Our Man Abroad: Damascus

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    Whilst Jordan may have had natural wonders, an endlessly helpful population and some pretty fantastic ruins, there was something that I found slightly bland about the place. This could probably be pinpointed to the abysmal highways and urban planning that saw motorways tearing past beautiful wadis and towns (Ammanin particular) being little more than concrete and tarmac.

    Arriving in Damascus the huge underpasses of Amman are replaced by wide, palm-lined boulevards, and there is a sense of prosperity and character so lacking from the Jordanian capital. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison; whilst Damascus can claim to be the world’s oldest continually inhabited city, Amman was barely a crossroads until the British named it as the new state of Jordan’s capital in 1946.

    The focal point of Damascus is the old walled city, and near its centre stands the Ummayad Mosque, one of the world’s oldest and largest, reputedly home to the head of John the Baptist. It truly is an outstanding piece of architecture. The great courtyard is paved in acres of marble and around the walls lie green and goldleafed depictions of heavenly valleys. Above the mosque stand three minarets, at one of which it is said that Jesus will appear on judgement day. Surrounding the mosque lies the labarinthine covered Souq selling all imaginable kinds of tat, whilst the rest of the walled city is made up of the Christian and Jewish quarters, a reminder that these religious groups can, and do, live in peace. Whilst the souq is pure arabia, all smells and shouts, the Christian and Jewish quarters are far more similar to a southern european town, the only sign of being in Syria being the arabic street signs.

    One is always told that an experience you must have in these places is a hammam. Travelling with two girls meant that I had to head of to bathe solo (mixed bathing is strictly forbidden). Having once had a rather scarring experience in a Saigon massage parlour, I wasn’t exactly leaping at the opportunity for another round of mass nudity, but thankfully the Syrians are slightly more modest. That said, the experience wasn’t one I would recommend. After being shoved into a sauna for a good ten minutes I was guided to the wet room. I managed to hide myself in a corner and ineffectually dab at myself for what seemed like an appropriate length of time (all the time with one eye on the figures visible through the steam). Upon exit of the room I was immediately wrestled to the ground by chap with a glove seemingly made of sandpaper, who attempted to make me bleed from every pore (with some sucess) in the name of exfoliation. Escaping whilst simultaneously turning down a massage, I made a beeline for the showers, only to be told that I hadn’t spent long enough in the wet room. Terrified that I might have to go through the whole thing again, I acquiesced. This time there was no hidden corner-the centre of the bath was taken up by a big baba, lying on the marble like a beached whale, whilst his host of katamites (probably, in fact, his sons, but I was in no mood to be generous) scrubbed him from head to toe. Not wanting to interrupt the scene, I hovered by the door for what seemed like an hour before running out, dodging ‘the exfoliator’, and making my way to the shower and changing room. Never again.

    Given Syria’s fairly dubious international relations (only the other day a suspected North Korean aided nuclear facility was bombed by the US air force, to a muted Syrian response, rather suggesting that US suspicions weren’t too far wrong) it is odd that Syria is such a haven for the Amercrombie and Kent tour brigade. Old Damascene houses are constantly being turned into boutique hotels and in 2006 a Four Seasons hotel opened just outside the old city.

    Yet within three minutes walk of the Four Seasons lies Martyrs’ Square, still host to public hangings, and from all of Damascus the Japanese designed Presidential palace, a texbook James Bond villain’s pile, is visible, squatting in the hills above the city, seemingly reminding the populous that they are always being watched.

    However, the Syrians have a bigger ‘enemy’ (for want of a better word) to worry about. We took a car for the day and headed to Quneitra, in the Syrian controlled Golan Heights. It is here that one can see why Syrians loathe the Israelis so, and why they resent Arab nations, such as Jordan, which are willing to converse with Israel.

    The city was captured by Israel in the six day war, and was returned to Syria in 1974 as little more than a pile of rubble. The Israelis had removed everything that could be taken, down to coat pegs and light fittings, before bulldozing the entire town. Perhaps most shocking are the two main religious sights, the church and the mosque. Both were treated with the same level of wanton vandalism. The town’s only human inhabitants now are some Syrian and UN peacekeepers, yet even they are ever watched by the Israeli telescopes that sit on the hill opposite. As an exercise in anti-Israeli propaganda it is awfully successful. The Syrians are not themselves blameless (particularly in their treatment of the Lebanese, which I hope to write about later), but, unlike the Isrealis, they are not afforded the luxury of a democracy with which to choose the actions of their country.

    As we sat in one of Damascus’s smartest restaurants (courtesy of the family friend of one of my travelling companions), we found ourselves in the presence of, amongst others, Syria’s richest vegetable oil tycoon and a Franco-Syrian Chess grandmaster. The chatter was political, but it wasn’t necessarily what one might expect. Any talk about Israel related to the desire for a peace treaty and for open trade. Israel is here to stay, and only the most deluded Syrian denies it. The consensus here seems to be that regional stability would allow Syria to persue the development that seems so attainable (particularly the tourism and financial sectors). There are also hopes that progress might ameliorate the refugee issue that Syria, like Jordan, has to cope with.

    I left Damascus on a positive note, looking forward to moving onwards into Syria, and seeing what the country had to offer after such a promising start.

     

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