Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Helen Kara

Syria is one of the most repressive countries in the world, which made me nervous, so I was glad to have my friend John’s company on my first day in Damascus.  We went to the old city and window-shopped in the souk.  Women in burqas browsed through racy lacy lingerie.  Sweets seduced with bright colours.  Old and new smells tickled my nostrils: cumin, fruity hubble-bubble pipe smoke, unwashed cloth.  The paving stones were cracked and uneven beneath my feet. 

We visited the Umayyad mosque, where I had to give a moustachioed man 50 Syrian pounds (about 55p) to don a long beige hooded robe in the Putting On Special Clothes Room.  The mosque’s enormous marble courtyard has a shady cloister on three sides decorated with ancient mosaics.  The sky above was such an even blue that it looked like a ceiling.  The mosque itself is rectangular and huge – from one end I could barely see the other – but with factory-made patterned carpet stretching away into the distance rather than the traditional jumble of rugs.  ‘Imagine having to clean all that,’ I said to John.  ‘You’d need a ride-on Hoover.’

My robe felt hot and uncomfortable in the 35-degree heat, so I was glad to give it back to the moustachioed man.  John and I bought sweet cold pistachio ice creams for 100 pounds each and nibbled them at formica-topped tables under the ceiling fans of Bakdash in Al Hamidiyeh, the souk’s main street.  Humanity and cigarette smoke swirled around us, with a constant stream of waiters pushing through the throng, washing-up bowls of gleaming white ice cream held at shoulder height.  John leaned across the table towards me.  ‘It doesn’t feel repressive, does it?’ he whispered.  ‘No,’ I said, ‘it feels safe.’

After that I was on my own.  However, a few weeks earlier I’d emailed a Damascene blogger, a girl I’ll call Jamila as Syrians can be put in prison for blogging.  Jamila had kindly agreed to show me around one evening.  She had a pretty face framed by a hijab, and spoke fluent American.  We walked the streets of the souk, people-watching and chatting.  Then she led me into the maze of back streets where even she, a native Damascene, had to ask directions twice before she found the restaurant she had chosen.  ‘Syrians have an odd sense of humour,’ she remarked, after the second time.  ‘Sometimes they give people the wrong directions on purpose, as a, a…’  ‘A prank?’  I suggested.  ‘Yes,’ she said.

Heratna was in a large impressive two-storey courtyard with seating for 80–100 people around a central fountain.  Chilled mineral water and flat bread were already on our table.  Waiters sashayed past swinging small metal baskets of red-hot coals for the hubble-bubble pipes.  I could feel the heat on my bare arms as they passed our table.  We ordered po-lo, the refreshing sweet-sour lemon-mint drink, and mezes: shangleesh (finely chopped vegetables in a spicy cream cheese mould), artichoke salad, green olive and thyme salad, stuffed vine leaves, aubergine dip, and French fries.  The food was lemony, spicy, salty, moreish, and cheap.  We munched and talked: about families, friends, music, religion and books.

An observer would have thought we were speaking freely.  Yet there were subjects I longed to broach, but didn’t dare tackle head-on.

‘Some Syrian bloggers,’ I said tentatively, ‘are a bit political.’

Jamila wrinkled her nose.  ‘They make trouble for all of us.  I like to use my blog to keep in touch with my friends, and make new ones.  It is getting so hard to do that now.’

I wondered whether Jamila felt safe, but I couldn’t think of a tactful way to ask the question.  She seemed relaxed and confident, so maybe Syria was a safer place than I had feared.

John and Jamila taught me to relish the social interaction that is shopping in Syria, where shopkeepers are more like performance artists than businessmen.  On my last day, looking for gifts to take home, I came to a shop selling traditional inlaid boxes.  How would this shopkeeper entertain me?  I stepped over his threshold and picked up a box from the display.

He was tall, with bad teeth, and eyes that roved around behind thick glasses.  He held one of my hands in one of his, as if to tether me to the shop, and with his other hand he found boxes for me to inspect.  His reach was long and the shop was small, so we didn’t need to move far.  He poured out a pidgin stream of French and English – ‘this one même chose, not melt, meilleur, this one’ – accompanied by a manic smile.

I was almost ready to buy a pretty box for 200 Syrian pounds when he pulled me close to whisper in my ear.  ‘Syria bad place,’ he said quietly. 

No language confusion now.  With a jolt I remembered that the government was unelected, homosexuality illegal, and people regularly detained for human rights activity.  But the food was fantastic, the weather wonderful, and the shopping superb.  Was this another prank? 

‘Syria good place,’ I said.

He wasn’t having it.  ‘Syria bad place,’ he said again, his eyes whirling like windmills.  Had he fallen foul of the government?  Spent time in prison?  But I had felt so safe in Damascus.  Everyone was friendly.  I remembered the six people who rushed to pick me up when I’d tripped on a kerb, and thought of the man who had put his one, broken, chair in the shade for me to sit on, fetched a glass of sweet black tea, then refused to take payment. 

‘Syria people good people,’ I said. 

He took the box from my free hand, placed it carefully on the counter, and held both my hands in his.  ‘Thank you,’ he said.  ‘Thank you.’  There were tears in his eyes.

I bought the box.  It is useful to put things in, for safekeeping.