Words and Photographs by Maria Abdulhamid
Silence. Static and suspended sky. Fixed and motionless clouds. The squares are empty. Everything has stopped. The whole world. I grasp a box under layers of rust. I dust it off and open it up. Inside, some photos, a dried rose, passionflower seeds, cloves and some little silver amulets and a satin shoe. Scattered fragments of times gone by, images of a past that I’m now trying to relive.
Evening was falling along the large avenue in the ancient heart of Damascus. I walked under a pale blue sky dominated by Mount Qasioun, as the incessant echo of prayers floated out over the roofs of the houses from the electric green minarets. The city was slowly sinking into the hubbub of night life. I was wandering along the narrow gaps of the old streets in search of something: I was looking for the origin of the dawn. The origin of history. The origin of the origin. I was running away from the din of the old-generation cars, the shouts of the street sellers. I needed to find peace and care of myself along the walls of those biblical scenes. I’d never noticed that the first dawn rose here over ten thousand years ago. Following my nose around the arteries of that maze, I paused to look at a bright light coming from inside a hammam. Glimpsing through the doors, I saw men sitting, wrapped in long pure cotton towels, intent on drinking tea. Their voices floated in mid-air among the vapours and scent of laurel. I started on my way again among the women blinded by the glistening shop windows, opening a passage between the essences of grapes and tobacco from the narghiles that teenagers were smoking at café tables. On the street corners, small groups of old men shook their die onto backgammon boards, sipping cumin and casting a suspicious eye. At last I entered the Al-Buzuriyah Souk. Hypnotized by its vitality, I let myself be pulled into that vortex of shapes, colours and spicy odours. Suddenly, an unexpected feeling of melancholy came over me. I was caught by the scent of oregano, reminding me of the home of my grandparents, my father’s parents. I kept going in that thousand-year-old theatre of conquests and conflicts. I thrust my hand deep into a hemp sack full of dried damascene rose flowers. I tasted fresh pistachios, unripe almonds, prunes, mulberries and prickly pears. And then walnuts and zaatar between piles of Aleppo soap and cloves. A travelling coffee salesman twirled his silver cup to the laughter of a group of young boys driving carts bulging with products.
“Hello miss! Please, welcome,” whispers the now-adult voice of a boy standing on the threshold of the antiques shop. Silver in every form, pictures, damask blankets, embroidered tablecloths, pottery, vases, lamps, traditional clothes, carafes, drums, dolls, glass lanterns and amulets. Formless piles of furnishings hid the walls of the room, concealing ceilings and floors. A moustachioed guardian looks down from a photo on the back wall, with his ancestral smile made blurry by the analogical grain of black and white. In the boy’s smile, I can make out the same features as the guardian.
I answer him in Arabic:
“Shukran! Thanks, maybe next time.”
“You can speak Arabic so well?”
“Yes, I grew up in Damascus.”
“You don’t look like you’re from here. You look German.”
“Maybe because I haven’t lived here for a long time, or perhaps because this place doesn’t actually exist anymore.”
“Well, I exist and my name’s Karim. Were you looking for something?”
“Yes, but I don’t know if you can help me. I’m looking for the origin of creation. The start of everything. I’d like to understand where we got lost, how we ended up with this destruction.”
“Are you talking about the war?” he asks me.
“My Aunt Alissar reads coffee dregs. She saw the sky become wrapped in smoke and fire. She saw it rain ash. She saw the sunset dyed an explosive orange.”
“Can I meet her?”
The boy leads me to a door embedded between two granite columns. I go in, slowly. A presence was sitting on an emerald-coloured velvet armchair. Long hair, black as the night, highlighting the white skin of her face,
“Hello, your nephew Karim has sent me, I’d like…”
Aunt Alissar puts the coffee on the fire to boil, pouring it into a cup with a golden rim.
“Drink it!” she tells me.
I swallow the black liquid with hints of cardamom.
“Now turn over the cup onto the saucer,” she orders.
We sit there in silence, waiting for the future. Every story takes its time. You have to know how to wait patiently. It’s dark outside now. You could smell the scent of jasmine. Aunt Alissar takes the cup. She throws it a demanding stare, swirling it around. She looks me in the eyes and reveals our secret.
When I go out onto the street, I find Karim waiting for me. I greet him with a little gesture, thank him and carry on my way.
The boy becomes pensive. Following me, he asks:
“What did Aunt Alissar tell you?”
“She opened my heart and my eyes,” I answer.
He’s curious: “Can I tell you something? If you go to the end of the street, there’s a mulberry tree. Underneath, I buried my secret.”
“Why under a tree?”
“Because if the war takes me away, I’d like my secret to grow and flower together with the tree. Every berry will be my memory. Taste the berries from the tree and you’ll be lauched into my secrets. You should taste them. They’re so sweet!”
“You’re very sweet,” I answer.
“I’m sure that your secrets are as sweet as you are!”
“When I grow up, I’ll marry you,” he says. “I’ll buy you a big house with an enormous garden and we’ll plant lots of plants and flowers. There’ll also be a fountain where we’ll put fruit in the summer to keep cool. We’ll lie on colourful mattresses. We’ll talk deep into the night while we smoke a narghile. You’ll be my queen!”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I just know. I’m already a man! I run my father’s shop, now I help him but then it’ll be my turn and I’ll shoulder all my responsibilities.”
“How old are you Karim?”
“Yes, you are a man now! But, unfortunately, I won’t be your queen. I’m sure you’ll find one though!” I smile.
“Now I have to leave you. Goodbye, I hope that you’ll keep hanging in there.”
“Wait!” he tells me, putting a purple-coloured shoe embroidered with mulberries in the palm of my hand.
“It’s a present for your beautiful eyes. So you’ll remember Sham…and me.”
Lots of noise. The sky is ablaze with the red of dawn. Light clouds are moving. Now the squares are full of people. Everything is moving. The whole world.
I find myself observing these photographs. Who knows if that mulberry tree is still there, where everything began.