Article Published in THE TIMES OF INDIA

A Syrian Vignette

Navtej Sarna

It was a rather long flight and somewhere along the way I woke up with a mild headache and a slight pang of regret that I had missed the sight of the famed blue waters of the Mediterranean being broken by the green fringes of the Turkish coast. The regret was short-lived, blown out of the mind by the sight of another world.

The plane was descending into a darkening brown vastness. The sun, as if in a particularly rugged picture postcard, was setting beyond a brown mountain on my right. The sky raged pink and orange over the desert on my left. Quite suddenly there was a desperate attempt at green below us and the city of Damascus, in its best oasis manner, rose up to greet the travellers.

From the breezy tarmac, which gave one the impression that few flights landed there, to the city was a long drive. It gave me some time to adjust to the sounds and the smells, so different from Europe and so much like home. The images that one had always carried of the city sift themselves out - a famed culture, ancient history and the glory of empires gone by. New images began to float in. Of date palms in the breeze, gently swaying. Of the people at street corner shops, voluble and noisy or the two silent men hunched over a low table in a café. Or the tall minarets, visual symbols of the resounding call to prayer…

This intermeshing of images pursued me through the week in Damascus. Of the old with the new, of the emancipated with the conservative, of the charming with the frustrating. That after all is the least that one could expect from a city which is now over four thousand years old since its first mention in history. One has to only step into the old walled quarter to believe it. The souks, or the labyrinthine bazaars seemed to have existed forever. One may well be in the gallis or katras of Chandni Chowk. The smells, sounds and the lights are the same. So are the young boys who run up to tug at your shirt with the promise of an incredible bargain. Down a lane, up a narrow staircase and the shopkeeper is not there, probably having a nonchalant smoke in another shop… Past the shiny silks and the Damascened cloth, the Hamidieh Souq leads you on relentlessly. Until stopped abruptly in its tracks by a Roman Arch of Triumph, which marks the unlikely outer entrance to the great Mosque of the Omayads. It’s a hallowed spot indeed. For here the ancient Aramean kings venerated the Syrian God of Storms, Hadad. The later Romans honoured the same God as Jupiter Damascenes. The pagan temple then became a Byzantine cathedral with a chapel containing its valuable relic - the head of St. John the Baptist. And for the last thirteen turbulent centuries the same site has seen the Omayad Mosque built and destroyed, ransacked and looted, and raised again.

The minarets announce the majesty that lies inside. The marble panels, the mosaic compositions, the prayer halls with their pillars and cupolas… the Caliph-el Walid succeeded in making the mosque an impressive symbol of the political and religious domination of an enormous empire.

Around the mosque is a charming maze with one souq leading to another, lined with old caravanserais and madrassas. Take a look at the Azmi palace or simply walk around until you come upon a Roman monumental arch found only four decades ago at four and a half metres below street level and now raised up. Peep into a doorway which is slightly ajar and you can see the typical verandah of a Damascene house with a fountain decorating the centre and the rooms leading out. Or step towards the river and the Syrian National Museum. The city which has seen the Greeks and Romans, Egyptians and the Turks has a lot to show for itself.

Museums make me hungry and eating is a leisure in Syria. Lunch is in an anachronistically fancy club where somebody behind me mentions Ava Gardner and makes the whole experience even more unreal. A warning that mezzo is only a spread of hors ‘d’ oeuvres and not the main meal comes in handy. Much more is to follow, all flavoured with herbs and eaten with the extremely popular hommos - finely ground chickpeas in sesame oil, garlic and lemon juice. Dinner is in more authentic surroundings, in a restaurant which announces that it is ‘conditioned’. The food is familiar, shish kebabs and mutton grills eaten with the Arab version of the roti. If one can find it, coffee must be had the Bedouin way - very concentrated, without sugar, flavoured with cardamom seeds and served in very small quantities.

A Bedouin himself, my guide-companion explained to me the difference between the making of this coffee and the more common Turkish version. Below the café window, the streets had been swept clean of the people and the honking cars. It was Friday morning, a holiday strictly observed. So we talked…. A man of strong intellect and immense charm, my guide-companion likes Indians. They are the first people he can remember. A group of them hunched over their radio sets in the desert just beyond the village. Lonely soldiers in a distant land during the war. They gave away their rations of chocolates to the village children and they did not speak much. Later we walk along the canal in the hot bright sun and he talks of the contradictions that tear at the traditional fabric of the society. I can see that he is a troubled man and when he needs to be alone he goes to a medieval fortress on top of sun-bleached hill in Palmyra…

The fortress that day stood out against a deep blue sky which was incandescent as only metal should be. And the yellow sun bore down upon us, excentuating the yellow of the stones of Palmyra. The once proud city of Queen Zenobia lies in impressive ruins, the skeleton of its temples holding out against the onrush of the yellow brown desert. Looks like the ideal setting of Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. But here, despite the ruins, the date palms still grown and there is water…

As I stood there and wondered whether that monumental arch might just choose that moment in two thousand years to collapse, a small boy led up a camel to complete the picture. Somebody handed him a packet of cigarettes and he poses for photographs. I suppose I committed the greatest sacrilege possible in Palmyra and did not wait for the sunset when the sun with its farewell rays creates famed silhouettes before the night merges the oasis into the desert.

It was a light breezy summer night back in Damascus. Floating airily we reached the high row of lights on Djebel Qassioun, the mountain which dominates the city. The lights of the city lay below us and shimmered. The light rose wine did its stuff gently. Someone mentioned that he is sentimental about the place. Sitting there, I could understand him.