Monday, January 1, 2007

damascus from far, far away

I have been in Syria for over three months now. Damascus is where I’m originally from and where I live at the moment. Though I was born in Chicago, my family decided to relocate to Damascus when I was only two.. I grew up here until I was almost 18. I then left Damascus in September 1993.

I don't come here regularly anymore. Last time I was here was over three years ago. That was when I went crazy, quit my Chicago job, and back-packed for six months. Then, I decided to resettle in Damascus but I couldn't.. I don't think I was ready for Damascus.. I suspect she was for me.

Three years later a lot of the circumstances that brought me back here at the time did so again. I am seeking refuge in the lap of a place I'm deeply intimate with.

This place, I care so much for. I care for it like my family.. house.. life. Its backward aspects bother me yet don’t shame me. The system here, or lack there of, decrepit roads, crazy drivers .. provincial-esque infrastructure really are a source of great deal of charm and nostalgia.. frustrating at times but when I stop and think of an alternative more "developed" Damascus I cannot help but reject this generic image in my head. That of a "globalized" Damascus with American fast-food chains, Shell gas station signs on every other corner and lots of corporate soulless buildings. Now before I'm hastily accused of naivety and judged a silly romantic I say that it is this aspect of "development" that I reject and not one that will save the inhabitants of my city from unemployment, poor housing and unacceptable living conditions. All I want is for Damascus to keep its character. Something, I'm afraid, it will loose faster than my lifetime.



The character of Damascus is woven through thousands of years of civilization. It shines through the goodness of its people.. their dignity and generosity.. through the genuine smile of a hopeful Damascene in spite of a cynical looking future.. through the innocence and compassion that still intensely describes people here. It shines through the tastiest food my pallets have experienced.. through the overwhelming scent of Jasmine engulfing streets on summer nights.

You will understand when you get here.



a midwestern levant

Just like being of Damascus and Chicago I am the product of two starkly different families. My Father's very large family (seven sisters and six brothers) that places on the lower end of the Damascene socioeconomic scale stands at a stark contrast with my mother's rather small and more privileged family. My paternal grandfather was an imam of a small mosque and a botanist by profession, and my grandmother (one of four wives) was illiterate. On my mother's side, my grandfather was a well-known physician and an officer in the Syrian Army - my grandmother was a school headmistress at a time when few women received any education at all. What harmonizes this seeming contradiction, I truly believe, is a value that is deeply rooted in both my parents: empathy.

Damascus, Chicago.. Chicago, Damascus.. Two extremely different places.. One is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world - the other is one of the world's newest and most advanced. (Insert corny irony about how both cities were built by one humanity sharing an abundance of common values).. Two extremely different places that define me.

But you see, I'm not a Damascene who adopted Chicago as his second home; nor am I a Chicagoan who, through a spiritual journey, decided to get in touch with his Damascene roots. I am of both cities. I have different relationships with either of them, but I am of them both. I am as familiar with Jame'e al-Afeef (my grandfather's mosque) as I am with Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge (the one on 21st and Indiana) - as I experienced spirituality in both places.. as familiar with the majestic Chicago skyline as I am with a miniature Damascus from the top of Qassioun.. as intimate with the warm muffled silence of an “historic” Lincoln Park street after a fresh December snow as I am with the call of the mouazin at maghrib at my childhood mosque.. as familiar with the wrestling scents of spices, dust and layers of years at al-Bzoureah spice market as I am with a crisp fall breeze in a Logan Square October morning.. I feel as depressed driving through a Chicago south-west neighborhood off of Ashland or Marquette as I do driving through al-Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus.. I have the same intense sense of pride showing off State Street's unique character or Oak Park's Frank Lloyd Wright architecture as I do walking someone through the narrow streets of Old Damascus with homes and structures as old as the oldest continuous civilization on earth.. I walk, with the same satisfaction, out of "Toast" hipster brunch in Wicker Park as I do out of "Bouz al-Jiddi" (Damascene breakfast) in Souq al-Jumaa bazaar.

I am of both places.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Habibi,

Love the blog, your writing has come a *long* way. Post more pics.

Evelyn said...

It is so great to hear from you and what a wonderful way to catch up after all these years!!

Anonymous said...

I was so pleased reading this article …
I just wanted to say that u did a huge step… few people will even dare thinking of it, may god show you the right path….. “which ,by the way, I am sure that u r already at…”

Ur partner of EQULIZER operation ;-)
Mahmoud ..

alidub said...

being of both places, or many places, takes a precious quality that very, very few people actually possess. and that's flexibility. and, i think you're right... also empathy.

sweet, sweet flexible empathy...

it's dusk here in chitown, there are big fat puffy snowflakes flying past my window, and your favorite part of "white shadows" off x&y is playing on my computer. makes me think of trying to find spinach pies in your car at 3 am in damascus.

good times... good times. miss you!

Anonymous said...

Chicago will miss you, only for a time i hope. Coming from a world of dichotomies myself, i'm not sure if your worlds will ever comfortably coexist- but it lends life more flavor. Give Shem a kiss for me. In Him, jacqui

Anonymous said...

I only just learned of your blog last night and was delighted to read it today. I am charmed by your descriptions of Damascus, and I hope that I will be able to see this great city with my own eyes.
- dudley

Anonymous said...

O reluctant writer! Find the time to blog more.

Stellar said...

Salaams and welcome to Damascus...

I know exactly how you feel. I didn't even grow up here. I grew up the land of contradiction called, Abu Dhabi UAE, then lived 5 years in the US and then another 2 years in Malaysia... This is my first year living in Syria.

I tell you, it's one heck of change for me. I, like you, do get bothered by it's backwardness but then again it gives it character. It is what makes it Damascus, I guess. After a while it grows on you. When you go back to Chicago for a while believe me, you'll miss the chaos.

I like the way you say you are both... I feel I'm nothing of this city. Everybody thinks I'm a foreigner but I keep answering the same answer to the same question. "No, I'm Syrian not American."

Yallah, the funny thing is that I don't really feel I fit anywhere. Whether the UAE, US, Malaysia not Syria. I'll admit though I'm going to have to say Syria is the closest I feel like it's home. Well, maybe because I've been here for a little while. God knows what it'll be like in a couple more years from now.

Anyways, welcome to Damascus and to the blogging scene.

annie said...

What a moving text !
I feel exactly the same way about Damascus: wishing it would not change (God forbid that we see more KFC’s and are invaded by McDonald).
It’s charm resides in that gentile neglect but at the same time one wishes its old houses would be saved and not all of them converted into restaurants.
Of course, a little more money would not hurt the pockets of its inhabitants.

Yazan said...

Brilliant introduction. . .

abufares said...

Only a man, in truth with his origins, in harmony with his enviornment, in love with humanity can write so beautifully.
I look forward more and more.

GraY FoX said...

quite nice wallahi
keep up the good work
and welcome to the blogsphere
and btw
i like the map
looks different than the corrupted streets on google earth :)

Abuljude said...

OK khayyo,

Waiting with baited breath for another post!

Abu Kareem said...

Abulyas,

Thank you for putting in words what many of us stradling the same two worlds feel.

Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

charming said...

Salam
Keep it up
visit http://charming-damascus.blogspot.com

Shaykhspeara Sha'ira said...

I feel every word you write about Damascus though I am not from Damascus. I spent 10 of teh happiest and most fulfilled months of my life there and truly became one with the soil and people.

When I lived there one could not even find ATM machines as a foreigner, and now they are all over the place..I too want Damascus to fight the introduction of Mc Donalds and Coca Cola, and to hang on to their Master Cola and Big XXL chocolate instead of Kit Kat...

But is it not a matter of time?

Write more!

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Anonymous said...

Hi Blogger,

It was great reading your blog. Your description of Damascus makes the city sound irresistible.

I am a student at Duke University in the United States, and I will be studying Arabic at the University of Damascus for three months this summer. I'd love to hear more about the city from you.

Looking forward to more posts.

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