It’s about 5:45 when they turn the corner and head off through Harat al-Zaytoun, following a dark street in the direction of Bab Sharqi then doubling back along a winding alleyway toward the former Harat al-Yahoud or Jewish quarter. David hasn’t much wandered here, but Samir tells him that a couple of cafes, galleries and artist studios have opened up in the last year, and he wants to check one out since he might have to write about it anyway. The occasional street lamp and the interior lights of homes and restaurants spill out onto the irregular cobblestones as they pass in silence. Samir seems preoccupied and David, as usual, tries to take in everything. A young man zooms past on a noisy scooter leaving a cloud of acrid exhaust in his wake. Samir coughs but keeps walking, occasionally checking his phone. A chill hangs in the damp air and David brushes his arms a bit against the cold and pulls his hat down over his ears. “Bardaan? Cold?“ asks Samir, but before he can answer he stops and turns toward David.
“This is Harat al-Yahoud.” He gestures slightly with his hands to both sides. “The gallery is just off to the right. Let’s go.”
David looks back down the alley and sees a small kolaba with a bright light coming from within.
“What’s that for?” He indicates the distant kolaba with a jerk of his head as they turn toward the gallery.
“Wa la himmak, Daoud. Don’t worry about it. It’s the old synagogue. No one goes there anymore, but they have a guard shack there. ‘Aadeh, It’s normal.”
“Why, if no one even goes? Are there still Jews here?”
“Ya’ni, a few families, but not really in this neighborhood, at any rate. Maybe. Most live barrah, in the new areas, or ‘indkum, in America! But tourists sometimes come and the government protects the synagogue, and so they put the kolaba there. It’s not a big deal. Yalah, the gallery is here, just around the corner.”
“Protect the synagogue from what?” he wants to ask, but instead lets it drop. They walk on.
Some weeks ago David had walked in the area and noted what looked like Hebrew writing over the lintels of a few buildings off the Street Called Straight (which isn’t really straight) and nearby in Harat al-Amin. Walking up to the doors he heard little except the occasional sound of sewing machines inside. It sounded to him like sweatshops or workshops of some sort. The only Jew he’d met in Syria was an American graduate student doing research on something having to do with French colonialism in Syria. But Mike wasn’t exactly religious and also was careful about advertising his identity as a Jew. With good reason, as David had later found out. When it comes to things Jewish, David is never sure whether or not to broach the topic since a lot of people are already suspicious of him as an American, or even as possibly Jewish, given his name. With Samir, however, he felt he could talk about most things.
“‘Aadeh,” Samir repeats as they walk on. “They are like you and me, mithli mithlak. But whatever. That’s not our problem. Shu dakhalna fihun. Here’s the gallery.”
Gallery Marmar occupies a former bayt ‘arabi or “Arab” home, though in this case it was once the home to a moderately prosperous Jewish family of merchants and shop-owners. Like many Syrian Jews the Nakkash family had departed Damascus in the years before the establishment of Israel, leaving first for Istanbul and then Brooklyn, and more for economic than ideological reasons. The Second World War had decimated trade with Europe and the conflict in Palestine had increased tensions in the city between Jews and non-Jews, though it wasn’t always so bad. Or so great, either. The Nakkashes followed scores of others, leaving behind not only their homes and shops, the furnishings often still standing, but also rapidly fading memories of a certain co-existence with their Damascene neighbors. Only a handful remain, though Samir tells him stories, apocryphal perhaps, of Syrian Jews returning to Damascus because they couldn’t adjust to living elsewhere. “They probably missed the hummus, or the waters of ‘Ayn Fijeh!” he’d joked. David has a tap of the cold and slightly sweet-tasting spring water in his apartment. It would be worth coming back for.
The former home still sports its large courtyard with a substantial fountain — perhaps the one from George’s house? — trickling with water and festooned with flowers. A small well stands off to one side, covered with a wooden board and supporting a tray full of bottles and glasses. Surrounding the courtyard are four interconnected rooms – two on each side — forming the gallery space: two for exhibitions, two for the office and storage. Like George’s house, Gallery Marmar has winter and summer liwan-s. The first had been converted years ago into a workshop and is now a sculptor’s studio. Many small bronzes rest on shelves and pedestals in the summer liwan. Traditional music emanates softly from speakers hanging from a long wooden beam spanning its arched ceiling — perhaps an old Sabah Fakhri recording, or perhaps some tracks by one of his many imitators. It’s hard to tell, but not at all bad for sonic decor. At least it’s not Fairouz again, he thinks.
A dozen or so sharply dressed individuals, mostly in their late twenties and thirties, mill about the courtyard talking, checking each other out, texting, and occasionally ducking into the exhibition spaces, drinks in hand. An air of privilege hangs about them. David doesn’t recognize anyone even though he’s gone to many exhibitions before. None of the artist types seems to be there. Samir walks over to an older woman, apparently the owner, pulling David along with him.
“Marhaba ya Abu Samra! Ya hala! Ya hala!” she exclaims. “Shu jaybak huun? What brings you here?” she pretends to ask, for she knows why Samir is there. It’s not a gallery opening without Samir. The owner, Roula Makhlouf, smiles broadly when Samir introduces to her to David and they exchange some pleasantries — the usual questions about who he is, where he’s from, if he’s an artist, if he speaks Arabic, why he speaks it, if he loves Syria, and so on. The full interrogation. After a moment they reach one of those awkward pauses and Roula, looking over her shoulder, smiles toward a recently arrived group of guests, then, with an over-hearty “Sharafu!” tells Samir and David to have a look around as she turns to join the new arrivals, her high-heels clicking as she traverses the polished marble tiles of the courtyard.
They go to the well and grab drinks — David a glass of white wine, Samir red — then have a look around. The gallery rooms are small but well-lighted and each features a different artist. Upon entering the first room David picks up a small brochure from a table. It has some information on the artist, a young woman working primarily in oils and acrylic. Her style can best be described as “ethnographic.” The small and medium size canvases feature what David now recognizes as the familiar clichés of contemporary Syrian art: street scenes from the Old City; an old man in a red tarboush smoking a nargileh; a dove circling above a minaret. The works are rendered in earthy tones with a certain amount of skill. His father might like to put one on his wall (perhaps not his mother, since she was sometimes so anti-Arab it surprised him). Marina would laugh, but she has little patience for conventional arts. If it isn’t revolutionary, it’s not worth creating let alone looking at. While not unpleasant, these works aren’t much different from the paintings he sees at other galleries, or in the street kiosks of al-Salhiyyeh, for that matter. Even in the best of circumstances David isn’t much moved by painting. He takes a final cursory glance around the room, smiles at the young woman standing expectantly in the corner — probably the artist — then finds his way past some onlookers into the next room. Samir lingers to chat a bit with the woman.
The next room is much like the first: small, somewhat crowded, well-lighted, and decorated with small canvases, this time not so much landscapes as abstract forms. The modern decorative style dominates: muted, dark tones, vaguely calligraphic swirls of the brush, the hint of a face peeking from one, an animal from another. Boring. The artist hands David a brochure and attempts to explain his influences and what he was trying to do, but David excuses himself politely and heads out the other door back into the courtyard. Samir is already over at the well availing himself of another glass of wine. Roula hovers nearby with her entourage.
Before David can even ask him what he thinks, Samir whispers, “Ma fi shi bi-fishsh al-‘alb. Ya’ni, Nothing to write to your girlfriend at home about.” David senses his hesitation as Roula approaches — Samir has had enough run-ins for a day and raises his voice a bit to say, “This is great. What do you think, Daoud?” David gets the message and says “Hilu kiteer! I enjoyed it. Very interesting and important. I’d like to come back and see more when it isn’t as crowded.”
“Ya hala! Ya hala! Any time! Sharafna, Sayyid Daoud! Come back!” Roula has now joined them with a few hangers-on at her side. “Shu rai’kun? Mu hilu? Isn’t it nice?” What else can they do but agree with her, smile pleasantly, and sip their wine.
Samir suddenly looks down at his watch and says to everyone in hearing distance, “I have an appointment at 6:30 at the Jasmine Hotel, so I have to leave. Let’s go, Daoud!” David knows nothing of the appointment but he puts his wine glass down on the ledge of the fountain, takes his leave from Roula, and follows Samir out the door.
“Where are we going?” David asks. Samir, more energetically than usual, says “We’re going to see Bassam. I need to talk to him about something. Plus I think you’ll like where we are meeting him. You don’t have anything to do, right?”
“No problem. It’s the weekend. Let’s go.”
They leave the gallery and traverse the upper portion of Harat al-Yahoud toward al-Amin, avoiding the street that passes the synagogue and its eerie kolaba. After wandering a bit, they cross the Street Called Straight (which is not really straight) by the old Roman arch, and at St. Mary’s Cathedral plunge back into the depths of al-Qaimariyya, a mostly Muslim quarter of older residences, shops, mosques and sabil-s. Rounding a corner, David hesitates before a shop where a few weeks ago he had found for sale an old Arabic typewriter. Ever since seeing Naked Lunch he’d wanted to collect one – if not the “Mujahideen” model of the film, then some older model with Arabic keys.
He’d never had any luck, not in the antique stores of the East Village or Atlantic Avenue, not on eBay. By chance — was anything by chance in this city? He was beginning to wonder — this little shop had one, and in almost pristine condition. It had a missing key and “Oliver” and not “Mujahideen” was written on the back plate (that was probably an addition for the film anyway). It seemed an incredible find, though the owner showed somewhat less enthusiasm for it than he. Nonetheless the old man wanted what David considered to be an outrageous sum: 25,000 lira, about 500 dollars. David, thinking that like almost anything else in Syria he’d get it for next-to-nothing, expressed surprise, so the old man calmly reached into a drawer and, pulling out a sheet of paper, handed it to him.
“Shuf, ustaaz. Have a look yourself.” It was a print-out listing a number of rare typewriters and their approximate value in dollars. Sure enough, the 1922 Arabic-language Oliver Model #9 was worth at least $500. While David looked over the price-list, the old man went to the back of his shop and brought back a Remington portable of more recent vintage. “You can have this one for only 5,000 lira,” he announced. But even that seemed too much to throw at a whimsy, especially if it wasn’t what he really wanted. “What’s your final price for the Oliver?” David had asked, hoping to avoid a lengthly bargaining session, but the old man wasn’t willing to let it go for less than 22,000 lira, so David had walked away from it, but not without regret. He still feels a small yearning in his heart every time he passes the shop, and so tonight he stops to see if he can still make out the typewriter through the window.
“Shu, Daoud? Fii shi? Is something wrong? Do you want to go in the store? It’s mostly old junk.” David only tips his head back with a quick nod and clicks his tongue in that gesture that means “No” and with a “Yalah!” they continue on their way.
Samir stops at a little dukkan to buy some cigarettes. His mood is decidedly lighter than it had been just a few minutes earlier, as if the anticipation of meeting with Bassam had lifted his spirits. Or maybe the pack of Gitanes. A stubby cigarette dangles from his lips as he motions David with his head to follow him into a narrow alleyway. Squeezing past some bicycles and old metal crates they navigate the passageway then emerge onto a side street. A small mosque with green Christmas lights ornamenting its doorframe stands to their left, but Samir leads them right, ducking under a low arch festooned with electrical wires until they emerge onto al-Sawwaf Street. The cafe is off to their left, just past two or three boutique hotels. Samir smiles and raises his eyebrows as if to say “Voilà!” as he takes a drag on his Gitane. David wonders how people know their way around the Old City streets. He’s already a little lost. In a moment they arrive at “Bayt Sabri,” a combination cafe-restaurant-gallery.
“Do you know this place?” Samir asks.
“I’ve never been here but I’ve heard of it. Nidal mentioned it once, for the gallery. I tried to come a few weeks ago but couldn’t find my way.”
“Basita! It’s easy! You just go the Umayyad Mosque from Souq al-Hamidiyya then follow it around to the other side, you know, where al-Nawfara is. Then go down the street off on your left hand side until you come to Maktab ‘Anbar. Then it’s right over here. There are even signs. Or ask Nidal to take you!” he smirks.
“Basita!” David laughs.
Samir pushes open the door and holding it for David invites him to head inside.