So here I am, it has finally happened, I am sitting on a park bench on my own drinking Arak, ‘Down and out in Damascus’. Actually it is very beautiful, the park is off the tourist souk and Straight Street which runs through the heart of the old city and lies between the Christian quarter (hence the ease and openness with drinking alcohol in public) and the astonishing Jewish quarter which lies just behind us.
These days most of the properties in the Jewish quarter are empty – empty, deserted, and abandoned by Jews fleeing to Israel I assume but a local tells me not… “They went to seek their fortune in New York” he says.
Since the ‘smoking ban’ came in the park has become even more popular, here people are free to smoke and drink in public. I watch a mix of young lovers cuddling, some old ladies chatting and looking up at the stars, and a gang of youngsters getting drunk on the super strong 14% beer sold in the local store… I’ve taken to drinking ‘Arak’ – the local booze, a mind blowing 55% proof – it makes you see the world in a different way! The Arak makes me not want to move (unlike most other alcohol which generally has quite the opposite effect), but I must, because tonight I have been invited to an Iraqi wedding.
I am very curious to see the district of Damascus which is home to up to 2 million Iraqi’s who fled their new found ‘freedom and democracy’ in Iraq for safety in Assad’s Syrian ‘dictatorship’. How funny the world really is. But the Arak has taken hold of me and I simply cannot move.
By chance I meet an Iraqi who is also drinking in the park, a well dressed and dignified man who had left Kirkuk in the north of Iraq after the fall of Saddam, “They not only killed our leader but they killed our country” he says, “We had everything under Saddam; as long as you didn’t threaten him you could be free!”
Here this man survives on rent sent from property he still owns in Kirkuk. Fleeing the destruction that followed the fall of Saddam he managed to get his wife and 3 kids to Canada but failed somehow to get there himself. He recounts a bizarre story in which he spent 15,000 dollars on a round-the-world-trip that was supposed to take him from Syria, to Cuba, from Cuba to Mexico, from Mexico over the border to America and from America over the border to Canada.
But, he only got as far as Cuba; he didn’t speak Spanish or English and found himself stranded there for a week unable to move on. Defeated, he returned and now drinks beer and eats nuts in the park waiting for his wife to make the application through a lawyer in Canada. “It is only a matter of time” he says, “but my main aim was to get them there and give them a chance in life”. I sit and watch this man and think to myself that it is indeed a man’s world. There is so much negativity written about the role of men in the Middle East but here is one shining example of a man prepared to sacrifice his lot for the women in his life.
Alas, I do not have his strength, and for now the Iraqi district must wait, I cannot make it to the wedding, the Arak has me completely under its spell and I am unable to move away from this beautiful Damascus park… so I continue to sit with this stranger, listening to his stories, and wondering.