Damascene Steel

Leave the matters written of in the first eleven chapters of the Old Testament out, and no recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive the news of it. Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus... To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.
—Mark Twain


Damascus, the oldest city on the earth
, shows all the signs of gray aging. Its ancient landmarks bear modern attempts at smoothing those wrinkles through injections and time-consuming treatments.

The long high hall of the Souq curves inward from the city ramparts and the statue of Saladin. Ancient walls open to new stalls that the package tourists peer into, and the stall-tenders say, “Hello, where are you from?” That tunnel of commerce opens onto a square with the remnants of Roman pillars, where tourists consider the chill of their ice cream cones, entrepreneurs cordon off pigeon flocks and sell bread crumbs, and pilgrims kowtow to the grandeur of the Umayyad Mosque and the direction of Mecca. Through those ancient gates lies another courtyard, vast and ringed with wood that gilt arabesques crown, and inside the Mosque itself, worshipers lounge on the carpets and read the Qur'an, and pilgrims consider the tomb of John the Baptist.

This is the entrance to the Old City, where narrow alleys meet wide avenues, where vendors bleed pomegranates and sell the blood, where artisans repair shoes and sharpen blades for agriculture, where old mansions host modern restaurants. Penned in Damascenes built out the second story, so that houses lean against each other like a line of drunks.

I arrived the day after returning to Hama from Palmyra. Jean and I were too tired to do anything but eat pizza and watch television. He rode off for the border, his visa nigh expired, and I took a bus to Sham. I stayed in the Hotel Ghizal, a small building that looks like a bungalow, five minutes walk from the palisade that surrounds the capital of Arabia. In my dorm room, I plopped down my bag, and met a woman from Portland, working in Palestine with a Scottish matron, there to learn a similar dialect of Arabic. So far they had learned only bucolic phrases that made them look provincial to urban Arabs.

“I hate most Western writers about the Middle-East,” said Portlandia. “They all say, 'These people, they're living in the past.' People come here expecting a Disneyland experience of the past. We my be unaware of the present, but they aren't.”

I ate felafel and drank fresh fruit juice, then walked the Old Town and visited the Mosque, marking especially the old Damascene mansions nearby that had been converted into trendy cafes as perfect for a shisha and tea.

In the Souq a man said hello from his niche of T-shirts and sweaters, and I felt bored so I said, Peace be upon you, and shook his hand. He said, Come with me, I give you good price, and led me down the street into the basement lair of Zafir the Merchant. Zafir sat behind the desk in a big library of shelves full of trinkets and metal and textiles and boes. On the Bedouin cloth that decorated his desk he had a few metal boxes, knives of Damascene steel, and a flat square of mirror, with the silhouettes of white lines of powder still visible like a crime scene. A lackey sat on a bench to his left, and he called this man to serve me tea.

“My mother was a Bedouin,” he said, tensely poised on his leather chair, “from Palmyra. All this comes from Palmyra.” He gestured at his collection with a liver-spotted arm. His features, grim and passionless, had a mechanical intensity, as if a battery kept alive his weathered face and fizzled energy into his thin white mane. “You like to see jewelry?”

“I don't have a girlfriend.”

“Mother, then.” Zafir pulled out items and described them to the attentive, slurping customer. Then he called for shawls and kerchiefs, tablecloths and rugs, and small boxes of tooled steel, and had his henchman pile them round my deck chair like a child's toys. He stacked up backgammon tables and wooden boxes and told me he made them himself. “You like? I give you a deal.”

With a glazed gaze, I mimed the act of considering a purchase, then inquired seriously about two of the tablecloths. They were silk and camel wool and had Bedouin patterns, geometric and arabesques, one blue and white and the other blue and brown. Zafir held a lighter to them, since real silk does not burn.

“How much?” I asked. I had finished my first tea and been served a second. Zafir announced, “For both—I give you them for two hundred dollars.” “That seems like a lot.” “One hundred and fifty.” “Well, I don't know much about tablecloths. I'll ask around and make sure I'm getting a good price.” “One hundred. Eighty. Seventy five. Fifty dollars. Please, you must buy. It is good deal, and I need money to pay taxes. Tomorrow will be too late.”

During this time I had not said a word or changed my face, although his obvious desperation made me kind of nervous. Now I examined the tablecloths more seriously, and picked out one in particular. Its many earthly shades, mostly blue and brown, made it homely to look at. Orange and burgundy inscribed details of houses and flowers and waves, and the tasseled fringe was black, white, and red.

“How much is this, in Syrian pounds?” I asked. He considered this carefully and gave me a poor rate of exchange. “Two thousand.” “But it's fifty dollars for both. That's too much. I'll pay a thousand five hundred,” which was $30 and reasonable. Zafir scoffed and shook his head and said, “It was fifty for both, and you did not want. No, I lose too much money.” I saw the merchant's wrinkled face combat his hasty words, and then he changed them. “Alright,” he said, in the way of pride defeated. “Shake my hand.” I shook his hand and he said, “Two thousand.” “A thousand five hundred,” I said. “A thousand five hundred,” said Zafir.

He tried to pawn a few other trinkets onto me, especially the knives—“I don't know if I could take this home with me.” “Don't worry, it is not sharp.” Finally I shook his hand and turned down another cup of tea and left with my tablecloth.

I asked the pale hotel owner about it when I returned, and he told me I had got a good price on an authentic cloth. I celebrated with another sandwich and joined a crowd in the street, gathered around a small television a repair store had put out there, which was showing a Thai kung-fu movie. They showed a movie every night at 8, and the sidewalk was always packed. Back in the hotel, I read Lolita and went to bed early.

The next morning I woke up and did a double take, as the other person saying Good Morning was Keith from New Zealand, one of the veterans of Al-Gawaher, whom I'd met at Amelia's birthday party. He was going to Maloula to see the Convent of St. Tekla, so I finished Lolita, traded it for Necropolis, and went with him.

The town is built in a natural amphitheater or arena, with the square at the stage level and tiers of houses and warrens stretching back to the ridge. At the highest levels, statues of Jesus Christ and St. Tekla, and the monasteris of Saints Sergio and Tekla look over their devotees. The Maloulites are mostly Christian and all learn Aramaic, the tongue of the Holy Land in Jesus' age, the mother language of Hebrew and Arabic. The language is nearly dead, and two in three of its speakers live under the statue of Tekla, who opens her arms to split the mountain and create the path that saved her life.

Keith and I ate pizza and walked up to the convent. A nun showed us a few of the new friezes in the chapel, and one very old painting of Biblical scenes on an animal hide. She showed us a room we could stay in, in the rock-hewn basement of that cliffside complex, and sent us on our way down the path that Tekla took. The fissure which was her miracle was narrow and high in most places, gray as clay, lined with light fixtures and trash cans, and inexplicable. It opened onto a high road that circled the rim of the town's bowl. There was some sort of dancing party in a restaurant there, but they turned us away so we went on to the Convent of St. Sergio.

That was an old building around a stone courtyard. The chapel had some old holy cedar, and the altar was a pagan one, with rivets for the blood of sacrificed animals. A cute Maloulite named Rita showed us around and fielded our too numerous questions, until we got her to recite the Our Father in Aramaic, with her head bowed and her hands clasped. I beat myself up later for not asking her to show us around town.

We found our own way down a winding road through the second and wider of the fissures that split that rock wall, past still-inhabited cave houses, and into the town. Another church up in the warren of ladders and alleys and stairs that had grown from the hill eluded our attempts to find it. Instead we came across a gang of kids who smiled at us and picked up rocks, and we held up our hands and ran. More kids threw rocks from a distance in the main street of a town, but a man went up and yelled at them.

The Convent closed its gates at 8. We ate in a restaurant below and had beers, grateful to be in a town that was Christian. I ordered something called Maria, which the restauranteur told me not to order. “Trust me,” he said. “I see other tourists order this, and it does not go well in the stomach.” It was a greasy meat pie and went well in my stomach.

Keith worked in the financial world but was also an amateur actor, and spoke with the affect of that profession. He told me about a marathon film-making contest he had done with his friends a few months before. Groups receive the genre of a movie, a line of dialog, a prop, and a character's name, and must make from scratch a short film fulfilling all those requirements in 24 hours. Keith's was a family movie, the line was “It doesn't fit,” the prop a rock, and the character's name Johnny Savage.

The writers and costumers and set designers and the composer set to work immediately, the photographers and actors would shoot what they could with each bit produced, and the editors did some hasty cuts of whatever they could get—and piece by piece the story of an old man telling his grandson a fantastic story of The War came together. Keith played a young Johnny Savage, who used his magic rock to escape from a prison of war by turning it into a key. “It doesn't fit,” he said on the first attempt.

When the movie was wrote and shot and cut, and with seven minutes to spare before the absolute deadline, Keith drove it off to the headquarters. It was screened along with the others of that genre at a grand event. Unfortunately, though, the final video file was encoded wrong, and the framerate had a choppy flaw. “So,” said Keith, “it was all for nothing.”

The nuns sealed us in our room by 9 and went to bed. In the morning, Keith helped me pay the mandatory donation to St. Tekla, and we caught an early bus back to Damascus. Keith went on to Amman, but I stayed another night in the city. I met a Quebecois named Francis, with a stomach bug and a lot of stories from his three months in Nepal. We walked the Old Town and smoked a narghile in the Narcissus Palace. At first the waiters wouldn't let us sit in the main courtyard, but I argued against this perceived discrimination until I realized it was a family section, where we could not sit unless we had a girl with us.

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