“Dispatch from Damascus 6,” by Ali Khan

Sayyida Ruqiyya

Sayyida Ruqayya

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.

Nut Shop Damascus

Nut Shop Damascus

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.

youtube: Sayyida Ruqayya’s shrine in Damascus, Syria

Comments (17)

Alex said:

Joshua Thank you for posting Ali’s latest dispatch from Damascus. I have been reading his dispatches every Saturday when my friend Saghir received and forwarded them … about five so far.

Ali’s ability to enjoy the simplest pleasures in life in Damascus and the way he describes his small but always fun adventures reminded me of what we are missing in our daily life in the west.

In previous editions, Ali talked about his favorite daily fruit juice, the pleasure of smelling the roasted nuts on his way upstairs to his small apartment, and the way strangers invite him to lunch at their parent’s homes.

Like living in a large village.

But for how long will it stay that way?

And Joshua … Bravo for finding the picture of Melabbas! 🙂
(nuts with sweet coating)

October 25th, 2008, 9:41 pm


Leila Abu-Saba said:

I was just sitting in the women’s section of the Umayyad mosque two weeks ago, the week after Eid. A lady next to me insisted I eat some ma’amul and take one for my friend who was walking around looking at things. I was visibly exhausted and very grateful for her kindness.

I could sit in that mosque for hours. Women were so kind to me and I felt so much at peace and at home. Insha’allah I will go back to Damascus and visit this and other mosques…

Nota bene – at the grotto in the convent of Ma’aloula we also sat around beneath the stone ceilings and the strange tree growing inside, then drank from the holy well. There were Muslims as well as Christians there praying and eating sandwiches. One veiled Muslim woman took a liking to me and kept blessing me for my height. She was clearly very happy to be in the grotto and very happy to see me there, too.

And yes, we were fed by near-strangers in Damascus, and treated to coffee by total strangers there and in South Lebanon.

October 26th, 2008, 1:19 am


Alia said:

Lovely write-up-

The great-grand-daughter of the Prophet Fatima Sakina is buried in that Mosque, it is nice that people could be around living, praying, eating and studying.

On the subject of the religious and social life of women around the shrine of another great-grand-daughter of the Prophet, Zainab,in Egypt, the Oxford anthropologist Nadia Abu Zahra wrote a delightful book: “The Pure and Powerful”


October 26th, 2008, 10:39 am


alia said:

Correction – al-Sayyeda Zainab is the Grand-daughter of the Prophet-

October 26th, 2008, 11:25 am


trustquest said:

Syrian female blogger

Slam the head of the parliament and the members of parliament for signing a decree allowing the continual of discrimination against women. She was so frustrated that she used the F word. The “nesasy”

an NGO, also blasted the parliament for his lies and his discriminatory position regarding women killing, child marriage and slavery treatment of women in Syrian society.

October 26th, 2008, 2:15 pm


Alix said:

Excellent writer-philosopher! How can we read the previous five dispatches?

October 26th, 2008, 4:55 pm


jad said:

Alia, Leila,
Regarding your Women right and position in the Syrian society comment

I think that Women rights and obligations are not clear yet for our society in general, there are different categories in Syria for women according to their education, family status and their religion.
The law is still vague when it comes to women rights; it gives men more power when it comes to family disputes or even for some criminal acts as ‘honour crime’ which is one the worst thing we have in our law.
From a personal point of view I think the law should be looked at on every level and in every details, at the same time educate the society about the importance of the women not only in the house but also in the community and that women are a major player not a second-class human being.
There should be a major women rights evaluation and should happen immediately so we can see the result in the next generation since it’s going to take time for the society to learn it, understand it and grow within that model.
We don’t have enough Syrian women speaking out about the equal opportunity and the right position. We also have the tradition and religion values that people are locked with that should be explained in a better ways about the women great value to every community regardless how small and uneducated it is, we need to grass root those value.
Women’s issue in our society starts with the religion, tradition and end up with the unclear and sometimes unjust law that should be corrected when it comes to women.
I believe that Syrian law is flexible enough to do this step, the problem is within the society and its acceptance of that law.
Couple years ago a huge breakthrough happen within the Syrian law but it didn’t get much attention, that was a familial Christian law which allow Christians to dispute the family issue not under the general law but under a different law that gives women and kids better rights than before, I’m mentioning that to prove that the law itself can and should be changed to be more balanced, and it’s not necessary to copy the western model but to have our own model that fits our tradition yet be just.
Women rights should be one of the many major issues that we have to deal with to improve Syrian society.

October 26th, 2008, 5:23 pm


Nur al-Cubicle said:

Delightful narrative. Thank you for posting it, Joshua!

October 26th, 2008, 6:30 pm


CWW said:

It looks like the US may finally be taking the gloves off and getting the terrorists in Syria en route to Iraq BEFORE they kill hundreds of innocent civilians.

Sun Oct 26, 2008 2:07pm EDT
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Syria said on Sunday unidentified helicopters attacked a Syrian border point with Iraq, causing casualties.

The official Syrian news agency SANA did not identify the helicopters but said the attack took place in the Bou Kamal border area, in eastern Syria.

Residents said the attack targeted a house in the area in which a man and his four sons and two nearby workers were killed.

October 26th, 2008, 6:44 pm


brad said:

The US military has just completed an airborne assault operation inside Syria near the Iraqi borders. It seems that the US has successfully thwarted an attempt by terrorists supported by the Syrian regime to infiltrate into Iraq. This is perhaps a long overdue development that we hope to be followed by further decisive actions by the US military to put an end once and for all to the Syrian regimes continued disruptive meddling in neighboring States. Perhaps the next step should be the overthrow of this unpopular regime of Syria.

October 26th, 2008, 7:33 pm


JustOneAmerican said:

Until there’s some confirmation I would be hesitant to declare the initial report of American ground troops operating inside Syria as wholly accurate.

October 26th, 2008, 8:54 pm


Akbar Palace said:

Syria has curtailed infiltration into Iraq even though Washington> has refused to reward it or resend an Ambassador.

Well, I guess the US government disagrees with Professor Josh (ref. Post 38 from last thread).

October 26th, 2008, 9:27 pm


Enlightened said:

This was a interesting post.

I have to concur with Alex here, (Ali’s adventures) also remind me of what is lacking also in our lives in the West, the simple things most importantly the courtesy shown by people on the street, The greetings most notably, how often does anyone journey to the shops in the west and gets back home with out interacting with anyone but the check out operator?

I miss the old world charm, “the giving and generosity” no matter what little you have.

AHHHHHHHHHHHHH the “Old World” nothing beats it1

October 26th, 2008, 10:28 pm


Ali said:


Thank you for all your kind words. If you want the other 6 (there is a “special edition on Deir Mar Musa”) Disptaches then please send me your email addresses and I will forward them to you. Thanks again. Ali

October 29th, 2008, 10:59 am


Syria Comment » Archives » Ali Khan - “Dispatch from Damascus 8″ said:

[…] 8 (8/11/2008) by Ali Khan bilehra@gmail.com (See another of Ali Khan’s dispatches) Photo by Damascusmoon: The Four Seasons Hotel seen from the Tekkiyya […]

November 9th, 2008, 3:11 pm


The Damascus tourist takeover – part 2 | Syria News Wire said:

[…] one of my favourite odes to Damascus: Cultural Capital. Orientalista, The Blog and the Shower, Ali Khan and Jillian C York may not be Syrian, but they made a habit of writing colourfully about Damascus. […]

September 8th, 2009, 11:18 am


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