Impressions of… Damascus

The Syrian capital as seen through the eyes of novelist and poet Ammar Abdulhamid.

An interview published in Impressions, the British Airways inflight Magazine probably in 2001. 

Thirty-four-year-old Ammar Abdulhamid, Islamic fundamentalist turned atheist and now a novelist and poet, is a complex and controversial character. Born in Damascus to a creative and artistic family, Ammar was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Riyaq at the age of three. He was later educated at a private school in Damascus, from where he graduated in 1983. His mother is one of Syria’s most famous movie stars, and his father a prolific film director.

Determined to become an astronomer, Ammar moved to Moscow in 1984, but left eight months later. “I couldn’t stand the restrictive system. I had to be accountable at all times. It was like living with ‘Big Brother’ from George Orwell’s 1984. A month later, I became a fundamentalist,” he recalls. Still set on studying astronomy and then history, Ammar enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he was one of only twelve Arabs, but was quickly fully integrated into the Islamic community. Soon, he was interfering with local politics, trying to change the image of Islam in the West: “I was frustrated at how Americans stereotyped Arabs as Bedouins, men on camels, or as being involved in guerrilla activity”. But the Salman Rushdie episode was the point where he turned his back on fundamentalism: “I had to denounce the death penalty. I just couldn’t stomach the notion that a man should be killed because he disagreed with certain beliefs.” Today, Ammar admits that during his intensely religious periods he was looking for universal answers, “But I don’t need to question everything anymore. I’m secure in myself, capable of loving and being loved. But it’s taken a long time to discover this single truth”.

His first work, a collection of poetry called The Void Man, was published in the UK and Menstruation comes out in early 2001. Other titles, such as The Descent has been offered to publishing houses, but is deemed too controversial. “It take a really head-on approach and make The Satanic Verses look tame,” he says.

There is no denying Ammar’s talent. Exceptionally bright and committed to his work, he is now a freelance media consultant to a foreign embassy, which essentially involves scrutinising the Syrian press and reporting back to officials. He also filters through any relevant information or rumours that might be significant. As if this weren’t enough, he’s in the middle of setting up his own publishing house, which will specialise in children’s literature, and assisting a Canadian friend in publishing a practical guide to Damascus.

What do you love most about your city?
The tremendous diversity of places to see. Firstly, it’s a 6000-year-old city, where you can witness traces of French, Roman, Arabic, Greek, Turkish and Ottoman civilisations within a stone’s throw of each other.

Are the city and its people open?
Yes, but sometimes on a superficial level. Everything is on the surface, but there’s tremendous tension underneath, which is manifested in contradictory human behaviour. Take, for example, some of the local women around this Sheraton swimming pool. She’s wearing a bikini, wants to be treated like an Eastern woman, but wants Western privileges. However she won’t sacrifice anything on either side. Similarly, men want their wives to work, but often just for the money, although they claim it’s for the ideologies.

Where do you hang out with friends?
Due to high costs, most young Syrians can’t find a decent place to live in the city, so it’s normal for unmarried people to live with their parents well into their 30s or 40s. Consequently, young people tend to hang out in cafés and bars. Here are some of my favourites: –

Riwaq (Afeef, opposite the French Embassy): A café hangout for arty, intellectual types and run by the fine art college. Serves snacks, coffees and soft drinks. Set around a pleasant courtyard and very cheap.

Workers Union Café (behind the Sufara cinema): A pleasant evening restaurant that serves beers and traditional Arabic food. It’s set in a courtyard, around a fountain with pretty fairy lights set in the trees.

Al-Nofarah (behind the Omayyad Mosque): This traditional teahouse is a Damascus landmark. It has retained the magic of old and hasn’t changed in over 100 years. A must for coffee and nargileh lovers.

The New Sham Terrace (one of the three Dummar Terraces): A modern complex of restaurants, coffee houses and juice bars.

Souk Shaykah Muheddine: Named after the most famous Sufi Sheikh. The entrance to the souk is full of sweet, hummus, foul, falafel and kebab shops. As they’re open 24 hours, they tend to get really busy with the late-night party crowd between 1am and 6am. It’s ‘greasy spoon’ street food at it’s best. Expect a feast for US$1.

What about if you want to have a drink and a dance?
The biggest pain about going out in Damascus is that men have to be accompanied by a woman. There can be three guys and one woman, but a group of men on their own will invariably be denied entry. I like:

Marmar: Set in an old house in Ishleh, this is a lively and theatrical bar-disco where people dance on tables till 3am.

Tornado (Mazra’a): An American-style bar with a live DJ, which appeals to the many foreigners that live in Damascus.

Jackson (Firdoss Tower): A regular disco with a select crowd. Can be slightly nouveau riche, but is still fun.

Piano Bar (in the Old City): A tiny karioke bar where punters sing along to soundtracks. There’s no stage, so you can sit at your table, eat food and drink wine whilst shrieking into a radio mike!

The Iguana (opposite the Orient Club in Sharq): The latest happening place, with a classy clientele. Mix of Western and Arabic music with a live singer on Saturday nights. (But be warned! Despite writing this feature and showing a business card, the editor of this magazine was turned away and verbally abused by the rude door staff and manager).

And what about your five favourite restaurants?
Ellisar (near Bab Touma and the Church of St. Rita): A traditional restaurant in a converted house set around a courtyard. Serves authentic dishes such as mutabbal, fattoush, and borek as well as regular grilled chicken and lamb kebabs.

Casablanca (Eastern Gate): Has a covered courtyard where Western food is served, and is near the Piano Bar.

Golden Dragon (Semiramis): An authentic Chinese that serves Spanish wine!

Taj Mahal (by the Orient Club): The only Indian in the whole of Syria.

Abul-Izz: A traditional restaurant in Souk Hamidiyyeh, with singers, musicians and Oriental décor.

If you had friends visiting town who wanted to see old Damascus, where would you send them?
I’d tell them to start at Souk Hamidiyyeh, where there are plenty of ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ tourist shops and you can buy everything from wedding dresses to and- mixed perfumes. There’s also a great old-fashioned ice-cream parlour in the middle of the souk, where a production line of men make the ice cream and then serve it with freshly chopped pistachio nuts. Then, move onto the stunning and vast Omayyad Mosque, which houses the head of John of the Baptist. There’s a separate entrance for tourists, where they provide appropriate clothing for women. Continue to the old Azem Palace and then into Buzuriyyeh (spice market), where there’s also the Hammam Nour Eddin (men only). This traditional bathhouse is mostly for locals, although they are very accommodating to tourists. In the old city, also see the Tomb of Saladin and the Tomb of John Damascene. There’s also Souk Al-Taweel (‘the long souk’) where there’s a window from which St Paul allegedly escaped from Damascus.

What’s Damascus’s best kept secret?
It has to be the wonderful Damascene courtyards. It still amazes me to walk through the old city and see tiny doorways that open into the most sensational, expansive and private spaces, often with original tiles, water fountains and fragrant jasmine.

Where’s the most romantic spot you’d take your girlfriend?
Undoubtedly, I’d take her on a night-time drive to the top of Mount Qasayun, where the views of the city are breathtaking. It’s only a ten-minute drive and is really un-touristy!