Published on 21/05/17 in In travel
Fouad left the Cham Palace Hotel in Damascus and entered the car that would take him to the house of the al-Attar family. The sun was setting at that time. The lights had just been lit in the congested avenues, but nothing remotely resembled the idyllic atmosphere that was once the ancient city, founded in the Ghouta oasis, reknown for its orchards, pomegranates, roses, picturesque souks, khans and the Barada river which flowed down from Mount Hermon, the southern branch of the Anti-Lebanon range.
A traveller of the last century said that just as the black veil covered the beauty of its women, so the city hid jealously from the eye of the random walker its real gem: the beautiful interiors of the houses that, upon being entered made one feel as though they had entered the Thousand and One Nights.
Fouad liked Damascus. It looked like Cairo, where he lived, though it was smaller in size, with less impressive monuments, but of equal artistic value. The society kept many of its traditions with the same love that it kept the magic of its courtyards with the lemon trees, the wafting perfume of jasmine, the canaries singing in filigreed cages and the necessary Liwan where the families would sit on summer nights.
Of course we are talking about the old city, enclosed in its medieval walls with the seven gates (Bab) and the Grand Mosque of the Umayyads, which the European travellers saw upon approaching from the Salihiyah hill, twinkling down - all white in the green oasis - while the desert spread all around. This was the image seen by Mohammed and he passed by without entering the city because, dazzled as he was by its beauty, he said that in Paradise you enter only once. And for cameleers arriving from the depths of the Arabian desert, the city seemed like a haven with its palm trees, its orange trees, its pomegranates and juicy peeches.
Thus encompassed by the Orient and History, the city flourished under every dynasty, and for centuries resisted earthquakes, fires, floods and lootings, with its houses being rebuilt - even more beautiful than before.
Even before the times of the French Mandate the noble families had abandoned it to build modern villas outside the walls. The house of the al-Attars was located in the Salihiyah district, which was once a suburb of Damascus, when grandfather al-Attar returned from Paris where he had studied, decided to leave the family Bait near the souk of the goldsmiths. An old family the al-Attars had blossomed economically centuries ago in the trade of thoroughbred horses, of which they had a monopoly in the Middle East.
...Yes, Nadia was Syrian. Although she had left the city young to go to study in Paris, like her grandfather. Damascus was in her heart. She longed for it more than anything else. She missed its old-fashioned atmosphere, with the old Peugeots, the Citroens and the Chevrolets. She missed the familiar sounds, the solemn voice of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. And if in the neighborhood where her parents lived, she didn't see, as in the old city streets, carts selling roses in tin cans and heating oil being delivered by horses in beaded bridles and ostrich feathers, Fouad and her sons would often listen to her saying tenderly: "In the basin under the fountain of our courtyard the moon is still reflected."
An excerpt from my novel The Lady with the Blue Eyes written in 2000 (unpublished)
*With Damascus always in my heart and thoughts
The courtyards and the interiors of the mansions (Bait) are photographed by Tim Beddow published on the book Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City, Thames & Hudson editions.
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