Posted by Joshua on Saturday, October 25th, 2008
Dispatch from Damascus 6 (25/10/2008)
From: Ali Khan –
[Landis: Ali Khan is an Indian student in Damascus, He has been sending out emails discribing his life in Syria. They have made their way to me. All are excellent. This one captures the rhythms and feel of Damascus.]
I had a mid-term exam this week and so mostly I have been studying for it. The day before the exam there was some sort of fault with the power grid system in my area and so we had no electricity for the whole day and the whole night. Obviously this posed a slight problem as I still had some grammar and vocabulary to revise. After sunset, I went to Seyyida Ruqayya’s shrine to study there. The entire complex has its own back up generators and so there was plenty of light.
Unfortunately, a huge group of Iranian pilgrims had just arrived and had occupied most of the forecourt and the adjoining courtyards. I went to the mosque and sat there for a while but the pilgrims started to bring their bags and settled into the mosque. The Iranians always bring lots of bags into the shrine and create a little corner for themselves and if one didn’t know otherwise, one would assume that they were going to spend the night there. The shrine closes for maintenance after the ‘*isha, *evening, prayers. Normally, they start announcing the closure of the shrine forty-five minutes before they actually shut the doors. It is sometimes quite funny to watch the *khuddam *[s], or custodians of the shrine trying to persuade elderly Iranian ladies, with their billowing *’abayas* (the black tunics they were over their clothes), to gather their bags and leave. I had managed to find a quiet corner to study in and the sudden announcement on the sound system broke my concentration.
However, I was happy to find that someone had left two sweets for me by my books. A lot of pilgrims bring sweets, *baklava*, candy and all sorts of other confectionery and after their prayers distribute them amongst the other people there. Normally, children are given this task and I suppose this is the few times when they actually want to do what they are told to. I was probably too engrossed in learning the vocabulary and therefore didn’t notice the person who left me the sweets.
Since the announcements became more regular and the old ladies became even louder in passionately telling the custodians that they were not going to budge, I left the shrine and made my way home, hoping that the problem had been fixed. Unfortunately, the house was still in darkness.
My house is above a bakery and below the bakery there is a nut shop. The owners of the nut shop have gradually realized that I live upstairs because they see me leaving for university early in the morning. They had a generator and so all their lights were on, including a huge spotlight that lit up the front of the shop. The light is cleverly placed so that the buckets of pine nuts, cashews, pistachios and all the different types of almonds look all the more alluring. There are almonds with sugar coatings that make them look like white candy, plain roasted almonds, almonds roasted with chilies, smoked almonds, almonds with a crunchy
coating, like the Japanese nuts and many other different kinds.
Muhammad is one of the young men who serve the customers. He loves shouting hello to everyone who walks past the shop but he also shouts equally loudly when someone is right next to him. I went downstairs hoping he was still there and sure enough, as soon as I put my head around the corner I was greeted by his bellowing voice. I put my rucksack down and started to chat to him. He asked me if I knew Shahrukh Khan personally, a famous India actor and I said no. He said he did and then in Hindi/ Urdu he said “*achcha hai*” or he is good. Apparently, they show many Bollywood films here and these are particularly popular amongst the younger generations. After a while I asked him if I could study in his shop because there was not electricity and he graciously said yes and gave me his stool, which was more like a log of wood. Thankfully customers are few and far between at ten o’clock at night and so I managed to study in relative quiet. The owner of the shop came a while later, said hello and then asked Muhammad to shut shop. He deliberately took a while to pack everything up so that I could study a while longer. Every time he would pass me he would quietly mutter ‘*achcha hai*.’ When he finally had to close the shutters he gave me a fistful of pine nuts and asked if I wanted the log so that I could study under the streetlight. The idea had not occurred to me and I thanked him and took him up on his offer.
Later, my friend who has a French *Patisserie* opposite my house saw me and called me to his shop. He asked what I was studying and I showed him my book. The Arabs are generally always very happy that foreigners come to learn their language and he told me how much he admired Indians because they are diligent and disciplined when it comes to their studies or work. Obviously, he does not know me that well yet! He insisted that I take his chair because the log looked uncomfortable and he made me sit in his shop and study. I must admit, I had a harder time concentrating because of the smell of fresh *pain au chocolat *and croissants wafting out of their bakery. I was thirsty and so I was going to go back and get some water but when I got up, he asked where I was going and then said that I should not break my concentration. Then he went to the back of the shop and came out with a glass of water. The *patisserie* remains open until 1 or 2 in the morning and so after I had finished revising everything I needed to, I left to go back home. The exam went well and thankfully was not as hard as I thought it would be.
In other news, my landlord has given me a desk that actually fits in my room and is not the size of a small bed. He also asked me whether I wanted a diesel heater, an electric heater or a *samovar*, which is heated
using coals. I haven’t told him yet but I suppose the electric heater will probably be the best option. lthough, it would be wonderful to have a *samovar* on which I could have a kettle all the time but I am not sure how good the makeshift chimney is in my room. Actually it is more of a hole in the wall with a removable metal pipe attached to it.
Please do keep sending me all your wonderful emails. Until the next Dispatch, Ma’as Salaam.