Thursday, June 25, 2009

Religious Quarters and Hindquarters

When I write to friends and tell them I am living with an Arab family in the Old City of Damascus, I am sure that most of them imagine my summer home as a few turns off from the Arab shuq in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a reasonable assumption as the old quarters of both capitals bear more than a passing resemblance. The main difference between the two, besides the lack of bathrobe bearded haredim in Syria, is that the old city in Damascus is so much bigger. And as everyone from Mark Twain to the Bible support Damascus's claim to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, no doubt the old quarter has at least a few centuries on its junior cousin in Jerusalem.

It is a tossup which old city has the more impressive collection of scenic sights. Damascus does not have any churches that can compare with the Holy Sepulcher. And whatever Jewish synagogues that may still exist in the heart of Syria's capital would never be able to shine a candle on the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. The Umayyad Mosque is far more impressive than what I have seen of Jerusalem's Al Asqa, though throw in the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem may have the edge. The size and vibrancy of Damascus's Old City make its numerous souqs and khans unlike anything Jerusalem has to offer. But Jerusalem wins hands down when it comes to old city walls, as the few ramparts left in Damascus have nothing on the walls of the Holy City. After the sun goes down and the gold and silver glow from man-made lamps and the moon and stars leave their mark, nothing in the world is the equal of the Old City of Jerusalem.

The most fascinating contrast between the two ancient quarters lies in the demographic divisions each has within its walls. The fissures between the four quarters of Jerusalem's Old City are all too obvious, though I have not spent enough time in the Christian and Muslim quarters to say with full confidence that they dwell in separate universes like the Jewish and Armenian zones to the south. The Old City in Damascus is also divvied up between the three different Abrahamic faiths. But since most of the Jewish community has long since decamped to Brooklyn and New Jersey, the Old City is essentially a two faith camp--or three, if you count the Iranian financed Shia pilgrimage sites in the Muslim area. And just like Jerusalem, the easiest way to know where you are in the Old City of Damascus is to look at what the locals are wearing and discern from there whose prophets are calling the faithful to prayer.

Except instead of looking for hasidic caftans, Christian crosses, Muslim worry beads and Armenians with their arms full of Judaica for sale, in the Old City of Damascus you need only to stare at the girls. By the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque, an Iranian designed Shia shrine to the daughter of Hussein of Kerbala, the girls are swallowed up in black burqas, or 'garbage bags' as one of my Christian tutors disparagingly terms the getup (I prefer to think of them as novice ninjas). Walk east for ten minutes and you arrive in Bab Touma, where the girls are still wearing black. But you probably won't notice that they prefer their tanktops in that color, as enough skin is on display in the Christian Quarter to keep one mighty distracted. Girls in the rest of the Old City cannot help but dress either more or less modestly than their Shia and Christian sisters. How they dress hardly makes a difference to the first and last observation about the city that every visitor quickly discovers. As Hannah, a wonderful British friend from SAIS, exclaimed to me with awe "the girls here are all such babes!" Or as another British traveler wrote in 1870, "As for the women of Syria, no finer specimens of the female exists anywhere in the world." Considering the latter opinion comes from the pen of the colorful 19th century explorer Richard Burton, whose many achievements include one of the earliest translations of One Thousand and One Nights and the Karma Sutra, and you can rest assured that the conclusion reached by most contemporary visitors to Damascus has some distinguished pedigree.

My own home is located squarely in the Christian area, a five minute stroll from the social mecca of Bab Touma (Thomas Gate). After moving rooms due to an invasion of bed-buggers, I am shacked up in a boring little rectangle whose only claim to fame is that it has a massive portrait of Bashir Assad across from a more modest drawing of the Christian savior. A careful balance between Church and State, no doubt.

My room looks out on a two floor courtyard dwelling inhabited by the extended Nejem family and several other itinerant foreign students. Across the way is a 24 year old blond Italian girl named Beatrice. Jesse, another one of the students, described her as one of those girls who would be hooking up with the local radical minority rabble rouser were she on a college campus in the States. In Damascus she makes due with Iraqi Palestinian refugees, whom she is spending the summer interviewing in their makeshift homes on the southern outskirts of the capital. Jesse is a 25 year old culturally Jewish guy from California. He turned up a week ago after spending much of the first year of his MA at George Washington University studying in Istanbul. Although he speaks a slew of languages and has traveled around the world, I get the sense his heart has not quite yet moved on from the five years he spent as a student athlete at UCLA. A small shed on the roof of the courtyard complex is home to Emil, an 18 year old blond and blue eyed giant of a Dane. Emil has a rich past to make up for his relative youth, having grown up as a soccer wunderkind playing futbol in the streets of Brazil. His folks work for the World Bank so like Jesse and myself, he calls Washington DC home. After turning down the Danish military's request to serve for six months as a sentry outside the Queens palace, Emil decided to travel to the Arab world in pursuit of the stories he had read and watched about Lawrence of Arabia. When he reached Damascus he realized he needed to set aside time to learn the language before he continued traveling. Six weeks later he has not left, though in the interim he has charmed seemingly every shopkeeper and club owner in town.

All three of my tutors belong to the Nejem family. Two of them are siblings and live a few rooms down from where I sleep and attend class. The real star of the family is the grandfather, known to one and all as Abu Musa (Father Moses). Before he left to visit his two sons in California, Abu Musa was always pattering around the courtyard, making small talk with students and insisting we share breakfast together when no one else save the two of us was awake to greet the morning sun. Since arriving in southern California, he has not called his family once. Instead he places daily calls to Beatrice, confiding in her that he is having the time of his life sitting for hours every day in his son's cafe in Palm Spring, gazing at the local girls. When Beatrice asked if he did not miss the girls in Syria, Abu Musa expressed no regrets, insisting that however pretty the girls may be in Syria, southern California left nothing to the imagination.

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