As our bus entered the city of Damascus the first building that caught my fancy was that of the Cultural Center. We were told we could come back and watch an opera. We did just that a few days later. Lirico dramatic soprano Arax Chekijjan the first opera singer in Syria mesmerized us. A Syrian opera singer may not be a big deal considering Damascus is a living museum spanning thousand of years. However, a woman singer in an Arabic world does challenge stereotypes bomb barded by mass media.
Damascus was our base in Syria. After a hot shower and a quick unpacking at the Sheraton we headed towards the old Damascus. A kaleidoscope of Carpets, painted glass lamps, whiff of Syrian spices, lamb rolls crossed us. A large courtyard with colorful lamps and warm smiling people welcomed us with AHLAN WA SAHLAN BI SHAM that is Welcome to Damascus.
The ambience was dreamy but the concerns about vegetarian food remained real for some of my friends. Some non- vegetarians wondered whether meat only means beef in Syria. To our pleasant surprise Multi hued fresh and pickled vegetables were served to us as starters. My favorite remains the Pickled Aubergines. Some of us who were pining for a stiff drink practiced restrain. A few friends in India had warned me against drinking alcohol in an Arab country. Some others argued why would alcohol be a source of concern for a country that loves Sufi poets like Rumi-
Come, come, and awaken all true drunkards!
Pour the wine that is Life itself!
O cupbearer of the Eternal Wine,
Draw it now from Eternity’s Jar!
I was not sure about the local culture as yet so I chose a popular lime drink made with mint instead. The first meal in Damascus was sumptuous but a comedy of errors. Just when I was extremely happy and content with the meat chops, salads, hummus and fresh Yogurt I heard my hostess ordering the main course. She also announced no beef would be served as ‘All Indians don’t eat beef’. In next few days we were to know each other better.
After a rather late night we woke up the second day at six in the morning. A hearty breakfast comprising of cold meats, veal sausages, cheeses, juices and confectionaries later we were in the bus to Aleppo. My hungry camera gorged on the olive groves, rainbow valleys and measly populated streets. The aperture of the sophisticated lens was baffled with the skylight changing at every kilometer. The guide- books couldn’t satiate my curiosity towards the numerous golden forts that we kept crossing. What my guide- book informed me correctly, however, was that we must never tell a person from Aleppo that Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Aleppo believes it is the older one.
Aleppo is the trade capital of Syria. It has a Rich, expensive and extremely silent neighbor- hood. We were told that Aleppo is more conventional than Damascus. I looked for the women on the streets. Some of them were wearing head- scarfs with Jeans and short skirts and some covered themselves in hijaabs. Many looked French. Boots, skirts, streaked hair, light touch of blush are a common sight. Women don’t steal glances. They look into your eyes and often politely smile back. Later in the evening I noticed young girls partying in a local joint. I clicked photographs of a girl celebrating her birthday with friends. Subsequently, she sent our group a large portion of the cake. Touched I gifted her my colorful Rajasthani earrings and she instantly gifted back a small colorful mirror from Damascus. We hugged, laughed and clicked more photographs.
Aleppo has a humble neighborhood too. We met the Green Team here. This team travels all across Syria to meet school students. Controversial social issues like whether women should pursue careers or marry foreigners are discussed. The young facilitator at Aleppo said Green Team doesn’t impose its own opinion on anybody. Children argue on behalf of their rivals. The purpose is to widen choices and challenge prejudices. After spending a few hours with the green team we ate falafel in the bus on our way to the Dead cities.
A sense of déjà vu enveloped me as I stood on a hill- top encircled by the ghost towns called ‘DEAD CITIES’. The ruins are magnificently gigantic and eerily silent. Watching a great civilization dead makes me uncannily uncomfortable about my vibrant world. ‘Cities’ is a misnomer. "Dead Cities" seem to be settlements that developed organically in the countryside. The towns and villages lack the grid plan of the ancient cities. Just when I almost started inhaling the quiet of the environs a tall, handsome, middle aged Bedouin approached us. He was wearing this long robe with culturally eloquent jacket. I wouldn’t kill his magic by sketching his disposition as simply regal. He was on the contrary a beautiful nomad. An original vagabond to steal Joan baez’s expression. He was the only sign of humanity in those settlements haunted by the dead. The kind Bedouin offered all of us tea. We were deeply moved but were equally rushed. We thanked him profusely and as our bus moved away from the man I looked at him from the rear window. Then a thought crossed my mind. Is this a real Bedouin? Is he really alive? Or is he a phantom of delight who saves lost travelers?
We were to spend the night at Aleppo. The sweet aroma of Turkish coffee pervaded the hotel corridor. We all rushed to drink a shot of coffee. While the Turkish coffee smells sweet let me warn you it needn’t necessarily taste the same. I enjoy sugarless coffee so for me it works. The name “Turkish coffee” is wee bit misleading. The process of preparation had originated in what was called the greater Syria. Favorite with Turks, Armenians, Cypriots, Greeks, Bosnians, and other ethnic groups, Turkish coffee has different names and customs in the Balkans, Anatolia, the Middle East, and even North Africa.
Back in Damascus we go straight to Souk- Al - Hamidiyeh. This Souk is the most significant bazaar street of the old city. A walk in the by lanes of the souk is like hopping with Alice in Wonderland. You don’t know what you’ll see next. I can’t help but think that the likes of Agatha Christie have walked those lanes. Syrian seven spices are bought to surprise family back in Delhi. I munch on dry fruits and marzipans and find myself admiring a huge mosque. It is the Umayyad Mosque. Its history goes back three thousand years. As I walk inside the mosque wearing a long jacket I am told that this location was first a temple of the Hadad, an Aramean deity representing sun and thunder. Later the Romans dedicated it to the Roman God Jupiter in 1st Century AD. Byzantine and Ottoman Empires saw the location changing into cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist and then later the Mosque. This mosque has three minarets, one of them being Minaret of Jesus. A popular folk- lore states Jesus will come down from his minaret and lead the Muslims of Damascus from the Umayyad Mosque on the Day of Judgment. The call for the evening prayer reminds me of the ‘azans’ back in Lucknow where I grew up. I step out of the mosque and shop- keepers of the souk- al-hamidiyeh call out to me. Gorging on local ice cream is must in the SOUK. When the sun sets in Damascus young men and women come out of their houses to walk, eat an ice cream or listen to the storyteller in Al-Nawfara. You can smoke a Hubble Bubble (sheesha) or order a glass of wine in almost every coffee shop. Don’t depend on the menu if you want to catch up with the spirits. While there are numerous open pubs in Damascus, coffee shops are often shy about offering beverage menus.
Truly a multicultural and multi religious country Churches and Mosques stand close to each other in Damascus and Aleppo. Ten percent of the Syrian population is that of the Christians. There are various sects of Muslims in the country. President Bashar-Al-Assad is from a minority community. People are tolerant and the constitution is secular. As a woman I didn’t feel ever that anybody was measuring me up. However, the law of the land doesn’t allow Muslims to convert while Christians can. A part of me that is Christian because of my schooling feels thrilled when I chance upon Church of Ananias, the man who cured St. Paul’s blindness and baptized him. The Christian quarter of Damascus is full of musical churches. The painted glass windows don’t escape my glance.
On our way to the Palmyra we stopped by the Baghdad café that offers you a sauna and all sorts of drinks. I was with a team of fifteen women journalists and almost all of us were fascinated by the story of Palmyra. Admiring the arches, the theatre and the temples we pretended to be the warrior queen Zenobia. It’s said that she ruled the land of Palm trees in such a way that surprised both West and East. In 268, Zenobia conquered several Roman territories. She took the title of August, which was only used by the Roman emperor.
Zenobia’s characteristics can be viewed in many Syrian women. Diana Jabbour, the Director of Syrian Television and Fadia Gibreel, Editor in Chief of a popular Arabic Magazine Jouhina to just name a few. Syria Sojourn for some of us was a life changing experience. It made me aware of the prejudices I always thought I never had. Glimpses of Ottoman Empire’s sparkle can be recognized here. Islam’s contribution to the world is conspicuous. I carry with me great regard for a part of the Arab world where women are safe, extremely educated and hold important public offices like that of a Vice President.