A Cloudy Day in Damascus

Tuesday 17 August 202101:00 pm
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دمشق في يوم غائم

On a cold winter’s day, my heart is accosted by a sudden longing for Damascus — the Damascus that I arrived to with infatuation, a young girl coming to study at its University. And it did not fail me. Rather Damascus was for me — as it was for many of the people of the countryside — a space to breathe in life outside of the lungs of small communities and it was a theater to accomplish and realize many dreams and ambitions.

Damascus gave me keys to doors that I thought did not open, and its alleys led me to inexhaustible sources of passion. It has informed me of the secrets of pride in humility, and it provided me with a detector of the deceptive brilliance of certain displays, like cancer sitting on top of the city’s lungs. In deep Damascus, value is in origin, essence, lineage, and descent, and what is left is merely the residue of fleeting interests.

Damascus now looks as if the cold has dried out its limbs and hunger has settled in its bowels, until it is no longer a city, but rather a mixture of remnants that were thrown in by a storm.

Damascus was for me — as it was for many of the people from the countryside — a space to breathe in life outside of the lungs of small communities

Displaced people and warlords, the hungry and the newly wealthy, together draw — with their parallel and overlapping presence — a mosaic of scandalous ugliness, when there is no justice in pursuing daily bread and there isn’t any sort of balance in the scene on the street with the naked eye. The bodies of the homeless pile up on the sidewalks with their empty intestines, while luxury cars pass by to reveal that something happened when there is no response to justice...

The general scene is one-eyed, cracked, blunt. There are long waiting lines everywhere, with the difference that the queues of beauty clinics smell of perfume and detachment from reality, and the queues of bakeries and consumer institutions smell of sweat and oppression.

The degree of disconnect is terrifying in a city that no longer resembles itself, and does not resemble what was previously said about the goodness and sweetness of the city of Barada, as well as jasmine, rose, Znoud el-Sit, Awama and Asabe’ Zeinab which are constantly mentioned in the elegies of Facebookers and adorned with the songs of the Rahbanis. Even the smell of sewage that suffocates noses does not deter this chant-like tourist parroting, but rather unleashes the nostalgia for the Damascus that once was, and as bankrupt merchants, Syrians circulate pictures from antique notebooks about the old Damascus. Is there a defeat or crisis equivalent in severity to the dream of going back?! What a misery, what a shame.

I need Damascus on a long winter’s day just like Syrians need their precious warmth. It occurs to me to go to the nearby Al Subki Garden or the Al Jahez Park, where the sun glides in delectable laziness, since the war left Syrians with nothing but pleasant weather. I get up to my mirror to hide the signs of despair and hopelessness in bright, light colors, to greet Damascus with a cheerful face, for it deserves the debt I owe it. Without this city, I would not have been a writer or a journalist.

The degree of disconnect is terrifying in a city that no longer resembles itself, or the sweetness of Barada and jasmine flowers. The suffocating sewage smell doesn’t even deter this chant-like parroting, but rather unleashes nostalgia for the Damascus that once was.

I cross the White Bridge Square, and instead of heading towards the river’s road, the Al-Rawda and Abou Roummaneh neighborhoods, I go down towards Al-Tuliani (Italian) Street, then Arnous Square, and from there to Al-Salhiya. I pass by Al-Abed Street, and there I see the curt smile of Bandar Abdel Hamid among the faces, approaching to give his peaceful greetings and broadcasting his continuous reproach: “Our neighbor, but we don’t see you except by chance.”

One time, I do not remember precisely when, I accompanied him to his house that he keeps open to everyone, and told him that our mutual friend, the Palestinian-Syrian film critic Bashar Ibrahim, instructed me to pass on my regards and take a picture of him in his house. He seemed happy with the message as much as he was in pain from the separation of his friends, “Take pictures as much as you want, but don’t post anything on Facebook.”

In that sitting, we were joined by another person I do not know — who spent a little time with us and left — Bandar gave me a small mug that I displayed my admiration for. I carried it in my pocket as a witness to the most beautiful and purest space in Damascus, “the house of Bandar”, and the name is highlighted in a poem.

No, I did not ask about the fate of the house after Bandar was gone. It was enough for me that I lost a free space that my feet used to lead me to whenever I would feel a lack of oxygen in the air. I remember the day he told me about how he bought the house while he was still a renter. He was very happy and surprised as if he had achieved a sort of accomplishment for Syrian culture. He was also amazed by how a new life was written for him after he survived a missile shell that went through the window of his house, but the miracle that saved him from the stray shell did not save his heart from stopping in grief! When the shells stopped raining down on Damascus. Bandar was gone and was preceded by Bashar Ibrahim a few years ago. And they became specters and apparitions of images that appear on Al-Abed Street, which was devoid of a chance encounter that was always better than a thousand dates.

I do not cross the sidewalk before arriving at Al-Rawda Cafe. There is something that compels me to stop and stare through its glass front. Perhaps I would find a face I knew — colleagues, writers, intellectuals, and those concerned with public affairs…

Unlike my old habits, I do not cross the sidewalk before arriving at Al-Rawda Cafe. There is something that compels me to stop in front of it and stare through its glass front. Perhaps I would find a face I knew — colleagues, writers, intellectuals, and those concerned with public affairs. They once filled the space of the café with stories and gossip that would fly around like sparks to reach the pages of magazines and newspapers, igniting battles that eat away at the eroding bones of culture.

I barely see one, two or three faces that I am not too sure I know. Most of the faces in the cafe are miserable and wretched, as pale as the figures in Louay Kayali’s paintings, falling into a deep inner ruin. I do not know where what’s left of the writers, journalists and intellectuals meet today in Damascus. There are new generations that grew up during the war and are striving to create a new scene. Perhaps they gather in new cafes that opened during the war, those with decorations and elaborate lighting that repel me, with the faces of their patrons stuck to my imagination and carved like the fruits of a heated all-out war.

The feeling of alienation and estrangement haunts me as if I am not in Damascus, I slow my steps to reach the People’s Assembly (Parliament) as we like to call it, an expression of nostalgia for a time we had a Parliament that we did not experience, but heard about. I stop in confusion in front of the concrete embankment that divides the side street. If I walked behind it, I might disturb the peace of the guards, and if I walked on the other side I would be facing the oncoming cars from Yousef Al-Azmeh Square.

My naive thinking makes me laugh, for there is a sidewalk on the opposite side that extends under the balconies and along the fronts of men’s clothing stores, enough to entertain me through watching exhibits that have always attracted me — shirts, sweaters, pants, shoes, belts. But what I see now is almost unbelievable. Taste, along with quality, have gone down, and prices have gone up — with many zeros splattered across their fronts. From here, under pressure of the temptation to shop, I would buy postponed gifts for unknown people and potential occasions. I look away with little suspense and there is something that pushes me to hurry before I begin having eyebrows hardening in wonderment on the top of my forehead.

I barely see one, two or three faces that I am not too sure I know. Most of the faces in the cafe are miserable and wretched, as pale as the figures in Louay Kayali’s paintings, falling into a deep inner ruin

I flee to the alley where the old Officers Club stands opposite the Cham Palace Hotel. I stand in front of Cinéma Damas movie theatre, staring at its closed box office window, recalling the days of university in the nineties, when it was the only cinema hall in Syria that screened modern films. I stand there, recollecting memories of the annual film festival, which was the only yearly opportunity for Syrians to watch Arab and foreign films, other than what’s shown on national television in the evenings. It was rather an opportunity to watch Syrian films, meet with movie stars and train by writing press materials through which we can pave our way to the field of press.

The place is almost deserted, and I do not feel sorry. As if I had not touched its lips, as if I had not reached it and it did not reach me... As if what suddenly came rushing to my memory was borrowed from the memories of others who lived that time in Damascus and went with what was gone.

I keep walking on the sidewalk of the hotel to reach the Brazilian Café, and perhaps it is the first time in five, six or seven years — I do not remember exactly — that I noticed that a private bank had carved out a large part of the café, seizing and taking over its corner that overlooks two streets! What an atrocity! What did they do in this place where I spent some of the most wonderful times around its tables when visitors coming to Damascus used to visit it in the spring, the summer, and during the seasons of cultural festivals. When we were students, we used to see the poet Muhammad al-Maghut sitting at his table here before he moved his usual haunts to the Abu Shafiq cafe in Rabwah. Hanna Mina also used to come weekly to this cafe, as did former ministers, artists, writers, poets, and actors.

The Brazilian Café was for the affluent class of intellectuals and artists, or for those who wanted to escape from the Rawda Café for some time. It was with Café Havana — which was frequented by Muthaffar al-Nawab and an elite of writers and poets — that existed a creative space for those who aspired to advance in the ranks of journalists in a country without journalism. That was at the end of the nineties and the beginning of the third millennium. At that time, public figures would go there periodically, either individually or together. Some of these known names include Dr. Abd al-Salam al-Ojeili from Raqqa, journalist and publisher Riyad Najeeb al-Rayes from Beirut, accompanied by a number of editors from his “Al-Naqed” magazine, and the renowned chief of storytellers, Zakaria Tamer along with his wife, Nadia Adham, from Oxford.

They would all stay at the Umayyah (Omayad) Hotel. As for the morning meetings, they would take place in the Brazilian Café, and often the table, in the presence of al-Rayes, Tamer, or al-Ojeili, would turn into an open meeting attended by the café’s patrons from writers, to journalists and intellectuals in Damascus. The conversations would extend and branch out, and the atmosphere would become filled with the loud clamor of extremists, before the session ends. Another session would be held around a lunch table in restaurants in central Damascus, such as Zenoubia restaurant, Al-Kamal restaurant, Algora restaurant, Aroma Café, Whispers restaurant, Abo Al Abed restaurant... among others.

On these sidewalks in the middle of Damascus, I walked next to al-Ojeili and he used to ask me news of Riyad al-Rayes every time we met, and he would entrust me with health advice to pass on to him. I also walked with Riyad al-Rayes and he used to ask me about al-Ojeili and he would entrust me to deliver his demands to al-Rayes to complete a book that he had promised to deliver soon. As for Zakaria Tamer and his wife, I used to draw from their Damascene memories before they left the country in the eighties, a time that I had no memory to rely on.

These and many other friends who have departed from Damascus or from life, have become my painful memory. A memory that makes me cry just as I cry for the Damascus that I once lived and experienced with all my heart.

The same Damascus that aches and groans from the cold, hunger, and poverty, and from great whales biting its nails and tampering with it to the point of brutality. I wish it hadn’t consumed my heart when I came to her as a young woman, but I wish I was free from its love and strong enough to forsake it, but; Will a lover be absolved of his love if the lover becomes a captive prisoner?

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