamb and chicken and finally sprinkled with almonds and raisons. It tasted like a less spicy version of the famous biryani that is so popular in the world. After adding a bit of the chilly sauce and yogurt, it definitely tasted distinctly Indian to me. We ate to our hearts content and slowly demolished the entire tray. The manager had given us just the right amount and did not over order, as we feared he might have.
This is in contrast to my experience at one of the more famous Damascene restaurants, Naranj, which is on Bab Sharqi and is frequented by the local business and political leaders as well a lot of the diplomatic crowd. Last week Michel Aoun, the Lebanese Maronite Christian General, ate there during a visit to Damascus that could not have even been contemplated a few years ago. It was not long ago that he sought refuge in the French Embassy in Beirut and then took off for the south of France in order to avoid being caught by the Syrian army. My friends took me there for my birthday and despite pausing to read the vivid description of how the sheep’s testicles were cooked, we stuck to safer options. However, when the food arrived a final dish was placed in the middle of the table and the waiter, whose attitude reminded me of his disinterested and often rude counterparts in Paris, lifted the lid with a flourish. We asked him what it was and he snootily replied; intestines! Despite our insistences that we did not order it and could not possibly order something that none of us wanted to eat, he ignored us and left it on the table. I did try it, much to the awe and disgust of my friends. It was cooked with chickpeas, garlic and olives and tasted like very well done, soft meat. I think the only thing that prevented me from eating more was the thought that the food we eat and of course animals eat is “processed” in the intestines! The other dishes, particularly the Kebab Karaz, round kebabs cooked in a bitter-sweet cheery sauce and served with bread soaked in the sauce, was the most interesting Syrian dish I have eaten so far. The Sayyadieh, grilled fish on a bed of rice with a tangy gravy, was equally delicious. At the end of the meal another waiter brought us a huge tray of baklava and another of fruit. Of course, being students we nearly finished both, despite the disapproving looks we were getting from neighboring tables.
Some of my Syrian friends wanted to go out before Eid and so we decided to avoid all the restaurants in the Old City and instead we headed to Souk Sarija, not to be confused with Souk Sarouja! We walked through Medhat Pasha. It was late and apart from the stray shopper, people seemed to rushing home, eager to avoid the cold. The shopkeepers were cleaning out their shops, washing the floors and vacuuming the shelves. Most stalls had shut and a few were still open. We hurried past the coffee shops, Aleppan soap shops and then the traditional Arabic clothes shop and then went out of the old city and into Souk Sarija. It is small bustling souk with a lot of butcher’s shops and other food shops. In a parallel lane, there were lots of argileh shops and one could make out the smell of apple and mint flavoured tobacco from a distance. We wandered further into the souk and stopped at what seemed like a butcher. It turned out to be a restaurant too. We went in and my friend ordered half a kilo of Kebab Mishwee and a plate of meat. The food arrived steaming hot. The first dish was accompanied by bowls of lamb stock cooked with lemon, garlic and black pepper. I dug in, unaware that I was being initiated into the art of ‘tongue’ eating. It did not taste of much and was soft and was served cold. The broth smelt of meat and was too sour for my taste. However the grilled kebabs were delectable and I ate my fill. I was told that mainly labourers and workers from around the area frequented the restaurant as the prices were unbeatable and a kilo of cooked kebabs cost as much a kilo of raw meat would cost in other parts of the city. After polishing off the kebabs, we wandered back through the souk and into Medhat Pasha.
The souk was even more deserted on the way back and apart from the odd shopkeeper intent on finishing his argileh, most of the others had packed up for the night. One of the handmade Aleppan soap shops was open, so I popped in to buy some gifts. After browsing for a while, I noticed a little shelf at the bottom of the shop, hidden yet visible. There were different kinds of soaps displayed on it and some of the labels were very literally translated from Arabic: breast enlargement soap, lip swelling soap, local fat removal soap, slimming of behind soap. There were other soaps that were meant for ladies and should not have been displayed so prominently. Needless to say they had some rather embarrassing and literal names! Tempted as I was, I desisted from buying lip-swelling soap for myself. There were other natural products in the shop like Damascene Rose Water, one for cooking the other for using on one’s body, bars of olive oil soap, jasmine soap and natural oils of various flowers. I started to leave and told the shopkeeper I would come later. He smiled and said I know you will. He then leaned forward, grabbed my hand and rubbed a red looking stick onto my wrist. I smelt it and it was wonderfully fresh, particularly after walking back amidst the smoke sputtering cars and diesel fumes. Damascus has to be one of the most polluted cities I have visited. I asked the shopkeeper, who was beaming by this point, what it was and he said that it was a chemical free deodorant stick (literally translated: a stick to keep away the bad smells). The smell was a combination of ‘oud’ and jasmine. I asked him if I could buy some and he smiled and said why don’t you come back later. He didn’t take a lot of persuasion to sell his goods and I walked home looking forward to having a warm cup of tea.
I am going back home for a short while but I will inshallah return to Syria to start level 5 in January. Last night I said goodbye to my Indian friends who study in the howzahs, or religious seminaries, near Seyyida Zeinab. I told them I was going home, even though initially I did not want to tell them. Most of the students cannot go home to see their friends and families for 2 or even 3 years, as the airfare is too expensive. I have only been here for three months. However, I finally decided it would be better to be honest with them. We have all been talking about the terrible tragedy in Bombay and whenever Syrians have found out that I am Indian, they have expressed their sorrow and profound sadness at the suffering and loss of the people of Bombay. The Iraqis have been particularly understanding and some have told me moving stories of how they survived similar calamities in Iraq. Sometimes I wonder whether we will ever learn from our mistakes. Or, will we destroy each other and when there is nothing left, look back with regret at the demons that we have unleashed upon the world?
The next Dispatch will be in a couple of weeks. Until then Ma’as Salaam.