The first days of Spring in Damascus are so beautiful. The sun finally comes out and shines on all the old buildings and monuments, little alleyways and old houses, almost making them new again. You can hear the birds singing everywhere, some wild, some from little birds in wooden cages kept on rooftops, shops and even in public parks. A neighbor across the way must keep a number of birds on their roof. I often hear them tweeting and singing through my open window.
The history of this city is staggering, almost incomprehensible. Just walking through a souk, you pass the place where Salahuddin’s wife is buried, some old madrasas where famous scholars taught, the tomb of Mohiuddin ibn Al Arabi.
Damascus has been famous in history for its beautiful gardens. One report says there were 120,000 gardens in this city, multitudes of mosques and madrasas.
On days like today, you can forget the urban sprawl, pollution and increasing western influence. You only remember that Damascus once had the most advanced hospitals and medical schools of its time. That it’s scholars and scholarship resonate throughout Islam until our own times. Who hasn’t picked up a book by Imam Nawwai or Ibn al Qayyim or Ghazali. Its arts of glass making, intricate wood inlay, ceramics and textiles are still famous the world over. Ever heard of a Damask tablecloth or seen the beautiful wooden furniture that comes from here and you’ll know.
A Damascus souk is like a place out of time. Winding narrow streets of stone bricks with shops and stalls crammed on both sides. I can easily imagine that these souks have not changed much over hundreds of years. Just like now, the souk must have been lined with vegetable and fruit sellers. A shoe maker, a rug store. Little shops of hijabs, jilbabs, abayahs, household goods. Nowadays you can add a little cd shop, western wear clothes shops and imported products from china or korea.
The souk near our house is called Souk Jumah. It starts next to the Abu Nour Islamic school with bookstores, stationary supplies, and cd stores of Islamic lectures and nasheed and then continues on into grocery stores , bread shops and vegetable carts, until it turns into the souk proper and then and continues all the way down past Sh. Mohiuddin’s Masjid and tomb. I’ve never actually seen the end because either we walked enough to be tired or purchased all the goods we needed. Perhaps this souk winds all the way down across the bottom of Mount Qasiyoun.
There’s always something to see in the souk. Sometimes when I’m bored and want to feel like I’m living in a different place I’ll come here. All manner of people come to go shopping, to buy their week’s groceries, or just walk around checking out all the new goods and latest fashions. There’s little old men and women buying their tangerines or bread. Housewives bargaining with the butchers on the price of chicken parts. School children in their little blue uniforms walking and running in groups, sometimes crowding into a toy stall or candy shop. Mothers carry their babies or push them in carriages. There is a constant buzz of cars, shoppers, storekeepers
Sometimes you’ll see a horse driven cart go through. Although these days you see mostly Suzuki trucks full of apples or bananas or crates of vegetables like tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. These are goods being delivered direct from the farm.
Sometimes an apple farm owner will travel down the souk delivering a case of his apples to each stall as he goes. Because of all the traffic,I almost wish they would close it off to cars and suzukis so we could shop freely but I guess there’s no other way to receive deliveries and the alleyways are too narrow to build sidewalks.
Once I saw hundreds of men following a funeral bier through the souk. Each store would ‘close’ by putting something at their entrance or closing their door out of respect. I thought that was a beautiful tradition. You also see many beggars especially near Sh. Mohiuddin. At one particular spot right near the entrance to an ancient madrasa I always see this this crippled man. He never asks anyone for money nor does he have a plate or pot. He just sits there and as people walk by, every now and then someone stops to give him something.
Yesterday someone remarked that Syria is in transition from yesterday to tomorrow. It truly is, and I feel that it is almost in a fight with itself trying to figure out which way to go. I would truly be saddened to see Syria turn its back on its traditions and culture and ‘modernize’. To let the souk go by way of huge malls and all the materialism it brings with it! For now at least I can enjoy and feel like what life must have been like hundreds of years ago before this disappears as well.