Monday, May 24, 2010

Through the Lens in Damascus

View of Damascus, Syria from atop Jebel (Mt) Qassioun. It is believed that when the prophet Mohammed gazed down upon Damascus from this mountain, he declared that he only wanted to enter paradise only once – when he died – and so refused to enter into the city. Vying for the title of the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, the Damascus of today is a modern metropolis, cohabiting happily with an ancient old city. From ultra modern venues developing a young, bustling and vibrant art and music scene, to the labyrinth alleys and fragrant bazaars selling anything that can be traded and sold, this is a city that has outlived civilizations and outlasted empires.

The souqs or bazaars in the Old Town are a maze of alleyways that stretches for kilometers. Here, you will find shops selling everything from clothes to jewelery to toys to spices. This picture was taken in the Islamic quarter of Old Town, as evident by the way the women are dressed.

Man selling teas and other spices.

One of the many spice and herbal shops in the old souq. Oblivious to international law and the endangered species act, you can find everything from dried starfishes, turtles and even the skins of wolves and tigers with their heads intact!

A butcher working on a lamb carcass while his shoppers look on.

Right after snapping the previous picture, I turn around to see these two butchers waving at me from the next store. After the customary hellos, they ask me to take their picture. All around the souqs, friendly locals will constantly try to talk to me in the few words of English that they know, and invite me in for a cup of tea. I've had more people say “hello” and “welcome” to me than any other country I have visited.

Right around the corner from my hotel, a lone VW Beetle parked in an alley. All around town there are hundreds of narrow alleys that you can wander around and get lost in. And as one of the safest and friendliest countries I have ever visited, wandering these alleys was something I felt very comfortable doing.

With 36% of its population under 15, there are a lot of children in Syria, and you cannot escape them whenever you are wandering through the neighborhoods. While hiking up Jebel (Mt) Qassioun, swarms of kids would run up to me, wave, and say hello. I caught these two, who I assume to be siblings, sitting on the front steps of their house.

One of my favorite pictures. Also while hiking up Jebel (Mt) Qassioun, I hear footsteps coming up behind me. With my camera hanging around my neck, I turned around and snapped this picture without looking through the viewfinder. Only later when looking at my pictures on my computer, did I realize I caught this kid in mid-stride and in mid-air as he was skipping towards me!

While visiting the Umayyad Mosque, I was waved over by three elderly gentlemen and invited to join them while they were relaxing under the shade along the arches flanking the courtyard. One of them spoke perfect English, and I ended up spending about twenty minutes with them. In this picture, the oldest of the three is turning over to his friend, listening to him translate what I was saying.

The Storyteller. Almost a dying trade, the art of storytelling can still be found in the old quarters in Damascus. Here, Abo Shadi, the resident hakawati (storyteller) at the Al-Nawfara Coffee Shop reaches a climax in his story, picking up his walking stick, swinging it around and smacking it down on the side table for dramatic effect. Although the whole story is recited in Arabic, just hearing the rise and fall of his voice as he retells the story, his big expressions and animated gestures, was enough to make it an entertaining hour!

The Al-Nawfara Coffee Shop packed with people enjoying a late night tea or coffee while puffing on a nargileh (water pipe).

The courtyard at the Al Rabie Hotel, where I stayed at in Damascus. Converted from an old Damascene  house, courtyards such as this were a central part of the house, where the families would sit and relax, often by fountains or pools. Here, fellow travelers that I met are having breakfast together.

Outside of the Old Town, Damascus is faced with the same traffic congestion as any other city. However, the city is well organized with wide clean streets and modern infrastructure befitting of the modern global city that it is.

Damascus has a thriving art and music scene. This picture is from the opening night of a Salvador Dali exhibition at a local gallery. While I was in Damascus, an European Film Festival was also going on, and I was able to catch a free screening of an award winning Polish film.

This picture of colorful fruit, vegetables and pickled items laid out on display at the local fruit and vegetable market sums up my experience in Damascus. A colorful city full of surprises! A burgeoning  youthful population that is adding a fresh new vibe to a city that has preserved its heritage (by some accounts) for over 5000 years.

“To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.”
                            -Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869


  1. An excellent snapshot of Damascus, both in words and photos. The pictures especially brought me right back there. I've spent all morning reminiscing.