We often began our summers in Damascus at my grandparents’ house, a beautiful white ground floor home with high ceilings, sunlit rooms and black and white marble checkered floors. The house looked out onto an open porch and a small fragrant rose garden enclosed by a black wrought iron fence. It was in a wide plaza known as the Ra’eess (the leader) in reference to the Presidential Palace that was located just across the plaza from our house. To us as children, having the Presidential offices so near was a nuisance because of the guards that stood at attention round the clock, creating a headache for my young aunts who were banished from the front porch by my conservative uncles.
Damascus during the fifties and early sixties was a beautiful, clean, spacious city with wide boulevards and airy three-storied apartment buildings designed by architects from Italy. Sweet-smelling trees shaded the sidewalks, and the entrance to every home had a front garden that wafted the fragrant scents of the Levantine flora onto the passerby. A large green park, the ‘Sibki,’ boasted a man-made lake filled with ducks and swans.
Located in the center of the city, Sibki Park divided the residential areas of the city from the center of the city with its ancient covered markets, the largest of which was Suq El Hamidiyeh built by the Ottoman Sultan Abdel Hamid in the nineteenth century. The suq was lined with tiny shops traditionally handed down from father to son. Salesmen stood at the door to their shops and called out to potential customers to buy their wares of iridescent damask silks, handmade mosaic boxes, embroidered tablecloths, towels, spices, 21 karat gold jewelry, satin bed sheets and risqué underwear for brides to be.
Branching off from the main covered suq was a maze of sinewy crowded paths lined with intricately designed Ottoman and Mamluk era homes, their occupants hidden from the public eye behind thick wooden doors with heavy brass knockers in the shape of gargoyles and colored glass windows with tightly latticed wooden shutters. So entwined were the pathways and homes, that one exceedingly narrow and crooked lane had the name: ‘where the monkey lost her son.’ Our favorite quarter of the suq was the one devoted to slippers of all shapes, sizes, and colors. They hung in multitudes of overlapping pairs attached by invisible wire on poles leaning on the sides of the shops’ doors. How the salesmen were able to reach out with their metal hooks and deftly pull out the exact model and size of the desired slipper from the folds of slippers without a moment’s hesitation was a mystery that we spent endless hours trying to unravel.
Along the worn cobblestones under the soaring arched roof of the suq, vendors adroitly wielded their cumbersome wooden three-wheeled carts alongside puttering mopeds and men on shrilly tinkling bicycles covered with brightly colored feathers. We inched our way slowly through crowds of pedestrians from one shop to the other, we elbowed the pushing and pinching males in the crowd and we patiently endured our aunts’ endless haggling deemed absolutely necessary before any exchange of money and wares took place because we knew that we would eventually reach our main destination: the suq’s Arabic ice cream parlor.
The ice cream parlor was a large cavernous room furnished with rickety white Formica tables and bamboo chairs scattered around the room in no particular arrangement. Its white plaster walls were bare, save for two large sepia portraits of the owner’s father and grandfather strung up high near the ceiling, the men identical in their red fezzes and stern mustachioed faces.
At the parlor’s entrance, four hefty men bent over four giant vats, prepared the Levantine ice cream, drumming a staccato beat with long sticks in light-hearted harmony as they pounded milk, sugar, and miskeh (gum Arabic) into a rich, smooth and chewy consistency. We tapped our table to their rhythmic beats as we waited for our treat. At long last our ice creams arrived, rising in delectable pristine white curls in engraved glass bowls, covered with generous sprinkles of crushed pistachios and crystallized rose petals.
There was plenty to see and plenty to do in Damascus and the city flowed easily. Tradition and hierarchy played a very strong role amongst the established Damascene families, largely middle-class merchant families who anchored the economic and social network. Each religious denomination lived without any visible rancor vis-à-vis the others. All the inhabitants of the city were Damascene and Syrian before they were Jews, Christian, or Muslim. (Brownies and Kalashnikovs, p.37-39)
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