Three Days in Damascus - I wish I had more
Trip Start Oct 11, 2009
46Trip End Dec 19, 2009
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Where I stayed
Damascus, at least its the centre, is a very walkable city. Just outside my hotel is a nicely laid out neighbourhood of low-rise apartments and tree-lined lanes
But if you go in the other direction, you would pass a shopping district lined with shoes stores and clothing shops, after which you end up in a plaza with a statute of Assad senior. And then going further you would enter the embassy district where undercover security officers loiter about to keep an eye out for troublemakers. It was here that I sat down in a fancy coffee shop to sip on a cafe latte for the morning while surfing the net on my iPhone via a wi-fi connection.
Maybe it's the old Ladas plying the road, or the lack of any modern malls, Damascus made me feel like I was back in the 1960s or the 1970s. The downtown core consists of a roundabout surrounded by a state-owned bank, the Ministry of Tourism, and a commercial block occupied by dentists offices and Ugandan Airways, above which I half-expected to see a sign for Pan Am or TWA
I loved the Old City and the bazaar area near the Umayyad Mosque. For some strange reason, I've always wanted to see Damascus for myself, especially the Umayyad Mosque, and I was not disappointed. The place had that eternal quality, where if you just sit down near a pillar inside its gigantic hall and watch the worshippers praying, or observe a group gathering around to hear an imam deliver a sermon, you are immediately transported to another time and place. The world doesn't enter the holy shrine; it is barred at the door, just like how you are required to take off your hat and your shoes before you enter the compound. The hustle and bustle of the bazaar was just on the other side of the wall, but the demarcation is strict and solemn. You shed off your worldly self when you are here, and peace is made possible in this house of God, perhaps for just a moment.
I loved the endless array of artifacts on sale within the old city. Beautiful tables and chairs with intricate mother-of-pearl inlaid patterns, brocade stools, rolls of damasks (after all, the fabric is named after the city) of a huge variety of designs and colours, all at very reasonable prices I vowed to come back again to Damascus just to shop
I also treated myself to a fancy dinner at the Al Khawali restaurant right in the old city. Pictures of foreign dignitaries with President Bashar Assad line the walls as you walk in. I think Senator John Kerry is a fan, since he had been a frequent visitor to the Assad regime. Fortunately no foreign leaders graced Al Khawali with their presence the night I chose to show up. It was definitely a gastronomical upgrade from the sharwarma sandwich and the sickly sweet fruit juices outside the Spain Hotel, and it was all so reasonable. But I just have to say, having been on the road in the region for three weeks now, heaven is not to be found in the cuisine here. It may be true that in this part of the world Abraham heard God talking to him, or that Jesus was born and resurrected, or that the Prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount, but as far as the food we mortals eat three times a day, there is no divine inspiration here. God forgive me if I have blasphemed.
If you are thinking about a bath in the hammam here, you may turn right around and go back to your shower at your hotel room. The scrubber in residence is a humourless guy whose idea of a scrubbing is a series of wild wipes with a handful of rough yarn lasting no longer than 20 seconds. And then you are to scuttle to a fountain sink to rinse yourself off. At least it was cheap, which was also the reason why I sat down in the barber shop next door for a haircut. He was delighted to have me as a customer, and in between our limited conversation due to his broken English, he gave me a cut that would without a doubt qualify me as a fresh recruit for the PLO. Well, at least it was cheap...