Breakfast at Mora’s

65401 

 

Sami Moubayed

 

Around this time of year, expatriate Syrians start planning their Christimas holidays in Damascus. For the past 15-years, I have watched some of Syria’s finest young minds pack up and leave, for careers in the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the US. Some left to pursue their education in the West. Others went for professional reasons—for better salaries, searching for career enhacement. Some went to places like Canada to get foreign passports. Many left to evade forced military service in the Syrian Army. All of them—almost with no exceptions—went through the same cycle. I embraced them all on the night of their departures, wishing them the best of luck with their new lives, promising everybody “to stay in touch.”

 

Once settled abroad, Step One is to boast of their successful careers, with many claiming that it was wise for them—professionally speaking—to leave Syria. They claim that had they stayed in Syria, they would have never collected the money, or achieved the glory, that they attained in the West or the Arab Gulf. Step Two starts when they become disenchanted with their new lives and long to return to family and friends in Syria. They often become too sentimental, watching Syrian TV, ordering DVDs of Syrian drama classics, or rushing to attend any concert or event that reminds them of home. I have then seen them break down during their lowest moments, weeping at times like little children, because of how homesick they feel. They start envying those who stayed behind in Syria. Step Three is seeing them come back, one after the other, to get married in Syria, to raise their children in Damascus. to work in Syria. This November, I got numerous emails from friends, saying that they were coming home for Christmas and wanted me to help them find jobs, now that Syria was “opening up” and “providing opportunities” for young people with their experience and talent. Those who had left with a vengence were sometimes too embarassed to admit that they were considering a comeback, saying that they wanted to spend some time in Damascus “to explore opportunities.” It was their own way of saying, “I have had it abroad. No more expatriate! I want to return to Syria!”

 

With all the difficulties of day-to-day life, the bureaucracy of setting up a business, or the cost of purchasing a house, these Syrians are willing to do what it takes to re-live their nostalgia of Syria. It varies from person to person. Breakfast at Mora Restaurant in Bludan, enjoying the breeze of Syria’s famous summer resort, warm tea on a rainy day at Rawda Café on Abid Street, and late night walks in the narrow alleys of Old Damascus. A late night ‘sabbara’ meal, a famed Damascene fruit, at one of the numerous vendors dotted around Rawda Square. A smell of mother’s cooking at 2:30 pm, ‘fool’ at one of the street carriages on Baghdad Street, or watching black & white classics of Duraid Lahham. Listening to Sabah Fakhri live, driving to work with Fayruz playing on every radio channel on the airwaves—while the streets of Damascus are covered with rain—or smoking a Turkish pipe at a Damascene summer night, playing cards with friends, with the strong voice of Um Kalthoum ripping through the evening sky. Nostalgia includes meeting up with friends, and remembering “the good old days” at Laique, Dar al-Salam, Sami Droubi, or al-Fajer (four major high schools in Damascus) and repeating stories that have probably been said more than 100 times since these Syrians graduated from high school. They always manage to bring out a roar of laughter at any gathering, often spiced up with anecdotes that make the story—if anything—more colorful.

 

Expatriates usually miss the humanitarian feeling of Damascus—or as one person recently put it, “the soul of Damascus” that is reflected in daily interaction between people. Stories travel fast in Damascus. People immediately hear if someone has suffered death, received a newborn, gotten promoted at work, fired, engaged, married, or divorced. They treat eachother accordingly; showing that they have heard the news (sometimes without even saying it). People rush to eachother’s side in times of joy and times of sorrow, abrubtly stopping their work day, for example, to attend a funeral, or leaving work early, to pay their respects if someone has passed away, at an all-male condolence service. People still have time to go out on a nighly basis, to catch up with friends, even on weekdays. They still pay neighbors unexpected visits—to drink strong Arabic coffee and spend a few minutes chatting each morning if they happen to bump into eachother, on the way to work. Only in Damascus would one expect an ellaborate answer to a simply question like: “How have your days been?”

 

People still joke with complete strangers on the street, or go out of their way to help someone asking for directions to a particular landmark in Damascus. “Follow me” they say, sometimes changing their route to drive by the specific location and make sure that the stranger does not get lost by verbal directions. People still walk into restaurants to be greeted by name from all the waiters on duty, and return the same personalized greeting to all the waiters—by name. Some things never change in Damascus, despite the passing of time. The policeman at the intersection of al-Reef Restaurant (now KFC) who greets everybody driving by; the newspaper salesman on Abid Street, the head waiter at Rawda, the janitor at one’s building, the neighborhood barber, and even, the street beggers at certain intersections.

 

These expatriate Syrians miss the old stone buildings scattered throughout these elegant residential districts, with their spacious balconies, and high-ceiling apartments. These buildings still ‘smell’ like Damascus. It is the beautiful parliament building on Abid Street, the old municipality in Marjeh Square, the original faculties of Damascus University, the Ain al-Fijja Waterworks Building, and the Hijaz Railway Station. They are real, elegant, proud Damascus.
My Damascus is the noise that comes from the streets at 7:00 am, along with a cold Damascene breeze telling us that winter has arrived, and students are back to school. It’s the sound of mosques at prayer time, and churches on Sunday.
My Damascus is filled with memories—as Elvis Presley says—that are ‘sweetened through the ages, just like wine.’ It is first car drive, first book, first friends, first little mischief, first romances, first kiss, and first exposure to the hardships of the real world.


My Damascus is that of proud men, beautiful and intelligent women. Popular culture says that handsome men are found in Lebanon, while beautiful women are found in Syria. That statement, which is half-true, does Syrian men and Lebanese woman an injustice. I lived for many years in Lebanon and will never forget the gorgeous, Cleopatra-eyed Lebanese. I have seen other kinds of beauty in the Arab World; melancholic in Iraq, brave and striking in Palestine, Oriental in Egypt. I still believe, however, that my countrywomen are the prettiest.


For many years, inspired by Nizar Qabbani, I was a fan of Damascene beauty. The Damascenes I knew were beautiful, elegant, smart, hard-working, three-dimensional, and career-oriented. Either my taste—or the beauty of the Damascenes—has changed. They do not look as natural or tender as they used to, nor do they come across as three-dimensional women like before, inspired probably by the flashiness of Arab satellite TV. The make-up, the hair, competition, and the urge to attract the opposite sex, have all done Damascene women a great disservice. In the past, they did not need an effort to look beautiful. It was a God-given trait. They had eyes that spoke volumes about their lives, personalities, and upbringing. They now have contact-lenses!
 
I returned to live permanently in Syria in 2004, and still see beautiful things in Damascus. I see them at every corner of town. No, its not the modern cafes sprouting all over the city. Its not the mushrooming malls, banks, and universities. The other day, I walked into a supermarket to purchase some merchandize on a Friday. The owner did not have any change to split my 1,000 SP. “You can pay me later Sir” he politely said. The man had never met me in his entire life. “What if I get a visa for Australia” I joked “and you never see me again?” He just smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and insisted that I walk on with my shopping bag. He was an old kind man from Damascus. Only in this great city would a shop-owner let me walk away without paying—and no guarantee that I would ever return.


Has anybody tried spraining their ankle while walking down a main street in Damascus? Has anyone tried parking, had an accident, suffered from a car break-down in Damascus? Can anybody remember how helpful these ordinary people are? Optimists would say ‘helpful’—pessimists insist ‘nosy.’ Regardless, that also is one of the few ‘things’ that makes this city so wonderful.

Expatriate Syrians are more than welcome to re-live the Syria-experience, and come back home. In as much as they need Syria, Syria needs them as well. Mora Restaurant is closed in Christmas, so there won’t be a breakfast at Mora’s for these expatriates in December, but there are millions of small memories, scattered all over town, that will perhaps, make them return, for good, and wrap up the difficult cycle, of being an expatriate.

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11 Responses

  1. Nice words. Thanks.

  2. Dear Sami,

    Mora or not Mora, I do really miss my Damascus, my friends, the food, the warmth, just walking in these beautiful streets …

    Syria is engraved in my heart the same way a beauty is adorning the back of my brain.

    All the best,
    George K.

  3. Dear Sami,

    I am not even an expatriot and you make me want to move back to Damascus. 🙂

    Best, Joshua

  4. Great article Sami! I absolutely agree with you. I am attached to Damascus as well. Of all places that I have travelled to I love it most. People might be horrible drivers, maybe corrupt, ignorant or unorganised, but they are still very kind and helpful. It has happened to me several times that supermarket owners offered me to pay later. Such things don’t happen in Germany, the UK or the United States.

  5. Unbelievable writing!

    I haven’t been to Mora’s yet (I was this close to going there in August with my Syrian uncles, but of course I decided that staying an extra half an hour in bed was worth ditching the experience – a huge mistake apparently).

    To me Damascus is where the Sufi tradition thrives, through Sufis and non Sufis… the soul of Love is everywhere.

    I have been to cities that make you feel sick in the pit of your stomach, although everything around suggests you should be enjoying the experience. In Damascus, there is something soulful that speaks to us first and then allows us to enjoy all of those little details that present themselves to us.

    Life has more meaning, more taste, more depth, and more “everything” inside Damascus. I’m no expat in the traditional sense, but I have returned to her, love of my life, Damascus.

  6. Sami.
    This was one of your best articles, I was in Damascus during Ramadan and I loved every darn minute there.
    I left Syria for reasons that don’t exist any more, and I will return one day. Reasons that have nothing to do with politics or economics. Every time I go back I’m reminded how much I love everything about it. You describe many of them and I could go on and on, but I wont. Keep it up.
    Ayman.

  7. Readers comments on Facebook:
    —————————————–

    Wow Sami. Your article “breakfast at Mora’s” was really enjoyable. It made me look forward for my Adha/Xmas vacation In Damascus with family and friends. In our lonely moments we rely on your words to refresh us with a beautiful Damascene breeze. Thanks.

    ————————————
    Readers comments via email:
    ————————————

    1) Hi Sami !! Walla as an ” expatriate ” this has really touched me !! in many ways we all have the same feeling wherever we are , it is maybe funny but true
    reading the article, I could smell the summer damascene nights with this mixture of jasmine and ” mouassel”!!
    getting ready for my christmas trip , I got this “avant- gout” making me travel through the past with sweet-bitter nostalgia . you got it right !!!
    thanks . keep up the good work !!
    maya
    ————————————

    2) Loved it Sami! Touchy one! And yes you are totally right with every single word… Keep on enlightening our minds with your genuine words 🙂
    Christine
    ————————————

    3) Amazing sami!!! you are so good !!! I could even smell the article!! 🙂
    Much love
    M

  8. Great article!

    I left Syria 3 years ago for one of the reasons stated in the article, education.

    I had just got back from home after a lengthy vacation or as my friends called it “The mother of all vacations”. It’s by far the longest stay I spent in Damascus ever since I left. Mind you all, it was not voluntarily as airlines screwed me up. When I usually visit, I visit for 20 days, where by the time I get over the jetlag, I have to leave. This year, I had enough time to get over the nostalgic feelings and felt again what living in Damascus is like, I got to be involved in the day-to-day life of Damascus. The noise, pollution, occasional rudeness and daily chaotic traffic that we, the expatriates, usually complement during our short visits home and give them a nostalgic tune, have become once again, irritating. I started to remember some of days before I left the first time. I remembered how hard it can be to live in Damascus!

    Yet when the day came, I cried at the airport heading back to my new temporarily “destination”, I cried when I boarded the plane, I cried when I arrived in Montreal, I cried when I walked into my cold, empty apartment, I cried when I went to the grocery store, I cried when I got into my office. I cried everyday and still do, because nothing in the cold west could replace the warmth of Damascus.

    I will go back home once I finish what I have started but until then, I will keep crying over the days that I’m missing away from my home, Damascus and its people, my people, my family and friends.

  9. I,m not Syrian but I,m lucky to been have marrried to a Damascene for the last 32years .My sons have all left for all those reasons you mentioned , and they miss their home and I miss them . I,m hoping and praying all the Syrian mothers and fathers whose children are far away will be able to see them back home and living here.
    There is a precious soul in Damascus that affects everyone who lives here and you expressed it so well. Thankyou

  10. Tayeb
    That was so touching and beautifully written. I have left Syria like 5 years ago. Every time I come down, what I see is the totall opposite of what you have written,
    I do miss my home like hell, but the reason which made leave the country are still there and still getting worse.

    Sir , the expatriates you are talking about whom they want to go back to Syria, I know for sure that most of them if not all are in the gulf area. I don’t know if you happened to experience living in the gulf area, but things are quite “dirty” here. The treatment , the salary, the hard work, which is imposed on you whether you like it or not to make the المواطن الخليجي has a better life. There is something in the Syrian character makes him refuses this kind of living, unlike the other nationalities.

    There are still 15 millions Syrians living outside their homeland. This number is the same and still not changing. i think it’s increasing !

    please if you have time , this is how i see Damasuc

    http://souriyya.blogspot.com/2008/08/blog-post_13.html

    Regards

  11. To have a breakfast in Mora its good specielly the ( Fatteh ) but to have a lunch or dinner its realy very very bad ,,,,, I don,t believe how badly they served … all the foods is less than 0 ,,, if you compare with the Maza in lebanon so its become like a rubbish … the owner of mora restaurent is not understand that we are in 2010
    you pay a lot and you have a very good rubbish ( Homos 1mm in the dish and they served the foods in stanless steel dish and they used the spoon – fork – knife before 30 years till now and not changed >>> I invite the owner of Mora to come beirut and to look for HADARA ,, no body tell me that you pay a lot of money as all people in syria say , just in 20 $ maximum you can get a full 5 stars MAZA in Muhana restaurant example ,,,, Shit for this restaurant

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