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Volume 42, Number 2March/April 1991

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On the Streets of Damascus

Written by Anthony B. Toth
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

The summer sunset pours a soft apricot light on the walls and rooftops of what is probably the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. Viewed from the cool heights of Jabal Qasiyun, there is nothing remarkable about the streets of Damascus: They slice through modern neighborhoods at the clean angles of baked kibbah in a pan, and dwindle into a maze of alleyways in the ancient quarters.

It is when you descend from the hilltop and begin to walk the streets and alleys of Syria's capital that they reveal themselves as an ever-changing, ever-peopled stage upon which the city displays its unique character. On busy avenues and quiet, shaded lanes, Damascus buys and sells, toils and plays, celebrates life and mourns its passing. And with each season come changes in the colors, moods and rhythms of the city's streets.

The onset of dusk leaves buildings and boulevards below blurred in blues and grays as a young snack seller gets ready for the evening's work. His small wooden box is crammed with gum, candy bars and cigarettes for the carloads of customers to come. Nearby, falafil vendors fire up their cooking oil; steam begins to rise from the huge cauldrons on the bean sellers' carts.

From downtown, this highest street in the city glitters like a multicolored necklace strung across Jabal Qasiyun. Lights flash on the amusement rides and restaurants, music blasts from speakers hoarse from overwork, children beg their parents to buy them cotton candy dyed colors not found in nature. Picnickers and promenaders enjoy the view and breathe deeply the air that is invariably described as cooler and cleaner than the city's.

Damascenes relish their summer evenings outdoors. The city's parks come alive after the sun goes down, and the business districts fill with window-shoppers. Street vendors, their carts bright under portable gas lamps, ply the crowds with freshly boiled corn, baleela - a kind of bean eaten as a snack - or ka'ak, a term used for several kinds of baked goods. Chilled sabara, cactus fruit, is gingerly peeled for customers at stands made as inviting as an oasis by rows of potted greenery and cheerful strings of lights.

Young people, dressed and coiffed to kill, stroll and gather in clusters, or cruise around Jahiz Park and Abu Rummana in long, slow caravans of shiny cars. Like teenagers around the world, they squeal their tires and honk their horns in the impatient exuberance of youth.

At dinner time, when neighborhood streets are left to the prowling cats, the stillness is broken by a speeding train of cars - horns blaring non-stop, lights flashing - festooned with yards of meticulously applied ribbon and arrangements of gladiolus and carnation. A young couple has been married. As the cars barrel along, noses poke through the curtains and heads stick out of apartment windows to investigate the commotion. Photographers hanging precariously from the lead car record on film and 'videotape the joyful noises and the decked-out cars of the wedding party.

The sun rises on streets empty of strollers, vendors, revelers and even cats. A hollow clip-clop echoes off the modern apartment buildings lining a street in the Malki neighborhood. A man and a mule come into view, a produce vendor riding into the city from his farm. Every few seconds he yells, monotonously naming his wares, The old man and his mule carry potatoes and onions past Mazdas and BMWs. Soon, the men who wash cars will appear with their buckets and rags; they do valiant battle every workday with the eternal Damascus dust, keeping the ephemeral chariots shiny.

Schoolchildren soon appear, some walking in boisterous groups, others waiting for buses. A man gathers delicate, sweet-scented jasmine blossoms into his cupped hand as he walks along the sidewalk. The corner greengrocer opens; his delivery boys load the big baskets on their bikes with flat bread, olives, onions and perhaps even a watermelon. Then they tear off on their rounds, zooming like racers around corners and coasting downhill, no-handed and nonchalant. Hanging on walls outside barber shops and real-estate offices are cages with twittering songbirds.

Nearby, a scribe has set up table, chair and typewriter on a sidewalk overlooking the Tora River. Early-morning visa seekers pay him to fill out their applications and to translate documents. Catering to the same clientele, another sidewalk entrepreneur down the street offers photocopying and photography services while you wait.

The best place for open-air photography, though, is Marja Square, in the heart of the city. For those requiring photographs for the nearby government offices, there are old photographers with their equally venerable wooden cameras. The first three fingers of their right hands are stained deep brown by countless immersions in the tray of developer, which they keep inside the long bellows of their cameras. Some of them surely remember when streetcars, camels and Model-A Fords crowded the square, instead of today's Eastern European buses and taxis built in Japan.

Marja Square is also aswarm with tourists - "local" tourists from elsewhere in Syria as well as travelers from abroad. Both varieties have their pictures taken in front of the column commemorating the construction of the Hijaz telegraph line.

The sidewalks around Marja are thick with goods and services on offer: shoeshines, nuts and dried seeds, lottery tickets, grilled meats, coffee and watches.

As the blazing summer sun rises to its apex, much of the city shuts down and catches its breath. Mad dogs, Englishmen and any others braving the noonday sun may start to think about quenching their thirst. In Damascus, there are gratefully many options.

Streetside stands selling fresh-squeezed juices abound. The fruit of the season serves as its own advertisement, hung in mesh bags out front - oranges, grapefruit, apples, pomegranates. At the entrance to Suq Hamadiya, the main market area of the Old City, the sawwas, or sous-seller, signals his presence with the cling-clanging of the shallow brass bowls he holds in one hand, and the tinkle of ornamental coins on the large metal tank slung on his back. The sous, a bittersweet, licorice-like, coffee-colored drink, is dispensed with a series of showy flourishes, rituals of refreshment -the rinsing of the glass with water, the pouring, the formal handing of the cup to the customer.

A simpler routine obtains with another Damascus drink. The vendor uses a special tool to shave ice off a large block on his cart. He puts the ice into a glass and pours the rich, syrupy, deep-purple juice of tout shami - the Damascus mulberry - over it. For decoration or lagniappe, he's sure to offer a whole mulberry or two to the thirsty customer.

The streets and alleys of the Old City begin to bustle once again as the setting sun loses its strength and the cool shadows lengthen. Merchants pull out chairs, and some relax with a water pipe and a cup of tea. Others set backgammon boards on small tables in front of their stores and begin to play. To the unaccustomed observer the swift rolls of the dice and the clacking of the wooden pieces blur into a confusing dance of experienced hands.

At the produce markets, sharp-eyed shoppers seek out the best vegetables -and the best prices - for dinner, complaining scornfully about bruised tomatoes and wilted parsley, haggling over prices and eventually loading up their bags. The songs of the hawkers rise above the dust and the mingled smells of mint and garlic and apricots (See Aramco World , September-October 1971).

The rhythm of the street quickens. Short, stout mothers in headscarves and dark overcoats, all shoulders and hips, jostle past the unwary. Ten-year-old cyclists on black-framed bikes made in China weave their way through the pedestrian traffic, whistling like birds to warn those in their way. Horsedrawn carts with big wooden wheels haul sand to a construction site or waste sawdust from a furniture-maker's shop. Shopkeepers spot passing tourists and beckon them with a staccato spiel in any likely language: "ComeinsideJustlookWehavecaftansta-blecarpetclothssoldbrassWhatyou-want?" Pint-sized hawkers wail the brand names of cigarettes. A man selling plastic flutes plays nimble trills while another loudly snaps the plastic tablecloths he offers, to show their quality. Blind men with beautiful voices follow their canes as they recite praises to God and sell boxes of matches. Boys carrying circular stainless-steel trays of coffee and tea to customers around the suq rush out of closet-sized tea-shops wedged between buildings. Suddenly, a dark shape slithers near your feet; you gasp and jump and your heart races, but it's only a toy snake made of cleverly folded paper and sold for a few Syrian pounds by Afghan boys. The perfume vendors in front of the Umayyad Mosque dispense a hundred scents, some as ancient as the trade routes from the East, others as modern as yesterday's Paris creation.

By the time the day's final call to prayer fades away, the market streets are calm at last, but the Old City rises early the next morning with more bustle, more color, more noise. Porters sit on their hand-trucks in Buzoriya and wait for something to haul. An old man fills the water bag on his back in the fountain of the courtyard at the Azem School, now a handicraft and antique shop. He walks down the narrow streets and does his ineffectual best to sprinkle down the day's rising dust. There used to be many like him in the city, shouting "Wa'a ijraykl" - "Watch your feet!" - paid and sometimes fed by the merchants in front of whose shops they worked. Shopkeepers these days tend to do their own sprinkling, and this water carrier may be the last practitioner of a dying trade.

Clothing vendors hang nightgowns, scarves, blouses and hats on their already overflowing carts. Long-handled, coal-fired pot in hand, a young man pours early-morning passersby a hot cup of Turkish coffee. Beans are breakfast food in Damascus, and vendors offer steamy bowlfuls, seasoned with lemon, salt and cumin. A middle-aged man delivers papers on his bicycle, folding the news of the day into a tight projectile and tossing it expertly onto third-floor balconies.

Children pile onto school buses; their parents rush to work. Taxis decorated with lights and mirrors, mini-buses decked with stickers and ostrich plumes, bicycles, scooters, pedestrians - all vie for a piece of the road while traffic policemen whistle and wave and try to untangle the knots that form at intersections.

The workaday cacophony abates during the great feast days of the Islamic year, 'Id al-Fitr and 'Id al-Adha. Those are times for family, for cooking and eating, and for visiting loved ones.

In some neighborhoods, during the festive periods, children rule the streets. Only candy and toy stores are open as youngsters, turned out in frilly dresses and pressed pants, swarm at knee level. Swings and other rides are set up around Jahiz Park, in Salhiya and near the Umayyad Mosque. For a few coins a child can buy a fistful of sweets, ride a pony or a toy car, purchase a doll and swing fast and high amidst the joyful shrieks of companions. They may even see a roaming troupe of entertainers, chanting rhymes and dressed in costume.

In the streets of the Christian quarter of the Old City, Easter is the big event of the year. Syrian versions of Easter bonnets are tied on young heads and the narrow streets fill with colorful crowds, seeing and being seen.

Like holidays, but for different reasons, winter too chases people off the streets. The photographers at Marja pack up for the season, their chemicals and their old hands equally ineffective in the chill. There will be no more sous, corn on the cob or sabbara until next summer, but a few hardy vendors fire up small coal stoves and gas lamps and fill the air with the wonderfully rich and evocative scent of roasted chestnuts.

And because snow is not common in the city, impromptu battles of exceptional enthusiasm break out among schoolchildren when a few inches dust the slopes of Jabal Qasiyun. Even the ubiquitous young guards in front of embassies and government buildings set aside their guns and awkwardly toss snow bombs at their colleagues across the street.

And when there is no snow in Damascus itself, some playful souls drive a half hour to Bludan, a resort town in the mountains near Lebanon. After frolicking in the snowy heights, they may build a snowman on their car and drive back to the city, sporting what rgmains of their wintry hood ornament.

Spring brings warmth back to the city, and Damascenes are quick to resume picnicking (See Aramco World , March-April 1979). Blankets spread in blossoming parks and orchards are occupied by barefoot grandmothers eating stuffed grape leaves, and children play soccer non-stop. Just five minutes by car from the dusty, narrow streets of the Old City are the tree-canopied byways of the Ghuta,the green-belt around Damascus. As the weeks of springtime pass, apple, cherry, apricot and pear trees take turns at center stage in a wonderland of pale color and light.

Flowers transform the streets of the city itself. Florists specialize in elaborate arrangements, cut-flower explosions of color on wood-and-chicken-wire frames, set proudly in front of their shops. Live flowers, too, are popular. Vendors cart fragrant Damascus roses potted in large olive-oil tins, and grape vines whose long stems are looped into living hoops.

Flowers are for weddings, for parties, for funerals, for love and hope, for sadness and regret. From around a corner a white van slowly pulls onto a main street, followed by a long line of cars filled with solemn passengers. Out of the loudspeaker on the van's roof comes a plaintive chant; inside, a flower-draped casket is visible. The procession winds slowly toward a cemetery, a final ride for one Damascene through the streets of his city, past rows of trees and budding branches.

Anthony B. Toth spent much of his 18 months in Damascus exploring the city's vibrant and varied street life. He now lives in Doha, Qatar.

This article appeared on pages 11-19 of the March/April 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1991 images.