Had 2 toasted cheese sandwiches in pita crushed baguettes and a cup of tea for breakfast at a tiny kebab place, the kind full of stern-looking men in sheepskin coats and bristling moustaches standing up while eating and shuffling through the day’s newspaper. I then went on a long wander. The part of Damascus I was staying in was lovely – modern, clean, wide pavements and roads, shops everywhere, orderly – more Singapore than Amman really. I was pleasantly surprised. No charm as such, but I soon found it as I wandered to the Citadel and Old Damascus.
I walked the cobbled streets, alive with vendors, the Old City still remarkably retaining a medieval Islamic character. Indeed, the place seems completely unchanged….a magical place to meander through. I headed down one of the narrow market alleys leading into a huge covered souk, and found myself at one of the grandest mosques I’d ever laid eyes on – the Umayyad Mosque. I entered and just followed the believers clad in black burqas. It was immense, it’s grounds gleaming with a fresh polish – a huge spiritual place and a fantastic piece of architecture. I much prefer the inside of a mosque to a church, though I don’t consider myself particularly inclined to any religion or belief. Both the Koran and the Bible are fantastic works of fiction in my view – nothing more, but also nothing less. It’s more the spectacle of observing the devotes, the believers, kneeling, praying, eyes shut tight, some crying, with background of powerful religious symbolism, that attracts me to such places. For where else do you see such unashamed displays of affection, love, fear and utter defenselessness than in a place of worship? It fascinates me.
After this grand entrance to Old Damascus, I took a cappucino outside from a small cafe, and sat admiring the mosque, watching the worshippers filing in, as the muezzin wailed the call to prayer. Pigeons flew in flocks a hundred strong overhead, creating a very atmospheric scene. After this welcome break, I walked around the back of the mosque, and popped into a few ancient-looking shops to buy some silk scarves. The narrow, cobbled atmospheric alleys were teeming with life, as they no doubt have been for centuries. After a very long walk I’d got successfully lost, and the time seemed about right to go to Kaseyun mountain by taxi. I hailed a cab, and told the friendly driver, who spoke no English, where I wanted to go. The usual hair-raising trip through seemingly impossible to navigate clogged streets began, and we somehow managed to get out of the city without incident, through the blaring horns, lots of angry gesticulating by everyone, and a bit of luck. The climb up was steep, but the views at the top were well worth it. From here, I could see the whole of Damascus, stretching out as far as the eye could see. My taxi driver helped out by taking some photos, driving me to several key vantage points, and just letting me do my thing. We climbed further, and soon we were amongst hills blanketed with snow, with people of all ages running around excitedly, throwing snowballs. Snow is a rare thing in Damascus, and the locals were making the most of it now. I certainly didn’t expect to see snow here, but it was a very pleasant surprise.
We headed back down to the Mergee while the sun set, and from here I popped into a couple of Travel Agents’, and managed to secure a flight from Beirut to Cairo at 5am on December 23rd for $220. With this peace of mind, I checked my emails, then headed back to the French Palace to change into my night out gear.
I went back to Old Damascus, and I found the cobbled streets that were bustling before eerily quiet and poorly lit. I passed a few humble-looking doorways that promised restaurants, and tried my luck with one. It was like opening the door of the tardis, or to a secret society gathering. The restaurant was cavernous, filled to the rafters, full of dressed-up locals and a few clued-up tourists. The manager of the restaurant greeted me like an old friend. “Welcome back” he said, shaking my hand and motioning the the waiter to ‘take special care of him’. I’d never been there before, and had obviously been mistaken for someone else, but I went along with it anyway. I was shown to a table fit or six, and sat alone. I ordered hummus and chicken cordon bleu, as well as a mixed fruit arguila. In front were a new couple, a Middle Eastern-looking girl and a tosser from Spain dressed in a bedouin-style red and white checked headscarf. He was trying to be funny, and the girl was in fits of laughter – but then, he’d be paying for their nice meal, not her, so she needed to pay her part. They were drinking non-alcoholic beer, but it was clearly having an effect on the Spaniard, who kept shouting ‘Viva Espana!’ rather embarrassingly, seen as though he was in a Middle Eastern country. Like a Syrian in Spain shouting ‘Long live Syria’ in a local restaurant. It was amazing to watch, and gave me something to listen to. My waiter kept coming over to chat, and winking at me, smiling, and producing the menu, cutlery etc with an Arabic flourish. A Kurdish waiter kept stoking my arguila with more charcoal, and I wondered why I’d ordered an arguila with my meal as smoking and eating surely don’t go well together and I could feel my stomach churning and my head spinning, and the manager kept coming over and announcing that I, his friend, was ‘a good man’. As a result of this mistaken identity I was given free dessert, a chocolate pancake, which I half-heartedly refused, and then a whole bowl of fruit, which I again refused only for the charming waiter to take a banana, open it, peel it, cut it up, and place it on my plate with a flourish. I felt obliged to eat it, even though I was stuffed to the point of bursting.
I paid the bill, and left a generous tip of 300 SYP, half of which I wanted to give to the Kurdish arguila-refiller, whose only English was: “Barcelona….Real Madrid….me Kurdish.” The winking waiter, however, took it all which led to the desperate Kurd to come over and complain to me that he hadn’t got his share, as the other waiter, who was senior and held more authority, had kept it all for himself. A small argument ensued between the young Kurd and the Syrian, and the Kurd was sent away. As I stood up, the Syrian came over and apologised for the behaviour of the Kurd, and shook my hand and kissed me on both cheeks. “I’m sorry, he crazy man!” he laughed….as I might laugh if I had I just pocketed 300SYP. I felt sorry for the Kurd, who had disappeared. I left the great restaurant with it’s grand pillars, intricately decorated carpets, high ceilings, chandeliers, and comedy waiters, and headed out into the chilly night, finding a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar, where I had a quick beer before taking a taxi to the Four Seasons Hotel. Here, in this grand old-fashioned-looking bar in Damascus’ swankiest hotel, I had a Lebanese beer, alone; I was the only person in the bar, and walked back to the hotel. Yes, that’s right, Damascus is a safe city. It was 2am. I never felt threatened, the kebab stalls were still doing a brisk trade, and, unlike Egypt, nobody had any interest in hassling me. Not then, the hot-bed of crime, fear and terrorism the media might have you believe. Steeped in tradition, rich in culture, big on respect. I do love squashing stereotypes.