Damascus has been designated the UNESCO Arab cultural capital for 2008. This means different things to different people.
President Bashaar al-Assad, pointing to Syria’s role as the last remaining bastion of Arabism and its unashamed solidarity with Palestinian resistance, says “Damascus is the capital of resistance culture.” This interpretation, while unpopular with neighbouring regimes and the powers that dominate the region, is popular with the Syrian people – even if other aspects of the regime aren’t. And some international visitors this year will come primarily for a little resistance chic. This is the capital which welcomes Hugo Chavez and Hassan Nasrallah with equally widespread arms. Noam Chomsky will be giving a talk. Lebanese and pan-Arab diva Fairouz has already been, to the chagrin of some of her compatriots, to croon patriotic and revolutionary songs.
There will also be lectures and poetry recitals, architectural tours of the old city, theatre and ballet performances, art exhibitions, a film festival, and orchestral, jazz and traditional Arabic music concerts.
Damascus certainly deserves cultural capital status more than some cities that have held the title in previous years. After Beirut and Cairo, Damascus has the best bookshops in the Arab world. Syria has always boasted an impressive range of poets and musicians, and produces TV dramas which are of much higher quality than the Egyptian competition. Its taxi drivers can recite classical and contemporary poetry. Its pop singers sing Nizar Qabbani, the most influential and best loved modern Arab poet. Damascus is a city in which your host is likely to serenade you with his lute after dinner. And it is, as the tourism ministry likes to repeat, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
This city of St. Paul and Saladin is today as dust and smoke-cursed as any other in the Middle East (though still cleaner and more manageable than Cairo or Tehran), but undress it of its crust of Stalinist architecture and the ramshackle results of a newly liberalised economy and you find a supple, surprisingly sensuous body beneath.
My two pieces of advice to anyone who visits are to make of it a correspondingly sensuous experience, and to enjoy the cultural variety that has always been here, even without official events, whatever the political mood of the times.
Start with the city’s sacred heart. The green and gold mosaics of the Umawi mosque show the orchards and mansions and streams of the city the Prophet refused to enter, fearing to commit the sin of believing paradise to be on earth. There is ancient Greek script upside down in the walls, and the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter at the entrance. The courtyard is disconcertingly brilliant with liquid shimmering light and the glancing wings of pigeons. The prayer hall houses a shrine which contains the head of John the Baptist. The previous Pope visited it: the only time a Catholic Pope has entered a mosque.
Saladin’s tomb is just north of the mosque compound, and next to it the tomb of the Algerian freedom fighter (against the French) and Sufi poet AbdulQader al-Jazairi. East of the mosque is the Nafora café, where sometimes a traditional storyteller, with much swishing and clattering of his sword, recounts the city’s resistance against the Crusaders. Don’t sit within range.
Sitt Ruqqiyeh, a Shia shrine, is nearby. So is the Street called Straight, and a church for each Christian sect, and the old Jewish quarter. But as you consider your soul, you should remember your stomach also, for Damascene food culture is as rich as the religious history. Syrian-Lebanese cuisine is one of the best in the world, and the Old City is a fine place to explore its many textured pastes, its Asian-Mediterranean perfume, all the things it does with olive oil, pine kernels and pomegranite juice. There are restaurants in elegant town houses, and there are trendy cafés and bars. Here are opportunities to appreciate the famously beautiful Syrian women (or men, if you like) – white, wheatish or brown-skinned, green or black-eyed, blonde or brunette – who show that Damascus had a past almost as multi-ethnic as London’s present. You can just amble through the Hamidiyeh souq for the same effect.
Amble is a good word for Damascus. Amble and stop. Allow someone to befriend you. Amble again, past twisting bands of black and white stone, the basalt of the south and the marble of the north, through cobbled and vine-trellised alleyways. Allow yourself to be invited into hidden courtyards, with turtles in the pools, and fig and orange trees providing shade. Watch cats in the daytimes and circling bats at night. Fill your nostrils with the paradoxical smell of jasmine – refined but piercing, ethereal but strong.
You could take a taxi to Shaikh Muhiyedeen and find among the tomb-laden streets the mosque and shrine of Ibn ’Arabi, one of Islam’s greatest theosophical poets. If the magic wills you may meet a contemporary mystic, or you might walk up Mount Qasyoon on slopes pressed in with poor unlicensed housing.
In the evening, according to your taste, you could sit in a beer garden, or on someone’s terrace, drinking araq. You could play chess or the game called ‘table’ in a café, or tug on a water pipe and sip glasses of hot sweet tea with visiting Beduin in Merjeh (see the whores sway past) or with Iraqi refugees in Sitt Zainab. Apparently some tourists these days are coming for the proximity to war. The city groans with the weight of war stories, from over the eastern and western borders, but remains safer than any European capital.
The refugees are another reason why Damascus deserves cultural capital status. Syrian Arabism means that until a few months ago (when stricter measures were put in place to limit numbers of arriving Iraqis) the citizens of Arab states could enter the country without visas. As a result, representatives of all the Arab world’s tragedies are here. As well as 1.5 million Iraqis and the long-established Palestinian refugee population there are, for instance, Algerian, Sudanese and Bahraini exiles, all with their own dialects, cookery and ideas.
Sitt Zainab, the shrine of Ali’s daughter, manifests more of the varied cultural wealth of Islam. It is thronged with troubled Shia pilgrims – Iraqis, Iranians and Pakistanis who bring a tragic euphoria, a stormy murmur of prayer and lamentation. The glittering silver and mirror work is hypnotic, and the final effect is one of awe-filled peace.
And like a good cultural tourist you should visit the national museum, which houses the world’s first alphabet as well as beautiful lapis-eyed statues from Mari, four thousand years old, culturally Sumerian but ethnically Semitic. Afterwards sit in the museum garden, as I used to with my wife, drinking Turkish coffee and reading Nizar Qabbani:
I was born in Damascus,
a city I’m sure you don’t know exists,
for you’ve not quenched your thirst at its waters,
or known the frenzy of its love.
Not in a single flower-market
will you find a rose like Damascus,
not in all the jewellers’ windows
a pearl so inimitable
The official website of Damascus as Cultural Capital: