Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tower of heads

The tranquility of this park a block outside the old city walls belies its bloody history. Damascenes say that when the Mongols sacked Damascus in 1400, they stacked the heads of the slaughtered residents here, forming a "tower of heads."

Today, there is no trace of the heads, but the name remains.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Another restaurant

What to do with a large, deserted, half-crumbling, centuries-old Arabic-style courtyard house in the old city of Damascus? Turn it into a restaurant. This one will be around the corner from my house. Opening next month.

Over the past five years, more than a dozen new restaurants have opened within a few minutes walk of each other, all offering the same experience: a stone courtyard, a fountain, traditional Syrian dishes and the plaintive voice of the Lebanese diva, Fayruz.

The restaurants are pleasant and bring money and life to the old city. They also mean old houses are being restored that otherwise might sit vacant. But some locals, and even foreigners, complain of gentrification, that the old city is losing its authenticity.

But there are still plenty of pealing walls, flaking plaster and cracks in the sidewalks. Damascus is in no danger of becoming another another Prague or Venice -- at least not yet.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Jews of Damascus

Amid the busy store fronts, the bustling markets, the twisting alleys of the old city and the drab apartment blocks of the new city, there is order. There are lines.

Damascus is divided into countless communities organized mostly by religion. Damascenes mix in public spaces, but when they return home, they return to their own.

One of the smallest and most invisible communities are the Jews. They are no more than 60 left. (The community once numbered in the tens of thousands, but two waves of emigration, mostly to America, one in the early 20th century and the other in the 1990s have all but wiped them out.)

There are two functioning synagogues in Damascus, guarded by uniformed and plain clothes Syrian police officers. "We have to worry about terrorists," the rabbi told me, in Arabic. At one recent service, there were just five men in attendance.

Down an unmarked alley of the Jewish Quarter stands the franjiyah synagogue -- franjiyah means "Frankish," or foreign, in Arabic, probably called such because it was founded by Sephardic Jews who settled in Syria after their expulsion from Spain in 1492; they joined the existing, ancient Syrian Jewish community. The synagogue was built in the style of Old Damascene houses, with wooden beams and roof, and black basalt pillars and walls. It is a simple design, leaving the ornamental brass, copper and silver, and wood carvings to stand out even more than they might have. It was beautiful.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The National Museum

Outside the National Museum, which houses a nice collection from Syria's ancient past, is a virtual graveyard of Roman urns, capitals and headless maidens. They are arranged on grassy rows, under a canopy of old trees. There are benches and fountains. It's an unusually peaceful place in the center of a noisy, polluted city.

Some go there to see the stone carvings, some to read, some to take photos of each other posing behind the headless statues. A Syrian friend of mine goes there to think.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

My breakfast

The bread comes from down the street -- I walk to the baker every morning for a fresh raghif for 10 cents -- the lebeneh madabbleh (dried yogurt balls) comes from a dairy shop on Bab Touma Street, the dried mint from his neighbor, the olive oil from Serjilla, in northern Syria, the akadoonias from the tree in our courtyard and the coffee from Brazil.

My coffee seller in Qasaa tells me that Brazilian beans are the best for making Turkish coffee. Colombian comes too bitter. I buy a quarter kilo ground with cardomom for $1.30. Lasts me for a month or six weeks.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

97 percent

The billboards changed overnight from campaign to congratulations. This one reads: "Congratulations; Congratulations; Oh, our country; To you, our Asad." Or, "To you, our lion." In Arabic, asad means lion.

Bashar Al-Asad won a second term – somehow three percent of voters disapproved – and the city was awash in more parades, fireworks and street parties, both planned spontaneous rallies and planned planned rallies. The president himself briefly appeared at one yesterday.

(Erring on the side of caution, the U.S. embassy evacuated yesterday afternoon because one of the marches was headed past its front doors. Nothing happened.)

If Syrians associate one thing with democracy it may be bad traffic. With all of the celebrations, most major traffic circles and downtown streets have closed.

On Saturday, a merchant in the old city told me the story of his brother-in-law, a physician, who was driving home from work, a distance of 8 kilometers. It took him four hours.

"We hope that after tomorrow, this will all return to normal," he said, never mentioning the presidential referendum. "Inshallah," I replied. God willing.

He's still waiting. Word spread of more official celebrations today.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

My new house

Weery of the kitchen construction, the perpetual car horns from the busy street below my room, and the early-morning sun from the east-facing windows, I moved.

About 10 minutes walking from my old house, in the Muslim neighborhood called Qaimariya, which speads along a straight, cobbled road from the Umayyid Mosque, I found a new house, which I share with five other foreigners. My room is the largest, with a ceiling high enough for a basketball hoop.

This is my view, from the two upstairs windows.

In the late mornings, Abu Tareq, the elderly caretaker who wears the same blue sweat pants and white t-shirt, or brown galabiyah, comes to water the many plants and vines in the courtyard, occasionally wash the dishes, and clean the common areas, including the liwan, the large outdoor covered patio, which is frequently bombarded by birds who nest in the wooden beams above. It's designed to be the coolest part of the house -- as every liwan, it faces north, so receives the least direct sunlight -- but sitting there brings unique risks.