December 2010 - January 2011


Robert Dessaix

Secret worlds

The ruins of the Roman colonnade at Apamea, Syria, 2010. Courtesy of the author.


When I first stepped outside the walls of the Old City this morning, the sheer ugliness of Damascus nearly knocked me off my feet. Raucous, traffic-choked, yellowish squalor as far as the eye could see – it was like tumbling into the pit of Gehenna. In some ways it was a quintessentially Syrian experience.

For days I’ve just been mooching around the Old City in a dream, cocooned within its walls, time-travelling through the maze of its gloomy laneways, in and out of ancient mosques and palaces and churches. After all, that’s why you come to Damascus: to time-travel. Well, it’s supposed to be the oldest city in the world, although Jericho might give it a run for its money. Between the souk Midhat Pasha and the Thomas Gate you can soar up and down across millennia, swooping in and out of whole civilisations – five before lunch, if you feel like it: Aramaean, Greek, Roman, Mameluke, Ottoman – take your pick. Now suddenly, without any warning, I’d been catapulted back into the twenty-first century. I tried in vain to cross the road, stumbled over a dwarf selling cigarettes and beat a hasty retreat back into the Middle Ages.

It had happened so abruptly. One moment I was strolling through the arcaded souk amongst swarms of pilgrims headed for the mosque, dazzled by the seemingly infinite array of perfumes, silks, spices, ceramics, soaps, brasses, gold and silver – were the caravans perhaps still plying the Silk Road to Samarkand and China? – and the next moment I was outside, choking in the noxious fug of the New City. Pedestrians darted amongst the honking cars like startled rabbits – God help you if you were on a Zimmer frame or blind. Ramshackle buildings stretched away into the distance on every side. And everywhere I looked the oddly weak-chinned president was smiling down on the morass, sometimes in sunglasses (he’s an ophthalmologist by training), always with the dictator’s faint distaste for what he sees. In three weeks I have never heard a syllable whispered against him. At elections he gets about 98% of the vote. An atheist I met in Aleppo railed for hours against the medieval ignorance Syria is sunk in, the suffocating obsession with religion, the misery of the people and men’s ownership of women’s bodies, but he never breathed a word of complaint about the Leader.

Until I came face to face with modern Damascus this morning, I felt very taken with it. More than that: the Old City enchanted me as neither Tunis nor Algiers had. Time evaporates here. I have sat, for instance, with a banana milkshake beside the Roman gate on the Street called Straight – Saul must have ridden through it, blinded by his revelation on the road from Jerusalem – and been to the house of Ananias (now a tiny subterranean chapel) who laid his hands on Saul’s eyes, restoring his sight, renaming him Paul and changing the course of history. There’s almost no one about, oddly enough, except, of course, in the souk and the great Umayyad Mosque, but it’s so vast that a thousand worshippers in its prayer halls and shimmering courtyard would still leave it feeling half empty. And to think that the Aramaeans were bowing down to their god Hadad in a temple on this spot 3000 years ago, and after them the Romans to Jupiter and then the Christians to their new-fangled triune deity in a massive basilica … and now here I am, drinking tea beneath its walls as the afternoon call to prayer rolls out from the minaret above me across the city. To no obvious effect, by the way, despite the ever-presence of religion. The shopkeepers keep dozing in the sun, the tourists keep ambling by wide-eyed, while the locals suck on their shishas (or hubbly-bubblies) without pause and chat with their friends, ending each sentence with Insha’Allah (‘God willing’). I wake up with a start in the dark every morning when the dawn call to prayer splits the air, but (according to the desk clerk at the hotel) nobody else does. He’s a Muslim, he says, but the Five Pillars of Islam don’t seem to figure largely in his daily life. In fact, I wonder if he could recite them off the top of his head. In Syria the air is thick with religion – you’re Sunni, Druze, Alawi, Armenian Christian, Greek Orthodox, something, everyone is something, just try saying you’re a non-believer. Sometimes I found myself choking on religion, gasping for fresh air, but it wasn’t like religion in the West: in Syria it’s about what is right, it seemed to me, rather than what is true, it’s about tradition and authority. “Allah doesn’t approve of keeping dogs in your house,” I was told – and, indeed, you only see dogs in the Christian quarter. (I stopped mentioning my dog after a day or two in Syria – the very idea of loving a dog seemed to cause a faint tremor of disgust.) There was no point in asking what the evidence was for this. Loving a dog was just wrong. It said so in the Koran. I was told this gently, as you might explain good manners to a child.

Yet I found an enchantment in the almost dogless Old City. I especially love those old Damascene houses like miniature mosques, opening out as you come through the half-hidden door from the street into a marble courtyard with the rooms in galleries high above it. My hotel here is like that. I sit there by the fountain for hours at a time sipping tea and thinking, just thinking about everything, just letting my imagination take flight. It’s hard to do that at home.

In a sense Syria itself has been like this: it’s not a beautiful country, it’s harsh and rocky and a tawny yellow, almost treeless, with no wild animals (“We’ve killed them all”) and littered with ugly tawny yellow towns. Yet dotted about this brutal landscape are small havens of extraordinary beauty where you can be virtually alone, outside time, stripped of everything you are at home. You’re unlikely to be alone in Krak des Chevaliers, the crusader citadel near the coast, which is packed with mobs of Germans and Italians from sunrise to dusk. Or in the souk in Aleppo, of course, unless you go there very early in the morning, which would be rather pointless since its magic can work on you only when the shutters come down and its treasures cascade into its aromatic alleyways. And even here you have secrets within secrets – silent shrines and empty courtyards glimpsed through doorways as you pass.

But elsewhere you really can find yourself alone in some marvel from hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. Out in the desert towards Iraq, for example, I came across a huge abandoned citadel from the eighth century, the East Wall Palace, which once guarded the route into Mesopotamia, just standing there, empty for the last 700 years, its towers and walls intact, and I wandered through it alone. At one point I wondered if I was hallucinating the whole thing. Even in Palmyra, where hordes of tourists arrive each day in buses from Damascus, the ruins are so vast – the temples and colonnaded streets, the theatre, agora, baths, ovens and ruined houses – that, if you choose your moment, you can sit alone in complete silence on some fallen column, contemplating the magnificence of this Silk Road metropolis, in decline since Aurelius put it to the torch 1700 years ago. It’s unearthly, this soundless, toppling splendour in a wilderness of sand and stone.

Take the mountaintop monastery of Mar Musa near the Lebanese border, founded in the sixth century by the son of the king of Abyssinia. It’s in every guidebook I’ve seen, but it’s a long climb on foot to where it’s perched, so, when you get there, it’s empty, even at the height of the season. There’s a monk or two gliding about, and a few cooing doves, but basically you’re on your own here, free to pretend it’s still the sixth century – to pray, meditate or just look back down at the stony yellow emptiness and ponder why this is all that’s left of the might of Byzantium.

The locals find an unaccompanied foreigner puzzling. I haven’t met another lone traveller in three weeks. “Where is your wife?” “Have you no friend?” “Where is your family?” In restaurants and on street corners, in hotels and taxi-cabs, the questions are always the same. In Syria nobody is alone. They look at you as if you’re some kind of gentle loon. Who will look after you in your old age? Explanations were by and large futile: hardly anybody speaks enough English or French to pass beyond the banalities.

I’m back in the courtyard of my hotel now, a gracious cloister hidden away behind a rough wooden door onto the lane outside. Which is in turn hidden away inside the labyrinth of the Old City – which is spotlessly clean, unlike the world outside, where the rubbish lies so thick on the ground in some places that you seem to be driving through a rubbish dump. In Syria it’s the interiors that are precious. The outside is not your responsibility. In here, though, in this world within a world within a world, beneath the bougainvillea, with the dusk call to prayer washing over me, it feels like a sort of paradise – as it’s meant to.      

Robert Dessaix
Robert Dessaix is a novelist, essayist and journalist. He is the author of A Mother’s Disgrace, Corfu and Twilight of Love.

Cover: December 2010 - January 2011
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