As I walk the busy Damascus streets I watch workmen move steel girders onto awaiting lorries, all around me impatient drivers blast their car horns, this is the chorus to my daily Arabic life.
In front of me a man hammers a giant mortar and pestle making real hand-made ice-cream; no electric churners here, it’s all so physical. Brightly coloured bags filled with a variety of fresh juices for Ramadan adorn stalls all along the street – an irresistible selection of mango pomegranate tamarind liquorice, and much more.
A cockerel croaks it’s last breath before it’s head is removed swiftly ready for today’s kebab, there is no frozen meat here. A hen looks nervously at me as if it knows it’s inevitable fate, it stands there, un-caged and docile steadfastly refusing to fly away.
The wonderful smell of za’atar turns my mind back to food; its the Damascus smell – a mix of sesame and thyme spices, eaten with fresh olive oil on bread. I find it hard to walk past the 24-hour hummus cafe in the Christian-end of the street; packed with people eating the wonderful creamy chickpea tahini dish with bright coloured pickles and fresh Arabic flat bread.
I indulge in a bowl hoping it may somehow protect me from the poisonous Arak I had the night before. The white cloudy drink had stolen another night from my life, this time I found myself drinking with one of Syria’s most famous and revered writers, this 60 cigarettes a day man talked of his achievement at always writing political dramas for TV and cinema without ever being threatened or questioned by the authorities; for whatever reason he is just left alone. “This is my paradise” he tells me proudly “Here I do what I want and say what I want”.
I try to ask him about ‘The red line’, referring to the invisible line that most “sensible” Syrians know not to cross in order to maintain their ‘freedom’, “There is no red line” the writer tells me laughing, “The red line only exists in the mind, it is there to guide us!” Others have told me that it exists to allow the authorities to pick up who they want when they want, as a means of exerting a little bit of pressure now and again.
I lose myself in the history of these streets, it is like stepping back in time with it’s wonderfully terrible anarchic noise and disordered chaos, this is the life I love and miss so much when I am back home in the West. Time passes quickly when I walk these streets, each journey bringing me something new and often never repeated, the randomness, the shocks, and the surprises I crave in life are here without fail everyday on this dirty noisy Damascan street.
The noise of the street can be crippling and then, suddenly, as the Ramadan breakfast breaks, it becomes quiet with not a soul in sight, and an eerie empty silence envelopes the once bustling street.
Soon, hidden, out of sight, the people will break their fast and eat for the first time in the day, as I slowly wander the empty street alone, arrested by its silent dirty peaceful glory.