Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Of Aramaic and argileh

- "Your Lonely Planet is outdated"
- "It came out last summer. Syria's changing too fast; you can't blame the publisher"

We enter Haretna, one of the 106 restaurants which have mushroomed in the Old City, from an original three 7 years ago. It is early, about 8pm, and we come in from the cold rainy 10 degree weather which has fallen upon Ash-Sham, the local name for Dimasq / Damascus. People are puffing it up here, and the argileh warms the place up. They say that a restaurant without argileh is like a bath without water. But the president has declared a smoking ban in public places, and this will come into effect in about 2 weeks.

About half of the courtyard is full - it isn't until about 9 or 10 that the places gets going. A fountain gurgles in the middle, trees dot the space, and a cat peers from under the temporary winter roof cover. A number of waiters flock around, not seemingly doing much but all patrons are somehow served quickly nonetheless. Aside from ordering mezze, we 3 girls order beer and arak, as we specifically came in order to be able to, and not all restaurants serve alcohol. Still we imagine that we are probably the only table that does order booze. The first time I had come I had arak straight / no ice or water. This is apparently very, very unconventional. My friend said that my ice-less arak would be the big news that night in the kitchen.

There are a number of parties happening this evening, perhaps that is why there is live music and a Sufi dancer, a "whirling dervish", on the stage. A mesmorizing sight, calm and twirling around and around. The night was meant to go on forever, but we get overheated by the excess argileh and leave around midnight.


Yesterday I tag along with a couple of friends to find "a woman" - this is how I understood it, and not much more. She is known to have had recurrent stigmata. She is otherwise a completely normal housewife. We get our first directions as "about 100m from Bab Touma", and are not exactly aware of what we are looking for. A neon sign? A picture? A big cross? After my friend bravely asks along the route, we come along to a modest house at the end of a street. We enter and find a shrine in what otherwise would be a small courtyard. A man tells us that there are prayers every day at 5pm (in Arabic), and gives us pamphlets which has the website address: . We plan to return for prayers later in the week.

And just now I have returned from Maalula, a small town about a hour by servees or mini-bus. It is most known for its continued use of Aramaic, the language of Christ. A community nestled in the mountains, the music of the bells or of the prayers of the muezzin resound against the rocks. It was a beautiful and sunny day, literally a breath of fresh air from the constant car horns of Damascus.

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