Saturday, May 26, 2012

Summer in Damascus

In times like this I think about the long, lazy afternoons. Of a breeze gently pushing past the curtains of the balcony as I lay dozing on a sofa in our cool living room. Outside, the streets are gently being baked by the harsh sun and the cars lay still in the empty streets below, as if grateful for the brief respite given by their owners. If there is one time of the day that is revered universally in the Mediterranean, it is the afternoon. In this quiet time the parents sleep and the children can do as they wish. Now they can watch cartoons, play their games, and resolve the million crises and arguments that children can quietly have, and resolve, before the stern justice of their parents lays waste to both the aggressor and the aggrieved; far better to get over our difference now before father takes away all the toys, and not just the one we were arguing over. The kitchen would have lingering good smells of the lunch that we had. Perhaps the faint smell of frying oil, or the rice which is still in the cooking pot on the stove, the inside of the lid covered with droplets of humidity from the still warm food. There is the slight hum of the refrigerator to break the otherwise complete silence in that part of the house. Humanity, and all its mechanical servants, takes a break in this time, and rejuvenates itself for what remains of the day, and a large part of the night too.

As the sun's light starts to change from a harsh yellow to a mellow gold, the first stirrings of life and sounds make their way out of the street. The cats start to dart from car to car as they awaken from their heat induced stupor, and the first shops start to re-open as their owners get back to work and ready themselves for the evening shoppers. Indoors, the house holds stir to life in a riot of television noise, talking and stoves boiling a pot of that thick, strong coffee which the Turks, Greeks and the Arabs each refer to as their own. Balcony doors, for those who have them, begin to open, and in the days when it was plentiful, water would be hosed onto the floors of the balconies before people took out their plastic chairs to sit in the evening shade, cooling themselves in the evaporating freshness as they reach out to grab from a bowl of fruit that has appeared. Grapes, freshly cut slices of apples or pears, or perhaps even a dessert, would be enjoyed as people said hello to each other from the balconies and caught up with news. Thoughts would begin to turn to visiting the shops, friends, or perhaps just enjoying a walk in the market. Thoughts would turn, too, to dinner and the decision of whether to eat in or get something from the shops. In expectation, people would await whichever drama is dominating the airwaves to start on the evening television schedules. From afar, the glimmering lights of the city would start to come on, and amidst them, the emerald green towers of hundreds of mosques. The evening call to prayer would bring a deferential lowering of the volume from shopkeepers blaring out the latest pop hits, or young people's car stereos as they drive around aimlessly in circles through the city, jumping from one set of friends to another. Across the city, lovers would meet furtively in cafes and discuss their future. This couple worry about future finances, another couple are fighting for their love in the face of stubborn families, and yet another couple are just happy to be together in that moment, in that place, and think nothing of the future or the past.

Different parts of Damascus would serve as social hubs, where collections of coffee shops, restaurants and corn on the cob or sabara (prickly pear) sellers would be found. In the busy summer months the sabara sellers, in their brilliantly lit neon palaces, with the decoratively hung carpets and miniature stools, would stay at their stalls for days on end, perhaps even the whole summer, to catch up with business. Expertly they would carve out the sabara for you from its prickly exterior, giving you the chance to enjoy the fresh and juicy interior. Sometimes I think the whole Middle East is like that, a bit intimidating, but wonderful once you get past the exterior. At night, too, the shawarma is roasting slowly against the grills, to be wrapped in a thin bread wrap; garlic sauce for chicken and sticky sweet pomegranate sauce for lamb. Then there are the orders for assortments of baklawa, knafeh and or any of the hundreds of Arabic sweets that make the sweetshop owners frantic as they prepare them. Later in the evening these delights would be taken out of their boxes to be sampled by dinner guests, friends and family. I think now of all these gatherings of friends and loved ones celebrating, for the sheer sake of it, all that is - or perhaps I should now say was - wonderful about life and summer in Damascus.


Anonymous said...

People here would always ask me:

"Hey, what do you guys do while spending all your 6 weeks of summer holiday in your home country?"

Because they were wondering what summer meant to me if I wasn't going out to the beach, clubbing or doing any other type of common 'activities'.

Your post quite serves as an accurate answer.
I'm not sure if most Damascenes (i.e. those not living abroad) would recognize the kind of magic these routine summer days have, though.
It's the smallest details you described that make (never lose the hope) them so memorial.

Thank you.

Maysaloon said...

You're very welcome and I'm glad you liked this post. Hopefully we can all go home soon and enjoy such days again.