Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Day 15: Sauntering through Damascus on My Own

I started walking toward the Old City with only a couple of things in mind: to see whatever appeared in front of me, to move very slowly, and to buy a roll of Scotch tape to paste ephemera in my journal. I really wanted to move at the same pace as other folks on the sidewalks. It was surprisingly easy to slow down, to notice the goods spread out on cloths: remote controls, books, sunglasses. A young boy tended a scale, waiting for customers who might pay a small amount to be weighed—or so I suppose.

Half way to the Old City I found myself in a group of what I think were Iranian tourists—although pilgrims might be a better term. They were following their leader who held a sign up high for all to see. Dressed in black or printed chadors, most of them were older women with brown weathered faces. I suspect they were country folk. Although it was clear that they had their sights set on the Umayyad Mosque, they were moving slowly, some encumbered by the packages and bags held underneath their chadors. I stayed in their midst until we reached the market, feeling strangely safe and protected. No one noticed my presence.

My sights were set on the most famous ice cream store in Damascus, Bakdash. Through the front window of the busy shop, I could see a fellow adroitly forming an ice cream ball in his glove-covered hands and gently lobbing it into a plastic box of nuts.
Another fellow removed the balls from the nuts and placed them in glass bowls which a server carried off to the waiting tables of customers. One of the servers noticed that I was taking pictures and waved to me.
I asked these young men to line up for a group shot. They, in turn, asked to see the photo. I moved into the shop to show them. After gesturing their thanks, one popped a small glob of ice cream into my mouth with his gloved hand. The ice cream was cool and sweet and just delicious; the encounter which lasted no more than three or four minutes was sweeter still.

I stumbled across a lovely old man and his son selling nuts and dried fruits on a small street close to the mosque. As soon as I tarried, looking at the food, I knew that I would end up buying something. I chose a small plastic bag of pistachios in the shell, salty and so good.
There were a couple of fellows demonstrating kitchen tools, spread out on a cloth in the street. They used the tools with a confidence that can only come from lots and lots of practice. They cored zucchini, made cucumber flowers and baskets, and shredded carrots with the greatest of ease. I was tempted to buy a gadget or two until I realized they were probably like the kitchen gadgets advertised on television in the 50s: they looked good but lasted about two seconds before breaking. I came home gadget-free. But a little regretful.

Walking back to the hotel, I followed the path past the old train station that is becoming increasingly familiar, moving at a saunter, noticing the shwarma shop, the Syrian equivalent of a pizza place, and the shop were I had successfully purchased my tape (not Scotch). I waved to the fellow who had sold me the tape; he waved back. I was surrounded by people traveling the same route at the same pace as I. It was lovely.

Dinner was at Naranj, a beautiful restaurant in the Old City. The five of us (our numbers are growing) had, among other things, fantastic kibbeh (meatballs mixed with spices and bulgur) in a yogurt sauce which was creamy, warm, and so comforting. Apparently you can heat yogurt and prevent curdling by adding some cornstarch mixed with water and slowly heating the yogurt, stirring it constantly. Sounds like a lot of work but the effort was so worth it.

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