Feb 17

Monday Memories: A Syrian Family in Their Beehive Home at Twal Dabaghein in Syria

A Syrian family inside their 'Beehive House', Twal Dabaghein, Syria. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter.

It was the ever curious travel writer Gertrude Bell who wrote so eloquently about the apparent anomaly of the conical mud-brick houses found in Twal Dabaghein and Sarouj east of the city of Hama, Syria.

Comparing them to nothing found outside of “illustrations to Central African travel books”, Bell had the same feeling we did many decades later while exploring the region to research a travel guidebook.

Ayman, our Syrian driver and sporadic guide, was in a helpful mood the day we visited the ‘beehive villages’, as they’re known to tourists. Poor Ayman. Despite our warnings when we hired him, he was a little overwhelmed by how many hours a day we had needed to work and how far we really needed him to drive each day to get our research done to our level of satisfaction. He later told friends he’d never worked so hard in his life!

Fresh after a few days off (on our dime), when we visited the beehive villages he was ready to dig a little deeper with us. While I’m sure he had been here before to visit, I don’t think any travellers had ever really wanted to do more than take a happy snap of the exteriors of the quirky structures and move on.

We wanted to gain a better understanding of how these people lived here — if, in fact, they still lived in the structures and didn’t just fill them with hay for the animals as they did in some places.

The family we met that day were definitely living in their little conical house. The mother was raising three children on her own and she really had to work hard to eek out a living to support her kids. Even before Ayman began to translate, we could tell by noting the expressions on her face and studying the compact space just how hard life was for her.

As it gets very cold there at night, a mountain of blankets was stacked along with mattresses in the home against one wall. She stood in front of them as she explained how they lived and her small children naturally gathered around her. With the blankets providing a colourful backdrop, I asked if I could make their portrait.

The image didn’t end up getting selected for the guidebook, which didn’t surprise me as it’s far less confronting to capture the peculiar exteriors rather than engage with their actual inhabitants.

I was a little surprised when I recently went back to look at these images closely and noticed that I had used my 35mm lens on the small Nikon D80. Then I remembered that the family was incredibly shy and I recollected that I had felt at the time that it may have spoilt the sense of connection that we had established after talking to them for a while if I brought out the ‘big gun’ D2X and start firing away.

I only made a few frames that day, conscious that the family was most certainly not used to visits by strangers bearing camera bags.

What I especially like about this image is the strong, serious expression on the boy’s face, as well as the way he’s wrapped his red and white checked keffiyeh around his baseball cap. While I can’t remember what the mother and daughter are looking at outside their ‘beehive’ (Lara tells me there were goats outside), I like the way the light falls on the daughter, highlighting her sad eyes.

Life was already hard enough for this family back in 2007, I hate to imagine how difficult it became after the war began. I wonder whether their strange little beehive homes have withstood the battles that have raged in the region around them and the bombardments by the Assad regime. But most of all I wonder where and how they are now.

Details: Nikon D80, 35mm f/2.0D Nikkor @ F3.2 @ 1/120th second @ ISO640.

Feb 16

Remembering Syria and Syrians – The Sculptor Mustafa Ali

Sculptor Mustafa Ali at his studio in Damascus, Syria. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter.

This is the fourth installment of a series reflecting on the Syria we knew and the Syrians we befriended in the years we travelled to the country before the Civil War. Parts one and two were on the Storyteller Abu Shady and Jazz Duo Rasha Rizk and Ghazwan Zerkli.

The Old City of Damascus had never been as alive as it was when we were last there in 2009. I remember our first trip to the Syrian capital in 1999. The old quarter was dimly lit and deathly quiet after dark. We could stroll the labyrinthine lanes at night and not see a soul. Damascenes retired early and there was little to do. I could count the number of restaurants, cafés and bars on two hands.

I remember making our way through the empty streets of the Old City to the restaurant Elissar and being astonished at the scene inside. Outside, the streets may have been deserted, but the enchanting courtyard within was crammed with tables of Damascene diners.

There was everyone from well-dressed middle-aged couples leisurely feasting on the fine Syrian cuisine while puffing on aromatic sheesha pipes to a big rowdy table of diplomats emptying bottle after bottle of Lebanese red as they tucked into mountains of mixed grilled meats. I’ll never forget the fairy lights, the trickling fountain, and hearing Farid Al Atrash for the first time. That was our introduction to Damascus.

A decade later and every medieval stone building in the Old City that wasn’t a shop was a coffee house, restaurant, boutique hotel, or art gallery. We stepped out of the tranquil courtyard of our beautiful little hotel Beit Al Mamlouka – an exquisite 17th century house in the Christian Quarter near Bab Touma that May Mamarbachi, who had a PhD in Islamic architecture, spent three years meticulously restoring – straight into one of the Old City’s busiest alleyways.

Not far away in the Jewish Quarter, things were a little quieter. However, one man, an artist, was changing that. He’d taken it upon himself to be responsible for the rejuvenation of the ramshackle district, and we interviewed him in late 2010. This is a slightly different version of the story we had published on Mustafa Ali.

Sculptor Mustafa Ali

Mustafa Ali is hardly the kind of person you expect to see on a Power 100 list. A diminutive, ginger-bearded man with a generous smile and twinkling eyes, Syria’s greatest sculptor is known for his big heart and considerable hospitality, as much as he’s renowned for his bronze sculptures. Arabian Business magazine named him one of the Arab world’s most influential cultural figures – two years running.

The country’s most beloved and most successful artist in Syria and abroad, Mustafa Ali has been a key player in transforming the almost abandoned Jewish Quarter from a dilapidated area devoid of life to a vital and vibrant neighbourhood. The artist has a vision for the whole of the Old City and a plan for how it can be made into a much more habitable place for residents and visitors

While the Jewish Quarter is still rough around the edges, its labyrinthine lanes lined with tumbledown buildings and cluttered corner stores, the area is increasingly attracting artists’ studios to its dusty alleys.

It’s also now home to stylish boutique hotels such as Talisman, established in 2007 in the same street, and will soon boast a luxurious new 80-room property in historic Beit Farhi, currently being restored opposite Mustafa Ali’s gallery, and due to open in late 2009.

When we arrive at Mustafa Ali’s splendid 500-year-old courtyard house, several photographers – one from Morocco and two from Syria – are hanging out in the cool liwan, a covered lounge area off the courtyard that catches the breezes.

They’re chatting, smoking, reading, and occasionally taking photos of the tranquil place that is now the Mustafa Ali Cultural Foundation, a lively arts and performance space and meeting point for the city’s artists and intellectuals. The sculptor appears from his cluttered office to greet us, immediately offering us cold drinks, tea, and cigarettes, and pulling out a few chairs.

Mustafa Ali bought the house in March 2004 and officially opened it to the public as a gallery and cultural centre that same summer with a large welcoming reception. Soon people started dropping in to visit and artists began migrating to the neighbourhood and opening workshops in the rickety old houses.

Some 40 artists, photographers, sculptors, and ceramists now work in studios in the historic houses that line the surrounding lanes, although you’ll barely catch a glimpse of them on a stroll through the old alleyways – their ateliers are hidden within courtyards behind the high walls.

The sculptor remains the face of the movement, with a constant stream of people calling in to his house throughout the day and night – artists, musicians, actors, intellectuals, tourists, ambassadors, and visiting dignitaries.

Most come to view Mustafa Ali’s work and see exhibitions he is hosting, others hope to meet the man himself, while some simply want to get a peek at the interior of an old Damascene house and soak up the atmosphere.

Mustafa encourages people to use the courtyard and his underground cave bar, for meetings, workshops and classes. He also hosts a program of weekly activities and events – music concerts, film screenings, modern dance performances, tango shows, and photography and art exhibitions.

The house could also be considered the first artists’ retreat in the quarter. Soon after establishing the cultural centre, the sculptor opened some rooms upstairs to visiting artists, writers and travellers intent on spending longer than a few days in Damascus to really get beneath the skin of the place.

“I want to change people’s perceptions of Syria, especially the perceptions formed by Western media,” he tells us, “People think it’s dangerous to come here. Many people have no idea there are artists in Syria and that we have such cultural activities. I want to show them how strong and alive our cultural scene actually is.”

In recent months the sculptor has been working on a strategy to formally develop the quarter into a vibrant arts area. He’s hoping to offer scholarships to foreign artists, writers and filmmakers to bring them to Syria for short periods to produce works that will help change people’s notions about the country.

Soon, a small park nearby will be developed so it can be used for cultural activities, more old houses will be restored, and – hopefully – the area will be pedestrianised. Mustafa Ali has been integral in a campaign to persuade the authorities to close the whole Old City to traffic, establishing car parks outside the walls, and introducing electric vehicles to transport people.

All of these activities would be full-time occupations for an arts administrator, a cultural ambassador and a town planner, but Mustafa Ali is foremost an artist. How he has time to conceive and execute his work with all the comings and goings at the centre is mystifying – until he leads us outside and along some dusty laneways to a run-down old house, one of four workshops he has in the Old City where he goes to work alone.

“Three families once lived here – upstairs there was a Jewish doctor, downstairs two Muslim families,” he explains, guiding us into his workshop. Mustafa escapes here to sculpt in the mornings, spending his afternoons at the courtyard house nearby. Sculpting remains his greatest passion.

“I started to sculpt properly at the age of 15. I made a portrait of another child in plaster, and this was my first real work. I dreamt about being a sculptor from the age of 13 or 14 when I went to the Fine Arts Institute at Lattakia,” he reveals. “I saw the sculpture room and I thought it was a temple. Immediately I asked the teacher if I could stay and I started to work there every day.”

Mustafa Ali’s first exhibition in 1988 was of a bronze sculpture, and he became renowned for his work in bronze. “Bronze is such a noble, strong material. I like the way it reflects the light and the way it changes colour,” he explains. “I like to change materials. I started to experiment with bronze and wood in 1992-93 and now I like to combine them in my work.”

Mustafa Ali collects wood from renovation projects in the city and stores it for future use. “The wood adds warmth,” he says. “With wood – you can feel the humanity of the material.”

Mustafa Ali’s sculptures have unique qualities, although you can sense the influence of his greatest inspiration, Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), who hailed from an Italian-speaking area of Switzerland near the Italian border. Ali studied sculpture in Italy for six years, but he believes his main influences come from Syria.

“The first and greatest influence on my work was Ugarit and the finds on display from Ugarit at the National Museum. My second influence was Palmyra and the relationship between the earth and the sky there. Then came Old Syria and the Aramaic, and, more recently, after I moved to the Old City five years ago, I now seek inspiration from Old Damascus,” he tells us.

Back at his cultural centre, Mustafa Ali takes us on a tour of the galleries, showing us some of his favourite pieces, occasionally interrupted by phone calls – he’s organising an oud and qanun concert in the courtyard that night.

“This small piece is probably my most favourite piece,” he confides, showing us a tiny bronze called ‘The Balance’ consisting of a figure of a man with another figure balanced on his head. “I like this piece because it was based on big ideas – about finding the right balance in life.”

Only Mustafa Ali – sculptor, tireless promoter of Syrian art and culture, and influential Renaissance man for Damascus’s old-town renewal – could talk about balance, while juggling so many projects.

Later that night after the successful concert, Mustafa Ali is still holding court, introducing people to eachother, conducting informal tours of the centre, slipping in and out of conversations with several groups of people scattered around the courtyard, and, later, in his underground bar, excitedly discussing projects over beers. It’s a wonder he finds time to sleep.

Feb 15

Remembering Syria and Syrians – The Jazz Duo Rasha Rizk and Ghazwan Zerkli

Rasha Rizk, Jazz Musician and Singer, Damascus, Syria. Copyright2014TerenceCarter

I wanted to share a moment in time from Damascus in 2009 for the third part of our series reflecting upon Syria and the Syrians we knew before the Civil War. That was the last time we visited Syria, to work on a handful of stories for magazines. We were also developing a book project that we postponed due to our 2010 Grand Tour, something we regret terribly now.

Syria in 2009 was a very different place to the city we experienced on our first holiday to the country in 1999, when we visited Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra. Syria has always been cultured and Syrians have long been considered some of the finest educated in the Arab World, its universities some of the most disciplined, especially when it came to studying the classics, including classical Arabic.

Yet in 2009 Damascus was cultured, as well as increasingly sophisticated and urbane. There were boutique hotels, restaurants, bars, and clubs to rival anything in Beirut, but being Damascus, they were different. And don’t get me wrong, we had loved Damascus a decade earlier as much as we did on that last trip to Syria, it was just different, but we’ll save that for another post.

Syrian Jazz Duo Rasha Rizk and Ghazwan Zerkli

At first, it appeared to be an unusual experiment by an oddly matched couple – an acclaimed Syrian concert pianist teaming up to perform jazz with a gorgeous young soprano and professor from the Opera Department at the Higher Institute for Music in Damascus.

Could a classical pianist really go from Chopin to Cole Porter and an opera singer swing from Bizet to Billy Holiday? We were about to find out.

While it was a departure for pianist Ghazwan Zerkli and singer Rasha Rizk, their passion for jazz and accomplished musicianship proved a potent mix during their first concert together as part of Art House hotel’s 2009 summer concert series in Damascus.

“Yesterday I was playing Chopin, today I’m playing Cole Porter,” Ghazwan told us, grinning happily during rehearsals at the stylish Damascene hotel’s atmospheric gallery-cum-performance space.

“I think every pianist has the right to play jazz. It’s just a matter of education whether he does or not. In classical music, you can’t change the pace much, but I like that you can do this in jazz. I feel freer playing jazz,” he confided, “And it’s a lot more fun!”

Opera singer Rasha Rizk was also relishing the freedom of the form. “In opera and classical music, we have to eliminate improvisation. This is something I love about jazz,” she confided, almost bouncing with enthusiasm. “When I was only singing opera, I felt I needed more… jazz was the answer!”

“I love its richness,” Rasha continued, “Every musician can put their own stamp on jazz. It is freeing,” she agreed.

The birthplace of some of the Arab world’s greatest musicians – Farid Al Attrache is the first to spring to mind for most – and with a long, rich music history and culture, Syrian music has always been synonymous with classical Oriental music. Few think of jazz when they think of Syria.

“There was a big jazz movement here in the 1950s, then in the 1960s it was more of a youth-led movement”, Ghazwan revealed. “We have around eleven jazz bands now.”

“Jazz isn’t new at all in Syria,” Rasha agreed. “Duke Ellington even played here in Damascus with his big band!”

“Arabic music is not just about quarter tones – Arabic music has octaves divided into 24 equal steps, not the Western twelve,” Rasha explained. “There’s an Arabic way to play Western music, such as jazz.”

“For instance, I do a salsa-inspired piano composition with an Arabic influence,” Ghazan added. When he played it later that evening he was true to his word. It was an intriguing piece of fusion music with distinctive Arabic motifs.

While Rasha and Ghazwan’s new jazz project may only have been an experiment for the pair, the Art House gig was jam-packed with an audience appreciative of their performance, especially their romantic versions of jazz standards.

Singing classics such as The Very Thought of You and The Touch of Your Lips in a floor-length red satin evening gown, Rasha reminded us more of Hollywood musical starlets of the Golden Age than a torch singer. But she had a huge voice, and had no hesitation in using it to support her genre jumping.

But what of the Damascus jazz scene at the time? While venues such as Dome, Backdoor and Zodiac hosted jazz bands there wasn’t a dedicated venue where musicians could perform regularly. Nor were there music labels willing to produce jazz recordings.

“Part of the problem,” Rasha explained to us, “is that we don’t have a jazz department at the Higher Institute.” Ghazwan agreed, “They spend money on activities and events, but we need jazz teachers.”

“We also need more courageous music producers,” Rasha added, “The music business is the second most profitable after cinema, so why not?”

Rasha was speaking from experience. Her project with Ghazwan wasn’t her first jazz foray. Rasha and guitarist husband Ibrahim Sulaimani had played an experimental fusion of Arabic-jazz, funk and soft rock as Itar Shameh, self-financing their first CD Beitna (Our Home), released in 2007. They were recording their second at the time.

“We have a contract with a Lebanese distributor,” she told us excitedly, “But what we play is alternative music and the big companies are only interested in pop. So now we’re marketing and selling our music on the Internet and at festivals. We really need a courageous production company because what Arabic music really needs is a new wave.”

Terence took the portrait of Rasha, above, just before her performance with Ghazwan at Art House that summer in 2009. 

Feb 13

Remembering Syria and Syrians – The Storyteller Abu Shady

Storyteller, Abu Shady, Damascus, Syria.

For the second part of a short series in which we’re reflecting on Syria and Syrians before the Civil War, the places we travelled and the people we met, we want to share a piece we did about the storyteller Abu Shady, who we last interviewed for a feature in 2009.

The portrait above is one of the portraits Terence took that day we interviewed him. While we were in Damascus that trip, Terence printed the photo and we took two of the framed images to the café, one for Abu Shady and one for the café owner, Abu Ahmad, who promptly hung his on the wall to the left of the throne where Abu Shady sat to spin his tales. If any readers have visited Al Nawfara and seen Abu Shady or Abu Ahmad since then, we’d love to hear from you.

Abu Shady, Syria’s Last Storyteller

Abu Shady, the last of Syria’s hakawati or traditional storytellers, is looking especially distinguished in his red tarboosh and broad cummerbund when we meet him at Al Nawfara, an atmospheric café in Damascus’ old city and the venue for his nightly storytelling performances.

He is looking like he has lived every one of his 65 years and appears considerably less sprightly than when we met him two years ago. That Abu Shady could be Syria’s last traditional storyteller has been on everyone’s lips here for years, along with worried words about the art dying with him.

“I love being a storyteller more than ever,” Abu Shady assures us. “I still enjoy my profession, of course.” When we last talked to him, he told us he was grooming his son Shady to take over after he passed away. Now? “No,” he shakes his said “I don’t recommend it to my son as a profession. It doesn’t pay enough money! I don’t want my son to take over.”

Ironically, the storyteller’s son is now a storyteller of sorts. The younger Shady specializes in the craft of karakoz, a form of traditional puppetry, and as Abu Shady sips his glass of chai and smokes a cigarette before his performance, his son is in Aleppo at a festival telling stories with his puppets to small children.

Stories have played a vital role in Middle Eastern culture for thousands of years – since history’s most compelling entertainer, the legendary Persian storyteller Scheherazade, set out to captivate King Shahryar night after night with riveting tales, in a bid to halt the beheadings of queens, three thousand of whom had been killed before her.

Transfixed by Scheherazade’s stories, each one more bewitching than the next, the King not only allowed her to live, but one thousand and one entrancing nights later, all the wiser and kinder from her educational tales, the King made Scheherazade his Queen.

Like Abu Shady, who sits with pictures of fictional heroes Antar and Abla — whose epic story takes 300 nights to tell — hanging on the wall behind him, Scheherazade had collected thousands of stories from the myths and legends of history that preceded her.

And like the book of One Thousand and One Nights that tells her tale, Scheherazade herself used a narrative framing technique to engage her listener, where a larger story sets the stage, framing a sequence of shorter stories, or stories within stories, that engage and amuse the audience. Like a television serial or soap opera, it’s a story without an ending and it keeps the audience coming back for more.

“When I started storytelling, it started as a hobby, and gradually it became my job,” Abu Shady tells us. A job he has done every night for the last 30 years, sometimes twice a night, leaving to perform at another restaurant immediately after he finishes at Al Nawfara.

When we last saw Abu Shady perform, in 2007, at a simple chicken restaurant in the old working class neighbourhood of Mirdan, his audience had dwindled to a dozen regulars and it appeared the general public was losing interest in this art.

“Now, all everyone cares about is television, cinema, the Internet… especially the younger generation,” he told us despondently at the time. “They’re not interested in traditional storytelling. It’s a dying art.”

But now, two years later, at Al Nawfara, the café is filling quickly after the sunset prayer. These days, the tiny tables are crammed nightly with people here to see Abu Shady.

There are regulars who come night after night, who sit in chairs lined against the wall, smoking nargileh, the pipes rarely leaving their mouths – except when they repeat in unison the phrases from Abu Shady’s stories like a Greek chorus.

There are also guidebook-clutching tourists, local Damascenes, and Syrians from other parts of the country who have come especially to see Syria’s last traditional hakiwati. Everyone has an inkling that they are experiencing something special — perhaps something that one day soon will no longer be around.

“Abu Shady is very popular again,” Abu Ahmad, the busy, larger-than-life owner of Al Nawfara tells us. “There has been a revival. These days people phone to book tables.”

“Storytelling has always been something special, but now there is renewed interest,” he assures us. “There is a fascination with everything old again. There are serials on TV and films set in Old Damascus.” But still the specter of no one taking over from Abu Shady looms large over the spirit of the café.

“Of course I feel sorry that there is nobody to carry on after me. But it’s not my responsibility to find or train someone,” Abu Shady confides. “It’s only my responsibility to maintain the tradition while I’m alive. Anybody could do it really, anybody with talent — a special talent. Of course I could train someone, but what for? It doesn’t pay anything. It is an art.”

“The art of storytelling is in how I express the things that I say, how I incite people to react,” he continues to explain, “The rhythm, my facial expressions… I need to perform well, to show anger, sadness, love – to make people feel angry, to feel sad, to feel love, and to laugh. And from the stories people get advice and they gain wisdom.”

Abu Shady shows us a ruled notepad with neat lines of handwritten Arabic. “I tell stories in classical Arabic but not everyone understands it, so now I am translating all the stories by hand into the common spoken Arabic,” he explains proudly, albeit somewhat wearily.

“It has taken me six months to write these 30 pages and I’m not finished yet… this is just one story, one long story — dating to before Islam. Nobody has translated these before. I’ll translate as many as I can before I die. I’ll translate them right up until my death,” he says and looks up at us and smiles.

Stories remained popular in an oral form in the Middle East until the 18th century and the Ottomans started to put them to paper, yet the culture has always favoured oral narratives and longer forms, which is why theatre, cinema and television here are heavier on dialogue than they are in Western cultures.

The stories Abu Shady tells at Al Nawfara are indeed like television serials or soap operas — one story can last a whole year. “When I’m telling a story, I try to engage the audience and hold their attention. Especially the foreign tourists, because they don’t always understand Arabic, and this old classical Arabic… not even all the Arabs understand this. I use a little English or German when I can, to grab their attention. I teach them a word of Arabic and get them to repeat it.”

It’s time for tonight’s performance to begin. Abu Shady takes to his small stage and sits on his throne-like chair. He begins with a quiet prayer, a call to God to help him perform tonight. And the regulars who sit against the wall repeat their own thanks to God.

Abu Shady starts telling his tale. While the locals know the story — some having heard it from when they were children — they still enthusiastically repeat phrases, while foreign visitors who don’t understand are equally engrossed.

It’s a story about three men living in Ottoman times who are determining how to deal with a strong man who has arrived in town and is throwing his weight around.

Abu Shady brings his sword crashing down on a metal tray table, causing us all to jump in our chairs, including two young foreign women who sit immediately in front of him. “Mafi mushkala,” he tells them, with a twinkle in his eye, “No problem.”

The girls giggle. The young women are stirring their tea. Abu Shady has a twinkle in his eye again. “You’re stirring it the wrong way,” he tells them, with a sly smile.

Every now and then Abu Shady interrupts his own narrative. Sometimes it seems spontaneous, at other times planned. When the waiter passes in front of him distributing glasses of chai he slams his sword down loudly again. “Tea! Ashtray! Water!” he shouts, as we imagine the strong man might in his tale, and everyone laughs.

At one point, a mobile phone rings and we all look around. Abu Shady stops his story and puts his cell phone to his ear. There’s laughter all around. He speaks in Arabic for a moment before returning the phone to his pocket, then apologises, “Sorry,” he says, “It’s my wife.” The crowd roars again.

Aware that many people have been photographing him, Abu Shady stops to bring his own tiny camera out of his pocket and takes photos of the crowd. Once more, the audience breaks into laughter.

Abu Shady’s performance is much more interactive than when we saw him last. Indeed, now his stories are post-modern, multi-form narratives, and it’s a multimedia extravaganza Abu Shady-style. The old storyteller appears to be buoyed by the resurgence in interest in his dying art.

“I get a thrill out of listening to Abu Shady,” says Saad Kaakarli, a 50-year-old Syrian-American. Kaakarli emigrated to the USA in 1979, living in Detroit and Ohio. A contractor now living in Saudi Arabia, he returns to Damascus regularly and is planning to return to Jebel Qassioun, his birthplace.

“As a child I used to skip school to come and watch the storyteller,” Kaakarli tells us. “Since I returned I really get a kick out of coming to listen to him. This is entertainment! It’s theatre. Abu Shady — I love him. He’s my man!”

The moment Abu Shady finishes his storytelling for the night, people get up from their seats and leave. Abu Ahmad pulls the cord to a curtain on the wall and reveals a flat screen TV.

The televisions flicks on, but by now the café is almost empty. Music videos and football are no competition when Damascus’ last great storyteller is performing.

But the 150-year old Al Nawfara was popular way before television was invented. Owner Abu Ahmad says his family has had the café for 75 years, his grandfather and father ran the place before him and his sons are primed to take over when he too passes.

The first storyteller who worked at Al Nawfara was born in 1885 and died in 1956, and storytelling is now again part of the success of the café, he explains. “But what will happen to the café without a storyteller?” I ask.

“Well,” Abu Ahmad says, “Let’s hope God sends us another.”

A shorter and slightly different version of this story appeared in Gulf Life magazine in 2009.

Feb 12

Remembering Syria and Syrians Before the Civil War

A shepherd outside Homs, Syria.

Last weekend, following a three-day ceasefire agreement reached during the Syria peace talks in Geneva the previous week, the UN evacuated some 700 Syrians from Homs’ old quarter, a rebel-held area besieged by Syrian government forces for some 18 months. A further 300 people were able to leave a few days later.

Sadly, as they fled, their convoys were hit by mortars and fired upon by snipers. Most of those allowed out were the elderly, women and children, however, it’s been reported over a dozen of the men permitted to leave were later detained. Around 3,000 civilians apparently remain, mostly men and boys.

When I look at images like these from the Homs evacuation, I often wonder if the people we met in Homs, and other places in Syria, however briefly, are in those pictures. Are they still there in Homs, did they manage to escape, or are they, sadly, dead? I like to remember what they were like when we met them, when they were happy. It better helps me appreciate the immensity of this tragedy.

We’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts on Grantourismo to remembering Syria and Syrians before the war. This is the first…


The last time we were in Homs was the summer of 2007, although we were in Syria in late 2009 working on stories, mainly in Damascus and Aleppo. We stayed in Homs for a whirlwind couple of days during a road trip around the country updating our Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon guidebook, a book we researched and wrote in 2004 after reluctantly combining the manuscripts of two previous country guides.

When we returned to do the 2007 update we hid the cover from the Syrians and Lebanese we met. Syria had only just pulled its troops out of Lebanon in 2005 after a 29-year occupation. There had been a strong Syrian military presence in Lebanon when we first visited for a five-day break for New Year’s Eve in 1998. The mood of both countries then was very different to the optimism and confidence we would encounter almost a decade later.

When we arrived in Homs that summer’s afternoon in 2007, we found a lovely city enjoying the sunshine and clear blue skies. I remember the light had that clarity that it does in the countryside, with none of the smog of Damascus, where we’d just been. It didn’t feel like Syria’s third largest city, it felt like a big country town and the people were warm and friendly, and generous with their smiles, like country people are.

Locals were kicking back with their syrupy coffees and glasses of tea in al fresco coffee shops, such as the shady garden café Majmu ar-Rawda as-Siyahi, in the park near the clock tower. It was the place to be after dark when the aromas of rose, apple, strawberry, and grape sheesha wafted through the air.

Syrians were lining up for big glasses of fresh juices from the fruit stands. They were strolling leafy parks arm in arm licking ice creams, and in the early evenings they crowded around mobile vendors to buy hot cobs of corn.

In the Christian quarter, at Blue Stone, a stylish café in a handsome grey stone building that had big windows onto the street – about which I scribbled in my notebook “a perfect spot for people-watching” – every table was taken.

Families were sharing massive pizzas, perfectly-coiffed old ladies with pearl necklaces were nibbling at big bowls of salads, demure young couples (the women with headscarves, the men with slicked back hair) were holding hands discretely, while groups of teenagers in school uniforms at separate tables flirted with eachother openly across the room.

It had been a long hot drive there with a few stops on the way and we were pleased we were able to order drinks: Terence had a cold beer and I had a chilled glass of white wine, something that was rare to do back then, even in Damascus during the day. Things changed for a short time in 2009.

After lunch, we began the task of pounding the pavement and “ticking shit off”, going through every listing in the previous edition of our book to see what was still there and was worth maintaining and noting what was new that we should add to the new book. There had been a lot of renovation in the old quarter and much construction was underway.

The striking black and white Mamluk-style banded stonework that distinguished many of the buildings in the old quarter, along with the courtyard of the Khaled ibn al Walid Mosque, appeared to have been cleaned.

When we stopped at the handsome Mamluk-era residence, Azze Hrawe, which was being restored and to open as a folklore museum, workers invited us in to take a look. In the splendid liwan, a covered lounge area off the beautiful fountain courtyard, craftsman had just finished work on an intricate wooden carving and it was exquisite.

Homs was a city where artisans still practiced their crafts and you could find them in the renovated old stone souq, one of Syria’s most enchanting, working under the vaulted ceilings. Wood carvers, metalworkers, carpenters, tailors, knife-sharpeners, and cobblers sat cross-legged on their workshop floors, happy to have us watch and take photos.

While the market was quiet in the afternoon, when many of the shopkeepers closed for lunch, it hummed later that evening when the whole of Homs seemed to be out shopping.

Hand in hand with the rejuvenation of the city, there was that sense of optimism that we’d also found in Damascus. The hotels were busy with bus groups on their grand tours of Syria’s impressive archaeological sites. In the evening French, German and Italian tourists could be found bartering for mother-of-pearl inlaid backgammon sets, sheesha pipes, gold jewellery, and packets of spices.

Unlike Hama, where I didn’t feel comfortable, Homs, like the rest of Syria, was a city I felt completely relaxed in, and had we have had all the time in the world, we could have stayed longer.

The images that came out of Homs on the weekend and earlier this week of the city and its people, were all the more heartbreaking because we couldn’t recognize them. There were no smiles to be seen.

The people of Homs looked haggard, utterly exhausted, and worn-down by their horrendous situation. The elderly looked frail, and the children, dark circles under their eyes, looked malnourished. Everybody looked stressed.

These are very different Syrians to the ones we used to know. Before the civil war, after we visited on research trips, and before those on holidays, we used to say Syrians seemed to be some of the friendliest and happiest people in the world.

Reports claim that some people in Homs had been surviving on grass and weeds. Others on foodstuffs left there from before that 18 month siege that they had found in the city. Those days of eating pizza, ice cream and sweet corn on summer evenings must be memories so distant they feel like dreams.

Homs itself has been completely destroyed. The elegant cream-brick apartment buildings that lined the broad boulevards aren’t merely pockmarked from bullets as most buildings were in Lebanon after the civil war there.

In Homs, buildings appear to be missing balconies, windows, walls, and even whole floors. Many have collapsed upon each other. I hate to think how many deaths there were, how many lives destroyed when those buildings came crashing down.

The attractive old quarter we fondly remember is in ruins, mosque minarets missing or broken, mountains of rubble piled in places where historic buildings had been, many just restored a few years earlier for the first time in hundreds of years.

I wonder what state the Church of the Girdle of Our Lady is in and if the patriarch managed to escape with their treasured piece of wool they believed to be from a girdle worn by the Virgin Mary. But mostly, I wonder what has become of all the people and where and how they are.

As Terence said in his last Monday Memories post, “The scars so visible at Syria’s historic sites – those that still stand – can never compare to the collective mental scars of the nation and its people.” As impossible as the job of rebuilding seems right now, cities have been rebuilt before, especially in Syria. Remember the Crusades?

Rebuilding lives is the most challenging task for the Syrians who have left now, especially for those who have lost families and friends or had to leave them, as almost every Syrian must have. For the people of Homs who have left, their lives will be on hold until they’re reunited with the loved ones forced to stay behind.

I can’t imagine them smiling much. And yet what I most remember from our 2007 road trip and our other visits to Syria are the warm smiles of people we met, sometimes even fleetingly, like the young man on the donkey above whom we met in the middle of nowhere. But that’s another story…

If you have stories or memories of Syria, please do share them in the comments. For more on the civil war there is comprehensive coverage on Al Jazeera under ‘Syria‘, the BBC under ‘Syria Conflict‘, and under ‘Syria Crisis‘ on the New York Times. Wikipedia has Syria timelines explaining how the situation deteriorated from sporadic uprisings to full blown civil war. Our next post is on Syria’s Last Storyteller Abu Shady.

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