Ali Khan – Dispatch from Damascus 9

by Gooffey on flickr

by Gooffey, Damascus after a rain, found on flickr

Dispatch from Damascus 9 (15/11/2008)
Ali Khan

Before going to Lebanon I went shopping with some friends. We went to the up market area of Damascus, Shalaan, where all the branded clothes are sold. My Syrian friend Rami, wanted to buy a new sweater and had singled out a few places to go and find one. We went out of the old city. If one spends a long time within the confines of the old city, walking out of the Souk al-Hamidiyya is like stepping out of one Damascus and going into another. The traffic, the lights, the wide roads and the modern architecture all manage to surprise me every time. We went out of the old city, past the citadel and the statue of Salahuddin. The statue is quite big and depicts, as Tim Mackintosh-Smith astutely observed, Salahuddin on a horse with its’ tail slightly lifted as if it were about to defecate on the crusader underneath it.’ We crossed over the busy road, trying to dodge the traffic and also trying to ignore the maniacal servees drivers and the hail of abuse that is inevitable if you enter their field of vision. We reached the other side safely despite a shout of ‘you ass, you one eyed father of a beast!’ Someone had the bright idea of putting an over bridge on the next road and so we used it to get to Yusuf al-Azmeh Square. The Commercial Bank of Syria with its forbidding exterior stands opposite the famous Lebanese Audi Bank with its gleaming glass façade. We went past the famous Cham Palace hotel. Whoever named the hotel using the French sound of ‘ch’ as in Charlotte had evidently forgotten in his enthusiasm that in English the name would mean something entirely different and might even attract the wrong kinds of customers. Sham Palace would have been a wise choice. Sham is the Arabic name for Damascus and this whole area was once known as Bilaad al-Sham, the country of Sham.

The area where we went to was packed with shops. Each shop tried to outdo the next with bigger and brighter neon signs. I cannot remember the first store’s name but I do remember staring at the DJ who had set up an turntables, a huge subwoofer and 4 large speakers outside the shop. He was blasting cheesy pop songs and I heard Spice Girls for the first time in four or five years. Around him were a group of young men and women, all in leather jackets of various shades, smoking cigarettes. I was half expecting to see them leap into a choreographed performance to ‘If you wanna be my lover.’ Coloured lights illuminated the exterior of the shop and the owner had put two spotlights outside, which traced a path on the wall opposite the store and then beamed into the sky. The people living in the flats above must be extremely patient because the lights seemed more appropriate for a World War II film than the facade of a clothes shop. The second shop we went to was called Stefanel. The shop looked like a clone of Zara in Europe or any other chain store that tries to combine affordable prices with replicas of Karl Lagerfield’s clothes. We went in and climbed the lift to the first floor, though the see through lift did tempt me just a little bit. From what I have observed, young people in Syria prefer Western clothes to traditional Arab clothes a bit like their counterparts in India. I sat down on a comfortable stool while my friend tried on a number of different sweaters and then finally settled on a blue one with some subtle stripes. We paid and left and I noticed that the conversation between him and the cashier was conducted mostly in English. Earlier, Rami had told me to only speak to him in English in the shop. It is so unfortunate that people in our part of the world think that having the ability to talk in English automatically implies that the speaker is more cultivated and refined. Before we left, I managed to get a peek at the label of one of the jackets and it said: “Made in the Syrian Arab Republic, Idea made in Italy.” The second part was written in a bolder red font.

It seems that the Syrians too, like their other Mediterranean brothers, have a penchant for tight fitting clothes. Even the women wear outrageously fitted clothes and often women and girls wearing the hijab will wear a fitted shiny velvet overcoat or a tight sweater with boot cut jeans that seem to defeat the whole point of the hijab. As we walked out of the store and went towards Abu Shakir’s juice shop, which incidentally has the best fawakay, mixed fruit juice, in Damascus, my friend turned casually said to me that the area we were in was mostly frequented by the ‘Westernised’ upper classes of Syrian society. He then went on to tell me how he was ashamed that people wanted to wear Western clothes, listen to Western music and generally copy what he called ‘MTV’ culture. The irony of the fact that he had just bought something that said ‘Idea made in Italy’ seemed to escape him and not wanting to get into a prolonged discussion I quietly nodded and sipped my fawakay.

It is interesting talking to young people here. Often many of them seem to be torn between an aspiration to be ‘cool’ and therefore Western, in dress and habits and many also harbour a parallel desire to be Arab and to be rooted in their culture. What is even more interesting is that most of them cannot see how the two culture can co-habit in the same person and regard Arabness and Westerness as not only different but also conflicting. Wandering around Shalaan and Sahiliyya it is hard for me to imagine anyone from the throngs of shoppers, as the rabidly anti-Western people that are often depicted in certain Western media outfits. In fact even in the poorer areas like Seyyida Zeinab there seems to be an ever-present tension between the desire for Western clothes, music and food and the urge to reject all this and take pride in their Arab heritage. On the street that leads up to the shrine of Seyyida Zeinab it is common to find people selling jeans, T-shirts and bad copies of Puma and Adidas tracksuits. The other type of shop that can be found in every area of Damascus are lingerie shops. Despite all the proscriptions for immodest and revealing clothes it is inevitable that while walking somewhere, one will pass a store with red lace bras, purple velvet nighties and other equally revealing underclothes displayed prominently in the window. I still cannot understand how, in an area where so much emphasis is placed on a woman’s modesty, people can display such risqué clothes in their shop fronts. There is a whole area of the souk next to the Hamidiyya where one can walk for at least ten minutes without seeing anything other than ‘bridal’ and ‘lingerie’ shops. The variety of styles and colours of items on display makes Victoria Secret seem conservative. Some of the clothes women wear over their undergarments are often equally shocking! On my way to university I often see girls wearing fitted leopard print overcoats with shiny red trousers or jeans that seem to be two sizes too small accompanied with a pink frilly t-shirt that says ‘hot’ and a white hijab! The older ladies too seem to be under the illusion that they can pull off clothes that even Cindy Crawford would think twice about wearing. Of course most older women still wear loose black, brown or light coloured coats with a hijab but I have even seen them linger outside the raunchy lingerie shops. The other day at an Internet café, I saw two young women in conservative dress huddled over a computer looking at the Stefanel website, prodding each other gleefully when they particularly liked something.

Another friend of mine illustrates my point about the tension between choosing Western habits or Arab ones. Mustapha is from a village outside Damascus and is taking classes in the city. He spends a lot of time here. He is sensitive, kind and generous. Once when I mentioned that I liked the Oud, he came back the next day with a CD and gave it to me. Sometimes he talks about the various Western girls that he has liked or had a crush on. He even went to the extent of showing me a picture of him with his arm around a friend of his from Europe. One evening I was walking with him, on the way to meet an Italian friend of mine. We met her at the Roman Arch, halfway down the Street that is Straight and I introduced him to her. She offered her hand but he just smiled and put his hand on his heart. This did not particularly surprise me and I did not even think about it when it happened. However, later when I dwelt on it for a while longer, I did wonder why someone would do this. I suppose it might be the result of personal insecurities as much as it might be the need to portray his culture as distinct from that of the Italian. Rami, with whom I went shopping earlier, is also from outside Damascus and is from the Hanbali school of Sunni thought. This particular school of thought was founded Ahmad ibn Hanbal and some people regard it as the ideological progenitor for modern day Wahabism. Therefore people tend to be think of Hanbalis as slightly stricter than the other Sunni schools of thought but I have seen Rami shake a girls hand though he made it a point to say ‘goodbye sister.’

Mustapha has just arrived and is calling me down to the courtyard. He has bought me yet another CD. This one, an old compilation of Munir Bashir, an oud player, is apparently not easy to find. I am still overwhelmed by the genuine generosity of people here. A few days ago I invited some of the UN Peacekeepers over for tea. They bought Shrimp and all kinds of Indian spices and we cooked up feast. However, unfortunately the next day out of laziness I went to eat a shawarma with a friend. Yesterday I was woken up by a text message from the him. It said: “Has the shawarma shabbabed you yet?” It most certainly had. Shabaab is the Arabic word for young men but a few weeks ago when we were getting agitated that the same word in Arabic could have more than thirty different meanings we decided that we would use the verb ‘to shabaab’ in English to mean virtually anything. You can guess what it means in that text message. I am feeling better today. Until next week Ma’as Salaama!!

P.S I have changed the names of my friends in this

Comments (7)

Apollodorus said:

AlSalam Aleikom,

Ali you wrote about Hanbalism :This particular school of thought was founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal and some people regard it as the ideological progenitor for modern day Wahabism.

In fact ,if we want to use modern terms we can say ,Hanbalism is the right wing of Islam and Hanafism as the pro rationality school of thought is the Left wing of Islam.But !!! paradoxally,Islamic mysticism ,Sufism was first born among the Hanbalis ,for example one of the first Sufis Hasan Al Basri was Hanbali and more surprising the famous Sufi Al Hallaj was himself a Hanbali Sheikh.
The most important Sufi Ibn Arabi the Andalusian and then the damascene” the son of Plato” was a Malki Sheikh ,Malikism is also known for its rigorism ,in fact there is a great influence of the Malki Zahiri Andalusian Ibn Hazm on the most famous Hanbali Scholar ,the Harani then damascene Ibn Taymiyya ,so these boundaries between the 4 Sunni schools are never impermeable.
Most of Syrians belong to Hanafism or Shafi’ism ,about the Shaf3i school of thought we can place it in the center ,with Hanbalism and Hanafism as the extreme right and extreme left.

November 16th, 2008, 12:56 am


pamela said:

The shops you mentioned in Shaalan are “fixed” so you can,t haggle over the price, but if you shop in Hamadeea or thereabouts you can get a bargain . Your friend advised you to speak English , I would advise you not to if you are in the old city ! Not because anyone would be rude to you , but you might get a better bargain if the shopkeeper thought you were trying to speak Arabic.
Also if you find something you really like , don,t let it show on your face ,look bored , say its too large, wrong colour etc and begin to walk out of the door …90% of the time they will call you back and give you the price you want.
About the lingerie shops ,its such a paradox , but in the last few years I,ve noticed that more girls and women are working in these shops , whereas it was always men , I think its because the young men are getting jobs abroad , so it leaves jobs for girls to fill, even if the pay is bad it contributes to their family,s income.

November 16th, 2008, 12:32 pm


Eamon said:

Thanks for your dispatches… Anecdotes from these neighborhoods remind me of an experience I had this summer in Syria. I was hanging out in Cham with a Homsi friend who lives in derelict housing in Dwuela’. I wanted to kick it in the Old City, as most people do when visiting Damascus. So we sampled a number of the new cafes, drank a lot of jizir w portu2an and laimun w n3n3.

Anyway, something he said one day struck me: “I feel like when I am in the Old City I am not really in Syria.”

I had lived in Syria for two years before and had considered but not fully understood this idea — that the dominant Syrian experience is not in the Old City or all the places I tend to hang out in, but in the working class tenements, the suburbs and industrial cities. As foreigners, we tend to gravitate to the Old City, Shalaan and Abu Ramaneh. But most Syrians do not have the means to enjoy these hoods, and they exist more on the edges of their lives.

I’d appreciate your thoughts on this, since you get to be in Syria right now, and not me!

November 16th, 2008, 6:30 pm


Rumyal said:


Your reports are always fun to read and informative on day-to-day life in Syria. Please keep them coming. Also, why not add a few pics if you can?

November 17th, 2008, 6:35 am


Ali said:

Hi Eamon,

I actually completely agree with you. I spend a lot of time downtown and in Seyyida Zeinab and so I get to experience an entirely different Damascus there.

Thank you Rumyal for your kind words. I am not much of a photographer but my friend Ketan Gajria is something of a professional. Google him and you can see his photos from here.

November 17th, 2008, 6:12 pm


trustquest said:

Ali, it nice to read your daily cruise in the old city and other places, but in a forum like SC, it is much more interesting to describe under the radar people feelings and their set of minds especially their anticipation is high about coming promises of openness and peace, and I would like to see you interacting with young people and describing how they thinks, if they can express that or not, their education levels, their dreams and the social fabric of a society suppose to be changing fast due to immigration.

November 17th, 2008, 9:33 pm


Off the Wall said:

Dear Ali
Please consider compiling your wonderful articles into a book. You write superbly, and beautifully. There may be a market yet for travel books, particularly those with as colorful as your writing.

Out of selfishness, are you planning an spending few months in Aleppo, or other Syrian cities, I would love to read your writing about my home town.

Thank you

November 21st, 2008, 3:21 pm


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