After at least 10 hours of walking the late embattled Damascus and exhausted by the hot weather, it was time to watch the sunset at the Stou7 de Marine rooftop. Ready to capture the sunset with my camera in hand, the waiter—in his broken English and his strong Arabic phonetics—suggested to add the core ingredients of a Mexican Style beer—which I fiercely declined.
To my right, a newly made friend and reporter from Reuters, Omar, and on the other, Hussein, my guide. Both acting as influential characters of this adventure and making sure the city was sufficiently given away and loved to make me return soon and voice out how ready Damascus is to welcome tourists.
My relatives in the United States were mortified while days before I had announced that I was crossing the border of Lebanon into Syria the following Saturday—which I had not done since my last trip to Damascus 20 years ago. Damascus was adequately safe for an American citizen to walk around and see what was left after the unfinished war in Syria, but it was unsafe to tout about one’s citizenship. I came to the realization that in Damascus, all Americans are spies and we will be for a while.
Crossing the Lebanese Syrian Border
It was a little before 5am when a Syrian taxi picked me up at the American University of Beirut’s Main Gate last month. As is customary, Syrian taxis cannot wander around Lebanon between 8am and 8pm. Thus, it was essential to cross the border right before that deadline. The Lebanese side of the border was packed with women dressed in black gowns with neon color scarfs wrapped around their necks publicizing the name of the company taking them on a pilgrimage tour to Sayyida Zaynab Mosque.
After two previous occasions of being denied permission to cross the border, I finally got my passport stamped and it was a matter of a blink before the driver was holding hands with an officer at the first Syrian check point. Then the second shake of hands and the third. At the fourth check point, the clue was understood; a lot had changed in 20 years and the persistent graciousness between my driver and the officers had a purpose that resulted in skipping the long lines of cars being thoroughly scrutinized before my eyes. Even now, I do not know the exact price of each handshake.
I dozed a bit and woke up just at the moment we were passing by the residence of the President of Syria and I tried to reach out to my phone, but all signals for communication were blocked; not unusual for a head of a government receiving news about his poor performance daily . To me, nothing but a welcoming sign of a dictatorship. A few minutes later and down the hill towards Al-Umayayad Square there was The Damascene Sword Monument and the Opera House, emblematic icons of Damascus history and heirlooms of continuous efforts to bring the country up from failed nascent democracies. Not that I am boasting about it, but both icons remained intact after the war.
While I was excited, I never stopped being edgy, kind of a bittersweet mawkishness that served as a companion until the next day upon my return to Beirut. Yet, almost two days were not enough to enjoy the quixotic romantic landscapes of a post war city, the centuries of history embodied in the edifices, and the amicable charm of the Syrian folk.
Syrians are very kind, but they are curious and inquisitive as to what a tourist wants in their land after the recent war. They tend to stare at foreigners even if they are wearing black flowing dresses to blend in with the population (my case). They know who each person is, and they test the ones they do not know with a few words in English and French aiming to identify where the person comes from. My practice was to reply in Arabic and they never discovered my accent was Colombian American rather than Lebanese, or at least that is what I want to believe.
Damascene Treasures and Creatures
It was past 9am when I met with Hussein, a young Syrian man that spoke respectively about the Syrian government. The first part of our conversation turned out to be his advice as to where and when to take pictures; in sum, neither tourists nor residents are allowed to photograph governmental buildings, check points, or the Syrian military. A big joke came to our dinner table later that night recollecting from our lunch break a group of Russian officers arriving in inconspicuous military uniforms, a bit lighter than the Syrian ones—both in fabric and tone of skin. While taking off the cap of the camera and pointing at such splendor, Hussein grabbed me and pushed me while asking me if I wanted to get everyone in trouble. I dropped my jaw and turned my body to the table. I believe he had mentioned before “Syrian military,” not Russian, and I argued slyly.
Promptly the small backyard at the Taqiyya Al-Sulaymaniyah filled up with couples playing the conquer ritual that overtook my attention because Damascus became a bit more conservative after the recent war and women are visibly more covered from head to bottom as compared to 20 years ago, including those young and single. But it also pleased me to see guys courting girls publicly, not having to hide to hold hands or flirt. Watching them was a distraction as the entrance to the Sulaymaniyah is restricted given the current state of the dome which seems to be at imminent risk of falling. The tiles and bricks of the corridors are asymmetrically embedded on the floor due to the bombs, and the cracks on the bulwarks barely hold themselves. Nonetheless the old hue and the Koranic lure the young couples to vow eternal love to each other in the corridors.
At the National Museum, a new display called the visitors’ attention. While in the past a replica of the Lion of Al-Lat was exhibited, the original piece was rescued and restored after the Islamic State of Iraq controlled Palmyra and left it damage due to the enduring war. This 4-meter, 15 ton limestone statue was recently shielded with metal plate and it will be preserved at the National Museum until it is safe for their historic remnants to be returned to the city where they belong.
A 2-hour walking tour
Only 10-minute walk from the museum is the Hejaz Railway Station. This historic construction consists of multiple exhibits in one zone. It is not worth the risk to one’s life while trying to cross the street to get to it and neither is it worth the risk to take a lift to see the old locomotive behind the Old City.
Narrow winding streets are most common en route to Midhat Pasha Souq and the curbsides are overfilled with Syrian sweets for sale. A stop for a traditional and heavenly piece of kunefe (my most favorite Arabian sweet prepared with semolina and served warm with un-aged and stretchy melted mozzarella covered with hyper-sweet caramel made of rose water) was a must during this journey. However, not without the traditional Fatti Djaj for brunch.
Not far from the street side restaurant where we ate our yogurt soup with chickpeas, chicken, pine nuts, and fried pitta, I got a shot of Arabic coffee at the famous Al-Nofara Café. Perhaps the most traditional place to chat and, also, the oldest coffee shop in Damascus.
A linchpin of a day in Damascus was undoubtedly Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque. From all the religious Islamic sites I have visited throughout at least 7 countries in the Middle East, this was a fascinating contemporary and luxurious structure which shines in the interior with its mirror and gold finished walls and ceilings.
On the Christian side of Damascus two humble nooks: The House of Saint Ananias and Al Zeitoun Church. The latter was rebuilt in 1860 reusing basalt pillars that Sultan Mahmoud authorized to use during its construction under the Ottoman Empire. The dome, however, highlights the church with its colorful image of Jesus and the white background contrasting with the dark stone columns.
For dinner, a mind-blowing Syrian shawarma sandwich 12 inches long with pickles and chicken accompanied by a spicy garlic and creamy sauce. After a few beers brand Al Sharq, I was picked up at 1am. My taxi driver drove me back and I did not sleep until I arrived in Beirut. That whole day in Damascus was fun and I am looking forward to a food tour in Aleppo sometime soon.