There is no good news out of Syria lately. Death tolls are sky-rocketing, and with China and Russia vetoing a UN resolution the thought of peace seems next to impossible. I’ve written on this blog before how amazing and special this beautiful country is to me, and so I wanted to share this story that I wrote a few years ago (some of the references are obviously dated). It was for a competition called the “Heart of the City” that was being run in the Guardian.
The Eternal Heart
The muezzin calls out As-Salatu khairun min an-naum – prayer is better than sleep. It is Fajr, the pre-dawn call to prayer and Damascus awakens from her dream. Soft pink light casts shadows on her skin, once chiseled to perfection by the world’s greatest masons. Her features are now worn with time, but unlike other cities she does not look old and tattered; simply like she will live forever. As the sun creeps over the Eastern deserts, the pulsating of Damascus’s eternal heart quickens, spreading warmth and strength through her souqs. From these pounding arteries, life flows through vein-like alleys and branches in all directions. Each turn brings an intoxicating smell, each twist a fantastic sight. Capillary like paths weave further, taking the traveler into homes and stores – delighting the eye, overloading the senses. As the call to prayer encourages Damascus’ practicing Muslims to remember God, Damascus remembers her own past.
The reputed oldest continually inhabited city in the world, Damascus has seen the rise and fall of great empires. She herself has grown in greatness, crumbled in grace and risen again. The thump of her heart has given life to the Bible and Islam. Her walls have been a haven for Hebrews, Assyrians, Greeks, Seleucids, Christians and most lasting, the Arabs. John the Baptist, Saladin, and Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, have found eternal rest in her soils. If Damascus is not as old as history itself, history would not be as it is with out her.
The scent of roasting shawarma blends with the hot midday sun. Entwined, scent and heat float above cobblestone streets creating a mirage-like blur. Dhuhr, the noon call to prayer echoes from minarets scattered throughout the city. None, however, are as outstanding as those surrounding the Umayyad Mosque. Poised and gallant, Umayyad’s minarets watch over the city, and protect the architectural jewel below. Life flows concentrically from Umayyad. Within, paradise is contained replicated with fine golden mosaics.. It is rumored the Prophet Mohammed refused to enter, citing that he preferred to wait for the afterlife for such bliss.
Umayyad Mosque is a testament to Damascus’s lasting Arab presence. Since its completion in 715, it has served as the spiritual and historical heart of the old city, a chamber from which life flows through the entire Islamic world. It is the gateway to the old city’s enchanting labyrinth – bustling shopkeepers, devout pilgrims, women in bright scarves and dark chadors. An unbreakable spell has been cast here; time stands still.
It is late afternoon and the sun drifts westward casting shadows on Mount Qasioun. The Asr call to prayer rings out. Its sound vibrates through the city, reminding people in the midst of Damascus’s modern bustle to take a few minutes to remember God, and the greater meaning in their lives. Outside of the old city life is hectic – people need to be reminded. Modernity’s stresses and pressures cause Damascus’s heart to beat irregularly. It aches in remembrance of her glorious past. She knows that it is not where she has been, but where she must go. Adaptability permits immortality – chadors and skinny jeans, ouds and rock music – modern, chic, liberal, conservative and traditional. Cars skirt horse drawn wagons on wide palm strewn avenues. Men in business suits talk on cell phones as blacksmiths sweat over the fire of an ancient trade. Asr consumes the city. It bridges the old and the new. In the midst of chaos, it reminds Damascus of why her heart continues to beat.
The Maghrib call to prayer marks days end. As night falls, it isn’t only the fading light that brings darkness, but increasingly eerie rumours suggestive of a sickening heart. The plaque of an accusing world is building within Damascus’s veins. Its government is accused of financing Hezbollah, allowing foreign fighters into Iraq, collaborating with North Korea on nuclear projects, and assassinating the former Lebanese Prime Minister. An attempt on the US embassy in 2006 was thwarted, however, damage to a heart as old as Damascus’ runs deep. If you have not gotten lost in her souqs, felt Damascene’s warmth, or revealed in her honeyed sweets and emerald pistachios, it is likely you do not understand her charms, her guile, and her graces.
Night has fallen. Science-fiction-like glows light up ancient minarets like misplaced spaceships. The city’s eternal beat slows as the muezzin calls out the Isha prayer. His words hauntingly echo through Damascus’ veins, voicing guidance, mercy and forgiveness. Humanity is in need of such words.
The world is in turmoil. Damascus, the immortal heart must rest, for it needs strength. Escaping into a dream, fact and fiction, history and future weave. In this surreal state, humankind has been forgiven. Hatred, terrorism and evil are forgotten.
Nargila smoke spirals through the air, its musky scent tangling with sweet Syrian perfumes. Mounds of olive oil soaps, silks, gold, pastries and spices entice the eye, delight the nose, and arouse the skin. However faint, Damascus’ s heart must continue to beat, its timeless rhythm sending a tide of knowing ripples through an innocent world.