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.
Filed under: Media in Syria |