Posted by Joshua on Sunday, November 9th, 2008
Damascus 8 (8/11/2008)
by Ali Khan
(See another of Ali Khan’s dispatches)
I apologise in advance if this Dispatch contains any errors or spelling mistakes etc. I am sitting in a small room with dim lighting in Western Beirut with a chap from Chile snoring loudly in the next room. I feel that it is important to stick to my regular routine of sending out a Dispatch every Saturday particularly after all the encouragement I have received from all of you. But, more about Beirut in a later dispatch.
Last weekend was Halloween as I am sure you all know. I did not know but was reminded of it by posters plastered all over the Campus about various parties. One particularly conspicuous poster announced a party at “Jet Set” in Cham Palace, one of the up market hotels in Damascus. I did not pay much attention to these as I had an exam coming up and was sure that my neighbors would definitely not appreciate or understand why I wanted sweets in the wee hours of the night. I did notice in class that the Americans and the Italians were more animated and boisterous than usual, if that is at all possible, and later they told me they were going to have a ‘massive’ party in Bab Touma.
In the afternoon, I was phoned by a friend who invited me out to dinner that evening. I knew that it would be an enjoyable evening and most importantly a much needed change from my usual routine. Furthermore I was sure that my friend was not going to surprise me with a raucous dinner party for Halloween. In the evening, suitably attired, I walked towards the Four Seasons Hotel. The restaurant is on a side street next to the Four Seasons. As one of my friends here says: “Eat at that hotel once and go hungry for four seasons.” I felt slightly strange walking along the cobbled road in Souk Medhat Pasha in a blazer, a scarf and polished shoes. I made the effort though normally of course polishing shoes is delayed as long as possible. Even though I drew no unwanted attention, I wondered what someone from a few centuries would make of me rushing along trying to avoid the insane drivers as they tried to overtake each other with only a few centimeters to spare on either side. As a caveat; I have noticed that even in the Hamidiyya, cars are allowed to pass at night and I think it would be a huge step with traffic was altogether banned in the old city apart from perhaps service vehicles at night. The whole area would benefit tremendously. I have often seen tourists gazing up at houses or admiring a shop window only to be honked at by a screeching taxi or a GMC from Saudi Arabia. Normally, they are so shocked that the car honks again to snap them out of their daze. Anyway, I felt odd in those clothes and having worn kurta (long Indian shirts which go down to the knee) and pyjama (the accompanying trouser) in India and occasionally a gallabiya in Damascus it was hard for me to fathom why anyone would want to wear tight fitted clothes, which can often also prove to be very unflattering. To those of you who think that this is a roundabout way talking about myself, no I have not put on weight. I genuinely feel slightly saddened by the disinterest verging on disdain that most people of my generation have for traditional clothes, whether it is here or in India or even in the West.
It was a nippy evening and so I hurried towards Jisr al-Rais (The President’s bridge) while the Four Seasons loomed in the distance. As I got nearer I noticed that the area was increasingly more ‘manicured’ and there were little gardens and patches of grass that all looked a bit out of place in the center of Damascus. Particularly because the neighboring Barada River, actually more of a trickle, accentuates the alieness of the Four Seasons and its environs. Today the Barada looks more like a sewer than a river and is muddy and stinky. As I walked past the hotel, which is a huge Pharaonic looking stone structure, I got a glimpse of the opulent lobby with its controlled lighting, huge chandeliers and liveried doormen. The cars outside were all either Corps Diplomatique with there distinctive number plates or were the latest models of BMWs, Mercedes, Range Rovers and Jaguars amongst many other famous makes. I also spotted the odd four by four with Lebanese number plates. As I turned the corner, I saw a shop with a big sign saying Raymond Weil. Alongside the hotel there were many designer boutiques and there was also an open air café with people puffing away on nargilehs and sipping tea. Further down the road there was a immense billboard advertising Audemars Piguet watches. Next to it was a smaller billboard for some sort of cream or gloss, which I couldn’t decipher. A bit strange nonetheless because the ladies of Damascus really do not need any encouragement to buy make up. This was all a bit alien to me and different from the Damascus I have come to know and love. I turned into the street and the first thing I saw was a sign inviting people to sample Indian fare in the ‘Restaurant Taj Mahal.’ I think there must be very few cities in the world where Indians, or Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis have not opened a restaurant.
The street was lined with expensive cars and opposite the Indian restaurant, there was a rather seedy looking nightclub. The restaurant I was meant to meet my friends in was further up the street. It seems that all the better restaurants of Damascus have two names. One is in English and the other in Arabic. The one I went to is called Platinum but locally is more famous as Yamak. Why anyone would name their restaurant with a name beginning with the letter P confounds me because most people here always pronounce ‘P’ as ‘B.’ In fact there is café near my house called the Grand Papaya café and most of the locals call it the Grand Babaya. I was a bit early, so instead of waiting inside I hung around outside with the valet parking boys. The manager came out and looked at me as if I was completely and utterly loony for wanting to stand with them. That look then transformed to one of pity. As I stood there, I noticed that there was a café cum bar next door called the Orient Club. Damascus was the last place that I was expecting to see a Halloween party so visible, loud and open. I knew that the Romans would be having a their do somewhere in Bab Touma but normally their parties are well hidden from public view. There were throngs of young people outside dressed as devils, trolls, witches, mythical animal and others had even more bizarre costumes, some of which looked like they had been copied from a Goya painting. As I was watching these people I heard a clamour behind me and I turned around to find a group of young Syrian men and women, all immaculately turned out coming out of the luxurious condos next to the restaurant. The guys, with their gelled back hair and bomber jackets and the women, with halter tops, more make up than is probably produced by L’Oreal and glitzy handbags with prominently displayed labels for all to see. They paused outside the restaurant while they decided where to go. It was bizarre to listen to their conversation because it was liberally interspersed with English and English slang. Apparently the Orient club would be too “boring” (not with the costumes I had seen) and so they decided to go to someone’s house party in Abou Roumaneh, which is the area with most of the consulates and embassies. Next they had to decide whether to take one of the guys BMWs or the one of the girl’s Mercedes. Must have been a tough choice because they talked about it for a few minutes.
I suppose the elite in any part of the world are all predictable and somewhat similar in their attitude, behaviour, habits and tastes. I am glad that my trip to that part of town was just for the evening and that my Damascus is a world away from all this. Having been in Beirut for the last couple of days and obviously having seen Damascus more extensively, not to mention my last two years in India, I cannot help but think that the best way to learn, appreciate and explore another culture or country is by interacting with the working classes of that particular place. Obviously I do not mean this in a voyeuristic manner or even absolutely! It is of course better to explore all aspects of any society but personally I think that my experiences have been richer, more informative and fulfilling by keeping away from places like the Four Seasons.
Finally everyone arrived and I must admit I too am guilty for enjoying the pleasures of good food. The fish was displayed in a cabinet as we entered the restaurant. Apparently, a fresh haul of fish is brought everyday from Tartus, the coastal town in the Western part of Syria. The host ordered generously. We passed time snacking on almonds, raw carrots and musabbaha, which is hoummous with tahina and whole chickpeas covered in olive oil, while the main food arrived. To start with we had shrimps, lightly sautéed with herbs and then small batter fried fish similar to the pescaditos in Barcelona. It is not quite fried fish because the fish is eaten whole and most of the bones are chewable. The pièce de résistance was a whole fish, I think it was sea bass, baked in salt with no spices or seasoning apart from a hint of garlic and a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice. They brought out the entire fish before cracking open the hardened salt with a hammer. I must admit it was one of the most incredible fish dishes I have ever eaten. Despite my cold I tasted the fish and it just melted in my mouth. Dessert came uninvited. The manager sent a huge platter of fruit and a tray of baklava and ma’amool.
When we had finished we parted ways and I walked back towards the old town. Sometimes I wonder what it would feel like and what the city would be like if the gates of the old town were shut every night like they were for so many years right up to the last century. It was reassuring to be back in familiar surroundings, though I must admit, despite my earlier comments I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
I have successfully finished level 3 at the University and will start Level 4 on Tuesday inshallah. I will try and send out a write up about Beirut and my travels in Lebanon at some point in the middle of this week. Until then, ma’as salaam.