Tag: Ramadan

This is my paradise

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.

Bus to Safita

The tightly packed mini-bus swerved more erratically than normal through the dusty dry Damascus streets, the driver seemed irate or ‘nervous’ as they say here, maybe it was his Ramadan thirst I thought.

I’d stopped at a Christian place for breakfast fearing a complete closure of food and drink stalls, my last Ramadan was 2 long years ago when ‘McAllister of Arabia’ set out on his mission to find a film in the hell hole that is Dubai. My arrival there was during Ramadan and the place was dry and foodless during the daylight hours, I’d expected the same here but as we pulled into the central bus garage I could see an array of food stalls with plenty of locals eating and drinking tea out in the open, business as usual in secular Syria it seems, what a relief.

I join a boy selling a wonderful berry drink that he fills with fresh shavings of ice, around him are a bunch of guys drinking, I quench my thirst before surveying the food stalls where I find kebabs pizzas and falafel. A man smiles, sipping on his tea, “From Holland?” “No, England”, I reply, “What happened to Ramadan” I ask? He starts to laugh and says “No Ramadan here!”

I was still in the garage toilets having a piss when my bus set off. I’d heard it sound its horn as the sign that it was about to leave… but one advantage of being the only westerner on the bus is that they never forget you, a man came running to the toilets to get me with such great timing that I was able to catch the bus and avoid paying the annoying toilet keeper the 10 cent fee for a pee.

Back on the dingy bus, we stop from time-to-time to pick up army recruits, the isle down the middle of the bus is slowly disappearing as fold-down seats are used to seat the new passengers.

I recall my first bus journey in Syria; a wonderful VIP bus with flat bed seats plenty of space and air conditioning. Then I would look out of the window at the ‘locals’ buses and wondered what it must be like to be packed into a creaky metal box on wheels in the soaring sun. Now I am here, the journey starts out ok but the more passengers we pick-up the more squeezed it becomes, it is like travelling for hours in a tightly packed Japanese metro train – except they’re mostly standing all the way! Come to think of it maybe this bus is not too bad after all, yes I may be squeezed-in but at least I have a seat. A fan blows warm air on me and an awful Arabic singer wails in the background.

I am on my way to visit Michael in Safita, he told me to always take a seat at the back of the bus. “Why?” I asked him, slightly puzzled. “What difference does it make?” “It is always safer in the back when it crashes” he says casually.