The three friends head out the door into the chilly evening. The moonlight casts long shadows across the alleyways as they make their way down Sawwaf Street toward Maktab ‘Anbar, a restored bayt ‘arabi now serving as a cultural center. David had gone there once to see an exhibit on old photographs of Syria curated by a young photographer named Nouri Salameh. He recalls the aging Daguerreotypes and sepia prints of castles, mosques, ruins, and portraits of everyday life, like women baking bread or – a cliché, no doubt – a donkey in a market. He’d even bought a few of these in the form of postcards and stereoscopic viewer cards, which he’d framed and hung on the wall of his bedroom. Looking on them he recalls his grandmother, the fading memories of her cast in sepia tones. Blue and purple lights from television screens shimmer in window panes casting multicolored moon shadows on the walls. The faint sound of cutlery clicking against plates and serving bowls and the low murmur of conversations announces the onset of the evening meal. Somehow they missed the evening ‘adhan – the call had come while they were in Bayt Sabri enjoying the nargileh-s and backgammon.
They pursue a small alley that zig zags around the back side of the ‘Azm Palace – another Damascene treasure that David has visited often – then leads into the Souq al-Buzuriyya. David has always found this market fascinating, the aromas of ground cardamom, cumin, and various herbs mixing and mingling in his nostrils. He’d had a similar experience as a child in the storeroom of the Italian food shop that his best friend Johnny’s father owned, and where they would sometimes go after school to find the small stash of candy that Johnny kept hidden there from the prying fingers of his younger sister Theresa. The small shops of the Buzuriyya are starting to close up for the day and he stops to take a deep breath through his nose. Bassam pops into a shop and returns after a minute with some pistachio and nougat sweets, which he offers to David and Samir.
“You’ll never find anything like this in New York, Daoud! Enjoy! Sahha!”
David wants to tell him about the sweets at Sahadi’s or Shami Bakery in Brooklyn, but Bassam’s right – there is no comparison to eating the crunchy-chewy mixture in an ancient market, surrounded by a swirl of aromas, sounds, and people. Damascus is unique in this way; inimitable. Atlantic Avenue leaves much to be desired …
Samir heads across the way and grabs a bag of roasted seeds and offers some to David and Bassam. David has never been able to figure out how to eat them – there is an art to crushing them between the teeth, extracting the seeds, and spitting out the shells. He invariable crushes and eats the shells as well, which is a messy as well as distasteful practice. Plus, how would it mix with the nougat? So he declines as Bassam grabs a handful.
“Suit yourself,” Samir says with raised eyebrows, then tosses another few into his mouth and deftly spits out the shells. “Kiteer tayyibeen! They are delicious!”
They walk through the market toward the Great Mosque, passing first through the Goldsmith’s Market, which is mostly closed up at this hour.
“Lahza, there’s Mousa,” Bassam says, and he crosses the street to greet an older man pulling shut his shop’s metal grate with a clatter. They exchange some pleasantries, then Bassam rejoins Samir and David as they continue toward the mosque.
“That’s Mousa, an old friend of my father’s.” Turning to David he adds, “He’s one of the last Jews left in Damascus. His family all left for America a long time ago but he decided to stay. Ya’ni, I guess he’s happy here. He has a little house not far from Gallerie Marmar.”
“I know him,” Samir says. “I got my wedding band from his shop. Miriam bought some her bracelets from him too. He’s very adami, a nice guy.” David is too busy looking up at the minarets to pay much attention.
They arrive at the southern wall of the Great Mosque. The back entrance to the sanctuary is off a little ways to the left, topped by its curious octagonal minaret. The elegant “Jesus Minaret” (tradition says that the Second Coming will begin here) is off to the right, in the direction of al-Nawfara café. But instead of going to hear the hakawati they head to the left. As they pass David peeks through the large portal into the prayer hall.
“Ruh, Daoud. Go in if you want. We’ll wait for you,” says Samir who, unlike George, is sincere. David feigns indifference, even though he almost always visits the mosque when he comes to the Old City. He usually goes on weekends and sits at al-Nawfara to hear the hakawati telling stories, then goes and wanders in the marbled courtyard and cool prayer halls of the mosque. On a hot day it is a pleasant retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. All it takes is a “as-salamu ‘alaykum” and the guys at the portal don’t give him any trouble. Tourists are supposed to enter at the northern portal and pay a small fee, but David just brandishes the wooden rosary that he keeps in his pocket and makes a move to remove his shoes, and he’s never had a problem. In the end no one cares if he is Christian or Muslim, though he has cultivated the ability to pass as either, depending on the occasion. Except with George, of course.
They walk around to the western entrance, where they all stop and have a look around. It really is a remarkable building, over 1300 years old and sitting on a site that has housed a religious temple of one variety or another for millennia. The government has opened a large plaza in front of the mosque and widened the access streets around it — some say the better to park tanks there and control the area in case of an uprising — and the illuminations of the ancient walls and minarets form a background to children playing, adults eating small sacks of steamed chickpeas, and shoppers running last minute errands in the souq before heading home for dinner. Despite the evening chill it is a pleasant space for a stroll.
Samir and Bassam have other business in mind, so they do not linger but instead walk under the Roman arches at the entrance to the Souq al-Hamidiyya. David’s stomach growls a little as they enter the old covered market as he senses the gradual crescendo of the pounding from Bakdash’s – the pistachio ice-cream and mahalabiya shop he absolutely adores. He often goes there for their special folded ice cream, even in winter. Why not? Like the pistachio nougat, it’s impossible to get this same experience in New York, even in Brooklyn. He goes whenever he gets the opportunity. Despite himself a smile creeps to his face in anticipation of a little visit.
Just last week he’d dreamt that he was sitting at Bakdash’s savoring a small bowl of ice cream, the sound of the large wooden mallets echoing through his head as the young men pounded them into the large caldrons, their muscular arms tearing out of their white and red uniforms. As they pounded and pounded, the sound got louder and louder … until David woke up and realized that someone was knocking on his door. It was Abu ‘Ali from across the street, notifying him of a reported gas leak in his building and asking him if he smelled anything. In the end it has been a false alarm, but as ever Abu ‘Ali had his eye on the neighborhood. Though he was sleepy, after closing the door on Abu ‘Ali David had the distinct taste of pistachio in his mouth and wondered what was the dream, what the reality?
He’d had many odd dreams after moving to Damascus. At first it was a matter of language – Arabic mixing with his broken Spanish as he gained fluency in the local dialect. He’d once dreamt of Ibn al’Arabi after struggling with the Futuhat Makiyya, and Jalal thought this was a sign when David recounted the dream, but neither of them could make heads or tails of it.
“That’s how it goes with the Shaykh,” Jalal had offered. “He comes and goes and it is up to us to make sense of it. But he always comes for a reason.” David could never make sense of it.
The linguistic and religious dreams then gave way to more political ones. After his interview with the Liwa’ at Internal Security, he’d dreamt of Hafez al-Asad. The late president stood near a fighter jet and asked him to fly a mission with him. David found himself holding a pilot’s helmet and dressed in fatigues, but was speechless and unable to answer the president. The dictator approached closer and closer, his eyes getting larger and larger, until David awoke from the dream-nightmare, his pillow under his arm and sweat on his brow. He did not recount this dream to anyone, not even Marina.
“Dir balak, Ya Daoud! Watch out!” yells Samir as he pushes David to the side while a large group of Iranian pilgrims dressed all in black shove past on their way to the shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya. Once the pilgrims pass they enter the main souq just after the Souq al-Misk with its the stalls of religious texts and CDs. Bassam stops before a display of belts and socks that a street vendor has piled in the middle of the street and checks out the merchandise. A man never has enough socks. It is dark but many of the shops are still open and doing a good business. Pop songs play from many kiosks and stores. There is a festive air about the market. An elegant woman and young girl walk past arm-in-arm. They look Syrian but are speaking in English. “I want some buza mama!” says the girl. “Can we get some? Pleease?” and the mother, kissing her on the head, says “Tikrami, habibti, we’ll stop for a little, but we can’t stay for long. We have to get home. Yalah.” David looks over at them. Kindred spirits.
While Bassam buys some socks and Samir sends a text, David has a look around. Three larger than life portraits of the president, his late father, and his “martyred” older brother — his “martyrdom” consisting in crashing his car at high speed on the airport road — hang from the market roof. The president stares sternly into the distance, the father smiles whimsically, and the brother sits astride a horse. David has become accustomed to these portraits so scarcely notices them anymore — aside from the Warholesque silk-screens — but Bassam, having made his purchase, looks over and with a quick nod of his head jokes, “He looks like he needs new glasses since he’s squinting, and the horse looks tired from all the jumping.” Samir laughs.
“Hey,” says Bassam, “Want to hear a Homsi joke about a horse? I just heard this one.”
“OK, go ahead,” says Samir, a little suspiciously. There aren’t too many good ones after all.
David ignores them, as his mind and stomach are focusing on a quick stop at Bakdash’s.
“So, a Lebanese guy and a Homsi are walking along the Corniche when they happen upon a beautiful girl riding on a horse. The Homsi says to her, ‘If only God had made me a horse, then you could ride on my back!’ The Lebanese tells him, ‘The era of miracles is over!’ and turning to the girl, winks and says ‘Would you consider riding on a donkey instead?'” He slaps David on the back and cries “Isn’t that funny?!”
David smiles meekly while Samir snorts in disgust. “That’s the worst one I’ve heard in a long time! But here’s one. A Homsi gets a new mobile phone and goes to his friend’s house to show it off. You know, one of those iPhone things. He places it on the coffee table and sits back while his friend admires it. Suddenly his wife calls him and he answers it, shouting ‘How did you know I was here? Leave me alone!’ then hangs up. Hah!”
Bassam laughs a little but says “That’s even worse than mine!” Samir laughs and linking his in David’s they begin to walk together. David wonders, “What’s up with the Homsi jokes?” He can never get a straight answer from anyone. They always seem kind of dumb to him.
As they approach Bakdash’s the sound of pounding gets louder, but Samir and Bassam take a left into a side street, past the Khan Jumruk, and into the shoe and lingerie market.
David hesitates but goes along, disappointed as the sound of the pounding mallets fades away. He’ll come back another time soon. Tomorrow, in fact.
They pass the dangling shoes and some lingerie stalls — David cannot believe his eyes and ears at the wares on sale there — then pass a falafel and juice stand festooned with body-building photos.
“Tafaddal ustaaz!” shouts the vendor as he presses an orange juice. “Want to try again?”
“Not tonight, I’m in a hurry. Maybe tomorrow!” says David, and they move on. Samir asks him how he knows the juice vendor and David tells him that he has sometimes gotten a quick meal there, or a juice, and the young man always challenges him to arm-wrestling. It has become a sort of ritual every time he passes the small stall. “‘Ajeeb!” offers Bassam.
“Does he beat you?”
“Of course!” says David. “Did you get a look at his arms? I think all he does is press juices and arm-wrestle all day. He’s like superman!”
They all laugh, then follow a course down a darker back street through al-Hariqah, the neighborhood named after the French bombardment that let much of it in ruins. Reaching the end of the street, they continue out of the Old City, crossing the busy street and dodging taxis and cars. Samir looks at his watch and quickens his step, yelling a crisp “Yalah, we’re late! Let’s go!” They pass the Darwish Pasha mosque, head over in the direction of al-Qanawat, then up Fakhri Baroudi St toward the Hijaz train station. David is beginning to wonder why he is with them in the first place.