Sunday, September 26, 2010

Damascus Blues

Walking along the cobbled streets of old Damascus is always a pleasure during the evenings, after the hot sun has set and more people venture around for a stroll through the markets. As dusk fell the evening call to prayer echoed across the city, but I noticed with some displeasure that the ancient Umayad Mosque's call to prayer was slightly different from the other mosques in the city, and not at all a nice one. The more sombre, drawn out, and spiritual adhan that I know and love is, here, replaced by a strange and unbalanced cacophony underlined by a bizarre chorus. Perhaps the intention was to give the mosque a unique sound, for Damascus and for Syria. If so then its creators succeeded, but only because of how unremarkable and bland they have made it. In a way this is a typically Syrian approach to many things. What can we do to make a good thing even better? Let's have more of it!

The beauty, and potential, that lie unlocked in this previously ignored gem of Damascus (by this I mean the old part of the city) and the surrounding area have been discovered, but, we have gone too far in renovating and preserving it. Rather than preserving the raw edginess of a living district where people work, live and pray, the result in old Damascus has been a bizarre disney-esque commercialisation of the area. It is a good thing that the area has been cleaned up considerably, but one question's the benefit of the many restaurants, hostels and bars which are sprouting throughout it. Fat Western girls in kufiyehs (we call them Suloks in Syria) mingle the streets with trendy Damascene well-to-do's, all feasting on a newly discovered vein of native authenticity that has not been corrupted by modernity. Yet in their voracious feeding frenzy they transform it into what they despise, refusing to see that the purity they are looking for is not in exotic, far-away locations with strange names, but within themselves. I don't know whether that is an accurate observation, but then again who knows what such things mean?

Writing these musings makes me instantly angry with myself for expecting Damascus to remain a quaint holiday destination forever frozen in time just so that some tourists can come and nod politely as they are lampooned yet again with the fact that it is the "oldest continuously inhabited city in the world". And what's wrong with just saying it is the oldest living city in the world? Living is a perfectly acceptable word after all, so why use two words when we can use just one? I guess that just wouldn't be very Syrian of us then, would it?

As a sand-filled fog envelopes this ancient city today, I find myself wondering whether Damascus is punishing us for releasing the dust in her formerly lush green-belt as we race to build more and more dirty monstrosities in our race for development and modernity. Nothing exceeds like excess it seems.

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