“Visit to Beit Sawa” by Ali Khan – Dispatch from Damascus

Visit to Beit Sawa with Mustapha
Dispatch from Damascus 14 (17/1/09)
By Ali Khan

We have already had our first mid-term exam at the university. So far, I think that the program is very good at the lower levels but for the higher levels it is less organised and the teachers could be a bit better in their methods. A Syrian friend of mine, Mustapha invited a couple of us to his village for lunch on Friday. We left for Beit Sawa after the Friday prayers and congregated at the underpass near Shari’a al-Thawra. After waiting for while we eventually found the right servees and we headed north out of Damascus. This was the first time that I had left the city from the northern side.

After about ten minutes in the servees the urban landscape changed dramatically. When I went out of Damascus to Rami’s house in Dumaiyyara there was a gradual change as the areas became poorer. This time the change was arresting and immediate. Instead of lots of car showrooms there were innumerable number for garages and car washes. Car washes might be the wrong word for it because they were actually concrete shacks with a man and his bucket. The architecture was gloomy with concrete and stone blocks all made in a similar way and there was rubbish lying everywhere. Piles of rubbish lay by the side of the road, plastic bags were playing in the wind almost deceiving one into thinking that the more distant ones were kites. Gaunt and bare trees vied for space next to evergreen shrubs that seemed ‘everdusty’ rather than green. The sprawl continued and I began to wonder when the countryside would begin because Mustapha always used to tell us about the huge open spaces and the beauty of the area in summer. For a while, the baby on the seat in front, virtually climbing out of her mothers arms, stared at me quizzically as babies do, and we had a short but interesting conversation, of which she obviously understood much more. The servees stopped after about forty five minutes and I was nudged to get off by my friend.

To me Beit Sawa felt more like a continuation of the urban sprawl, perhaps even a suburb, than the village as I was hoping it to be. We got off to be greeted by Mustapha’s brother who took us to his friend’s shop while we waited. Obviously, the shopkeeper was eager to know about what we thought of the shop. He was keen on knowing the opinion of an American, a German and an Indian and we all nodded our heads vigorously and mumbled praises. Most of the wares displayed were toys of various sorts, various things for mobiles, key rings and other such bits and bobs. I am always surprised by the number of such shops in Damascus and elsewhere because I think and have been told that at least in the poorer areas there is not much disposable income. After a while we were assigned to a young boy who was lounging around outside the shop and he was told to take us to Mustapha’s house. On the way we dodged three motorcycles, one of which was being ridden by Mustapha’s brother. He had a huge grin on his face as he got off to say hello, completely ignoring the fact that he and his friends had blocked the road. Just as we were beginning to start walking again, a white car screeched to a halt about ten centimeters from me and before we could say anything, a familiar voice shouted ‘get in.’ It was Mustapha with a Canadian friend of his. We bundled in, thankful for getting out of the cold. The next half an hour was spent driving around the ‘village’ while Mustapha showed off his driving skills and tried to run over everyone he saw. I think this was not only because he wanted to be daring and macho but also perhaps he was trying to show us how everyone in the village knew him. After a while we drove towards the fields. Apparently, this whole area is wonderfully green in summer but to us it looked more like the bleak landscape of some parts of Eastern Europe. Christoph, while gazing out of the window, philosophically said that perhaps it looked a bit like the Serbian countryside when winter is setting in. Mustapha was keen to show us the canal, which was full of water and we followed its winding path for quite a while before he decided to stop in his field and take pictures. A group of men who were gathered around a pile of machinery briefly looked at us before going on with their work. Obviously, we were not the first foreigners to come to his farm. Everyone changed positions, while variations of the same photo were taken. I resolutely stood in the front, refusing to budge because it seemed more logical for everyone else to swap places since they were all overgrown! Hunger finally demanded to know when it was going to be appeased and we shot off from the farm towards his house. Mustapha’s house was very much in the same style as some houses in the villages I have seen in northern India. There was a sitting room as we entered and then a small courtyard with a pomegranate tree and rooms all around it. An open staircase went up to the roof. In my village people would have had a guava tree instead.

The drawing room was colourful with a large wardrobe decorated with the traditional Syrian inlay work. The couches had red rugs thrown on them. In the corner there was cabinet with the families best crockery and opposite it there was a small TV. We huddled around the electric heater and were introduced to Mustapha’s brothers. After the usual pleasantries, the conversation turned to Islam when Mustapha’s brother took it upon himself to explain to the guests his views on America, Hugo Chavez, other Arab countries and of course Islam. Meanwhile Mustapha, who has obviously spent a lot of time with people from all over the world, laughed and apologised for his brother and his mad ‘talk.’ In truth there was nothing mad about it. In fact it was interesting for me to see how he knew quite a lot about the world and some other countries, granted that some of it sounded like it was being read out of a propaganda leaflet. At the end of his talk, he said: ‘the fact is that all the Arab countries have sold out except for us Syrians. We are not cowards. We are not scared of anyone and we will not bow to anyone. I was beginning to find the whole thing rather amusing because while this serious talk was going on, I could not help but notice that Mustapha had switched on the television and was intently watching Hip Hop videos from America with troupes of the mandatory scantily clad women, fleets of expensive cars and rappers wearing more jewelry than the Maharajas of India.

The room was silent for some time, while people lit their cigarettes and their attention was focused on the TV. Mustapha had gone out of the room but he returned and announced that lunch was ready. We went out of the room to a different room. The food was laid out on the floor and it seemed like his mother and sisters had prepared enough food for twice the number of guests. I strategically sat down next to the diesel heater so that I could not only be warm but also could heat my bread on it. The food was delicious and hearty and it was a treat to eat fresh vegetables. Mustapha and his brothers were superb hosts and their enthusiasm to feed us, made me eat more than I should have. Thankfully we were sitting on the floor and I simply reclined onto the mattress behind me. Conversation turned to marriage and women, as they are wont to when eight unmarried men in their twenties share a meal. Not all the brothers are married and when I asked Mustapha about his views he said there was still a lot of time. I asked if he would marry a ‘modern’ girl from Damascus or perhaps even a girl from abroad. He immediately said no no! She will have to be completely hijabi otherwise I will lose all respect in the village. I asked what completely hijabi meant and he explained that the way the hijab was worn in Damascus with the face showing was not respected in his village and that his wife would have to cover her face too with just the eyes showing. I asked him if he would be happy with this because he has lived in the city for so long and had interacted with people from all over the world. I had heard him talk nostalgically about a particular friend of his from Europe. Often he would recount stories of their travels together around Syria. He agreed with me but expressed his inability to do anything in the face of prevailing customs and traditions. After lunch I knew that the women of the family would come and eat but unfortunately some of the other guests had not thought about this and had made themselves quite comfortable next to the heater. After initially trying to be subtle and suggesting that we go and watch TV, I eventually had to tell them quite candidly why we had to move. Meanwhile Mustapha was getting ready to take the food out, insisting that we remain comfortable, but thankfully we all trouped out and went and sat in the TV room. After lunch Mustapha announced that we would go to his friends café. We were a bit reluctant as all of us had settled down next to the heater and were enjoying the conversation with his brothers. As we were leaving I asked if I could see the kitchen. His immediate reaction was one of embarrassment but I managed to calm him down and said that our houses in India were exactly like this. He reluctantly agreed and showed me the way. The kitchen was full of jars with preserved vegetables on the shelves. On one side there were four huge vats full of soaking chickpeas and flava beans. Opposite that, there were little jars full of spices and other condiments. On the floor two huge gas stoves took up most of the space. I think that his mother had cooked such large quantities of food that they had had to use bigger stoves and not the normal one.

It was nearly dark as we left the house and I saw a few splashes of orange and purple light in the sky through the spiny branches of the trees at the end of the street. The drive was somewhat saner, partly because of the dark and also because we told him that we had just eaten and would not be able to cope with any Formula 1 demonstrations. After a short drive we stopped outside a gigantic greenhouse. We got off and I asked Mustapha where the café was. He pointed to the greenhouse. The walls had been built up to about fifteen feet and some steel scaffolding supported a transparent plastic roof. As I was walking in, I felt as if I was entering a one of the marijuana plantations one often sees in films. The whole area was lit by white neon lights and burly looking men in black leather jackets sat around tables with red table-clothes smoking furiously and playing cards. Every so often someone would get upset and scream at the others for being dishonest and would threaten to do all kinds of foul things. Mustapha said that they don’t play with money. I would hate to see what would happen if they did and someone cheated. The owner came around to say hello to us, also wearing the compulsory leather jacket, and gave everyone a small cup of Arabic coffee. From previous experiences I knew that one is normally meant to down the drink and give back the cup, as there are normally only a couple of cups that are reused. Unfortunately, the Canadian found it too hot and decided to settle down with it and nurse it. Meanwhile the owner stood respectfully waiting for the cup and it was only after the Mustapha managed to talk to him, that he handed back the cup. Afterwards we all ordered tea and everyone asked for an argileh, the water-pipe, except for, predictably, the American. Mustapha insisted that I try some flavour that is only found in that area. I had only had smoked an argileh once before during my stay here and I am not a big fan but it was an interesting flavour. Gradually Mustapha’s brothers and friends wandered in and everyone ordered their favourite type of argileh. Soon the whole place was full of smoke and the owner switched on some contraption attached to the plastic roof that was meant to clear the smoke. Unfortunately it did not work very well. If we were in any western country, someone observing the smoky greenhouse, from the outside, would get very different ideas as to what was happening inside. The TV was right above our heads and was blaring out old Arabic music. The gentleman next to me gleefully pointed out Om Kulthum, Fayrooz, Sameera and other more recent musicians. After about two hours of sitting in the café, we decided to leave and we asked Mustapha to take us back to the servees stop. Thankfully this time it was not a long wait and we clambered aboard after saying goodbye to Mustapha. I think he has watched one to many Hollywood films or perhaps he has too many English friends because now, when speaking in English, he has a tendency to qualify everything by saying “f’ing” before it. Strangely I think it is rather endearing, simply because it sounds so absurd. So, after we said our ‘f’ing’ goodbyes, he got into the car and zoomed off to join his friends for more argileh.

We experienced Syrian driving at its best again, as we shot off towards Damascus. On the way the driver managed to scrape the side of another servees but he did seem to care at all. By now all of us also pay no heed to the manic driving and we continued to talk about our travels and experiences. In the background the radio was playing and someone was giving a speech about the atrocities in Gaza but the volume was not loud enough to hear exactly what he was saying. Funnily enough, in a slightly morbid way of course, that is exactly the problem at the moment. None of the countries that matter in terms of global politics are raising their voices enough against the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people. Until next week, Ma’as Salaam!

Everyone should go to “The Syrian Independent Creative Documentary Film Festival” Click here:

DOX BOX 09 opens on the 4th of March, in Damascus, at Al-Kindy Theatre at 6 pm, followed by a launch reception held at Fardoss Tower Hotel – Oscar sale at 8 pm. It concludes its Damascus leg with a closing party held on 11th March at Damascus lead discotheque Marmar at 10 pm. DOX BOX travels on the morning of March 12th to Homs and Tartous for three days. The complete list of the films and detailed program will be online on the 25 of February 2009.

Comments (2)

John said:

Thank you, Ali Khan.

Your articles always bring back to me the flavours I love of Damascus.

Good luck with your study – please keep up the writing.


January 24th, 2009, 7:34 am


Shami said:

Ali ,thank you very much.I’m waiting to read your detailed accounts from other syrian cities.But one important advice ,use the railways ,the syrian roads are among the most dangerous.

January 24th, 2009, 12:57 pm


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