Page last updated at 10:15 GMT, Monday, 10 December 2007

Damascus Diary: Monday 10 December

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Damascus


If you spend most of your time in Israel and the occupied territories, it continues to be a shock to go to a "proper" Arab city.

Damascus scene
Damascus residents revel in their oldest-inhabited city status
Arab culture does not flourish easily in the occupied territories. In Damascus, it is in full spate.

I was lucky enough, last week, to be staying in the old city of Damascus, a beguiling labyrinth of uneven mud-and-wood-based houses, shops filled with dusty gems, a vast souk, and one of the grandest mosques in the world.

There are schools pulsating with the whoops of children, and gas-canister vans attempting to curve their way around impossible corners.

It breathes with the spirit of being, as the locals love to remind you, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.

It also has the peculiarities of Syria. Everywhere, there's the face of President Bashar al-Assad - on walls, in shops, on cars.

It's not just his omnipresence that is striking: Turkey is carpeted with the handsome visage of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

In Syria, it is the expressions on the leader's face. The hauteur of a man with total power and the strangely ordinary air of a North London ophthalmologist, which is what he was, before his elevation to the presidency.


And Syria felt like a fecund place for conspiracy theories. I fell into conversation with a fellow passenger in the back of a packed minibus-taxi, as it juddered and skittered its way through the city traffic.

This is my country, just as much as the snitches' and the bullies'
Prisoner's relative
After a long disquisition on why the Jews are not Semites, I was told that anti-Semitism was a Zionist construct and that a prominent Jewish family bankrolled the Holocaust.

Equally, there was the man who exhibited quiet doggedness in the face of institutional pressure.

A relative had been sent to prison for crimes against the state. The young man had been harassed out of his job and out of his home town.

He had ended up in Damascus, where I bumped into him in a cafe. He was thwarted and talented, but unwilling to leave.

"This is my country," he told me. "Just as much as the snitches' and the bullies'."


Two unreservedly happy memories. I ate the best shawarma I think I will ever have. (Shawarma is the universal Middle Eastern sandwich filled with shavings from a rotating tower of meat.)

It was magnificently condescending. We obeyed, took some gum, and off he walked.
It came from al-Mousali, a road-side emporium with a few plastic chairs, in the Jazmatiyeh district of Damascus.

The meat was beef, unusually. It was as flavoursome as the roast at the Savoy Grill. It came in a delicate sauce of sour pomegranate.

It was wrapped in evanescently thin laffa bread, and came with fresh vegetables and tankards of just-squeezed fruit juice.

I sidled up to Walid, the till-man, to try and extract some of the secrets from him. He removed the cigarette from the corner of his mouth and smiled.

Shawarma restaurant, Damascus
Al-Mousali jealously guards the secret of the perfect shawarma
"The beef is young, very young," he told me. "And there are spices from India." And that was as far as I got.

The other happened in a split-second, on another street corner, this time in the suburb of Sayyida Zainab.

We were passing the time, around midnight, with a group of young musicians, who happen to be Iraqi refugees.

Suddenly, a small boy weaved his way into the middle of our group. He could have been no more than six.

He was wearing a smart, black-and-white checked jacket, and was carrying a small cardboard tray with a few packets of chewing gum on it.

Two of us gave him 50 Syrian pounds (about $1) each, and wished him well. He offered us some gum. We said it was not necessary.

At which point, he gave us the most magisterial "tut". The "tut" is often used by Arabic speakers - not in the disapproving western way, but just to imply "no, you've got that wrong".

Here, though, it was also magnificently condescending. We obeyed, took some gum, and off he walked.

Read previous diaries by Tim Franks:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific