It used to be said of the Souq al-Arawam that business there was so tough whenever Satan walked through it he’d roll up his trouser legs so as not to get them soiled. If you met a girl and fancied her, it was best to tell a white lie and say your shop was just around the corner, in the Souq al-H.amīdiyya, because to be from the Souq al-Arawam was akin to having a mark on your forehead. It was also where one found only the very best carpets and antiques. The villagers would gravitate there, trading in their old hand-woven carpets for machine-made. Competition was fierce. And even today, at the annual market, there are fisticuffs when pilgrims from afar bring goods with them to cover their fare to Mecca. Damascus is a difficult place in which to survive at the best of times, but to have survived the Souq al-Arawam in its heyday was to have survived the world. The area has become relatively tame, which no doubt had to do with the spread of similar businesses throughout Damascus in order to meet a growing tourist trade.
The souq, even at its most savage, or maybe especially at its most savage, is conducive to a certain poetic. One imagines the markets of Shakespeare’s London were alive with a rich demotic, just as, not so long ago, Spitalfields Market was. The disappearance of such places amounts to the death of human drama. What replaces them is the shopping centre, and it was fear of the emergence of such sterile palaces that crept into the nightmare that I had earlier. Things have not sunk that far. The souq is still a place where one fights to survive, and it is also where one does so with the munitions of language. The souq is full of stories. I asked Yasser to tell me his.
‘I don’t sell carpets. I sell kilims. Did I ever tell you why? When we worked for our uncle there were just us three kids and a foreman in charge. Only the boss and this foreman were allowed to handle the carpets, which were expensive. We were allowed only to fold them and place them neatly in piles. Kilims, on the other hand, were okay. The boss would turn a blind eye if I showed a kilim to a customer without consulting him first. This was what took me in the direction of kilims. They were close to me. I could handle them. I come from a family, which had a rich and a poor branch. Mine was the poor, well, to be honest, from somewhere in the middle. There were poorer people than us and, in the other direction, there were wealthy aristocrats. I always hated the attitude of the rich towards us and this, in my thinking, was also the carpet’s attitude towards me. The kilim, on the other hand, was somehow friendly. We would spend whole days in the shop, with our boss, and he would never speak to us. This was the tradition in Damascus, and he was the last of a conservative school in which a boss maintained his pride by never addressing his inferiors. If I were sitting there, and the foreman was there, he’d ask the foreman to tell me to do this or that, but he would never talk directly to me. And he was my uncle, from my mother’s side! We lived fairly close to his house and in the mornings when we went to work with him by car we had to sit in the back seat and never look into the mirror which was for his eyes alone. These were serious rules. We weren’t even allowed to tell customers our names. If a customer asked mine, I’d have to say, “I work for Mr So-and-so.” At the beginning it wasn’t such a big deal but it got to the point that I was a university graduate who could not speak his own name. It’s like when you read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, where the man in it has a number, and it’s as if you do not own your own being. There was some logic behind this. Our boss would think, “What if he leaves and goes and works in another shop, then people might follow his name.”
‘When it came time for me to have a shop, I said to myself, “No carpets.” My neighbour warned me, saying I could never survive on kilims alone. Adham, my assistant, always says we should try carpets. It was tempting at first to buy the workshop products because they looked so perfect but now that I have sufficient clientele, I’m going more in the direction of things that were made for authentic purposes. I have very little that would satisfy, say, Americans. I know what they want, but it’s not a direction I wish to take. You need to be all the more knowledgeable. You must have an eye. You require not only the enthusiasm but the passion to go and look for these things because they are not readily available. This is their poetic for me. The other rule, which is a strict one, and this is my weakest point, which I’d never admit to another dealer, is I decide whether or not I’ll buy a piece even before hearing the price. There have been many times I bought a kilim at ten times what anyone else in the market would pay for it, but because I loved it I always managed to sell it.’
‘And when it comes to selling what you like to someone you don’t like?’
A couple of days before, I had been sitting in Yasser’s shop when a group of eight Americans came in, four couples, and although all of them were in their twenties, they seemed to occupy positions of responsibility quite beyond their years and experience. There was a married couple, one of whom, the female of the species, was attached to the State Department in Washington; another was an NGO who struck me as pretty vacant, and his wife who seemed to harbour a ghost of intelligence, who had eyes one might look into for maybe more than a minute; a third couple I took to be a soldier on account of his shaved head and his GI muscles and his wife or girlfriend who had a face that never left the floor upon which it first gazed, which no spark of curiosity ever threatened to ignite; and the remaining couple were so impenetrable I could glean nothing about them whatsoever except that one of them was called Charlie. They were all en route to Iraq. They positioned themselves in a semicircle at one end of the room and Yasser stood at the other where he displayed his wares and I sat cross-legged at the middle of one side of the room, which was close to where the door was, quite prepared to make my escape, except that I got hooked, observing the curious manners of the eight people. One of them grabbed a woven camel halter which he tied about his waist, and then did an obscene wiggle, thrusting his hips back and forth, making the coloured tassels dance, saying he’d wear it naked to the disco. The others, except for the woman with the intelligent eyes, squealed with delight. Yasser smiled the arrested smile of one watching the end of the world come. He then displayed a deep red and blue Turkmen oven cover and when he explained its purpose, which was to preserve the heat of the food underneath, two of the women replied, ‘Cool, cool’ and again Yasser smiled, this time a different kind of smile. And then he held up a small prayer rug and explained the significance in its design of the mihrab, saying it should be pointed always in the direction of Mecca when one of them, the NGO, shouted, pointing to that sacred spot, ‘Say, Charlie, you can stick your photo in there!’ Yasser froze. Any smile he had pretended to was in an instant gone.
The couple from the State Department were about to make the purchase of a small kilim from Afghanistan, a handsome piece, which is not to say it was rare or expensive, but, to cite Yasser, it was ‘honest’ and from where I was it scooped up light from distant places. I greatly liked it and I wondered what it was about this particular rug that so appealed to the couple. Or did they even know they liked it? And if they did like it, did they like it because of what it was or because it fitted their domestic scheme? And what of whoever made this, could he or she have pictured such a fate, the journey it would soon make? I couldn’t bear it anymore. Without saying a word I got up, crossed the room, folded the kilim twice, tucked it under my arm and walked out, saying not a word to anyone, not even to Yasser who produced yet another kind of smile, this one visible only to me. Apparently, immediately after I left, one of the Americans asked, ‘Who in the hell’s that, Jack the Ripper?’
The above passage was almost too easy to write, and the reasonable side of me questions whether these people ought to be allowed to represent anything other than themselves, and yet, considering the deadly game of consequences, which is what the politics of whom they serve has become, one need look no further than their faces for what a poet friend of mine calls ‘the small fascisms of the spirit.’ What also troubled me is that they seemed to exude confidence of a kind I had not witnessed before. The victory they smelled, however, was already the stench of failure. The Afghan kilim is close to the desk where I write, and, looking at it, at this object which I might not have bought otherwise, may Allāh forgive me, but I feel not a little proud to have wrested beauty away from ignorance.
‘What of those people who buy beauty and cannot see it?’ I asked Yasser. ‘You must develop a relationship with these objects.’
‘Yes, on the other hand if you have such a relationship with the things you love, you’ll never become rich. Did I ever tell you about the man who runs a brothel in Trebizond? Trebizond for a long time was the capital of prostitution in Turkey. All the wealthy businessmen from Istanbul, Bursa and Ankara would go there. As you know, in our Islamic culture this is shameful. We daren’t speak to each other of such things. This is Turkey’s so-called “Russian” city, and, especially after the opening up of the border, Russian prostitutes go there to work full- or part-time. Many girls work in the shops by day and then go to their hotel where they can stay in return for having sex with one customer a night. The people who run these places, cheap hotels designed for this purpose, and the more obvious brothels too, are mafia-rich. They all have miserable lives, but also they drive the biggest cars, wear the most expensive suits. There was one brothel-keeper, however, who was dirt poor. This brothel had fantastic girls. Everyone said this about him, that he had the best prostitutes. One day we were sitting in a café, smoking a nargileh, and the others there were making fun of him, saying, “You’re no good at this business.” I asked him, “How did you end up like this?” The man replied, “What do you do?” I told him I dealt with kilims. “Are you rich?” I said no. “Do you love your business?” I said yes. “Well, then,” he said, “there’s your mistake. You’ll end up like me. Every time I bring a prostitute to my brothel I fall in love with her. And it is painful for me to see her making love with someone else. And it is painful to take money for it and sometimes the meaner the guy who makes love to her the more difficult it is for me to take money from him. I’ll never make it. If you love your business, you’ll never make it.” This has always rung true with me. If I buy something I love, I never make good money from it.’
I wondered how Yasser’s parallel between kilims and whores would go down with a western audience. I wondered whether I really cared. What I appreciated most in my many conversations with him was his ability to illustrate his arguments with analogies. And these he could pluck from his beloved Qur’ān and its many surrounding hadiths and also from the mundane. There had always to be a story and the souq remains a live culture for stories. There were some things modernity had not yet squeezed lifeless.
Yasser then told me when he opened his shop he had only two carpets, the sale of which was absolutely essential to his being able to continue. It was all he could do to pay for the space, which is the one he still occupies, which one must step down into, as if into a cave. On that first day, over a decade ago, a woman from Argentina, attached, so she said, to her country’s embassy in Amman, said she would purchase both carpets but only if she could have them at a discount. Desperate though he was for a sale, Yasser had already decided he’d fix his prices, a policy from which still he refuses to deviate. She said she’d return with the money half an hour later. Two hours passed and she returned, paid the asking figure for the carpets, and then handed him an envelope, saying it contained a message for him but that under no circumstances was he to open it until the following day after she had gone. Yasser, a man of honour, kept his promise. When he opened the envelope he discovered a thousand American dollars, the receipt of which would put him on a steady course. Yasser immediately phoned the Argentine Embassy in Amman only to be informed that no such woman worked there. What this says about her is anyone’s guess, but what it says about Yasser is that he draws women who are quite inscrutable.
We continued our conversation later.
‘A friend of mine gave me a book that was written in the mid-1700s by a barber in Damascus. The barber was the place where people talked. He was a dentist too. If you wanted to buy a house, you went to him. The stereotype of the barber is that of a talkative person, the Reuters of the place. Ah.mad Budayri al-Hallaq or, more simply, Ibn Budayr, wrote this yawmīya, which means “the daybook of a worker.” The history of this book is almost more interesting than its contents. It was sold as a manuscript at the Umayyad mosque and was not taken seriously until the beginning of the twentieth century. Only its future editor saw its value, thinking, “Who else but a barber would give me the average man’s history of Damascus?” Arabic histories concentrate only on great people. Barbers, normally, never wrote, but this one did, day by day, and he wrote about so many things, especially the prices of meat, bread and coal and how they’d change according to the situation in the country. If, for example, a new governor arrived the prices might change. He documented everything.
‘This inspired me to write one. I am writing this for myself and, if he ever takes over the shop, for my son. I love the history of this city. Always I want to know who was here before. It is like fixing one’s frame. I decided I’d write about this street from its beginning to its end. People here are willing to talk to me. Although I am an outsider, I’m originally from this neighbourhood, my grandfather was a highly respected man, and also I mind my own business. I am here when my neighbours need something translated into English. I wanted originally to document the Souq Arawam where, remember, the devil walks with rolled-up trousers, but it has completely changed after twenty years, so I’m writing about here instead, my street, starting from the Umayyad Mosque and going towards Bāb Tūmā. If you are a Muslim you always start from the right-hand side, so I begin with the first shop on that side. Yesterday, however, I realised I missed the most important thing, which is the Nofara Café. Whereas in Ibn Budayr’s book he tried to write in general, what I need to do is make a microcosm. This souq is a mirror to Damascus. You have almost everything here – we have all the different sects – Shī‘a, Sunni, Christians. The Jews have mostly gone. In old times this souq was mostly Damascene but now it has people from all over. It also has all kinds of people, educated, many of them with university degrees, and then the completely illiterate who can’t even write their own names. Also we have the most religiously conservative people and then we have those, mostly young, people, who ask foreigners, “Do I look Italian?” The shops here cover everything from luxuries to basics such as bread and sugar. What this book will capture is a moment of time in the city’s history. The traditional mercantile life of this part of the city is vanishing and being replaced by tourist shops.
‘So I start with the young people at the beginning of the street, who are illiterate in English but they can speak it because they grew up in the market. In my youth, even if you worked for ten years in the same shop, you were still a boy. You could not start a shop and be a boss until you had maybe fifteen or twenty years of experience. Your boss would then vouch for your character. Now these guys come and work in a shop for one year, they see what the boss sells, they speak a bit of English, they know about selling to foreigners, and the next day they rent a shop at a huge price they can’t really afford even if they are doing well, and then get themselves into debt. It used to be that getting into debt was considered a deep shame. If you did not have the money, you waited until you had it. Say these newcomers have 100,000 lira to spend, they’ll buy a million lira’s worth. They pay it back week by week. They spend money on expensive clothes with brand names, Diesel, Armani. They start a shop, which goes in a very new rhythm. On Saturdays the prices are high whereas on Thursday the prices may be lower than cost because of their jam’īya or money that is due. If they can’t pay they’ll sell off their goods cheaply to another dealer and they go bankrupt and disappear. People ask after them. They might start up somewhere else in Damascus or even in another city. I am talking about a society that is still trying to hold onto whatever is left of its social values. We say here that one’s reputation is half of what one has. People must trust you.’
‘So what you describe is a tearing away at the very fabric of society?’
‘Yes. This one guy disappeared with a debt of two million lira, which would take me six years to make. This he lost in a single year. People say, “Oh, he’s just a boy working for someone else” but he told me many times, “I gave a hundred dollars to sleep with a Japanese girl.” He is seventeen years old. A bit of what he says may be true, but probably most of it is bullshit. He spends money on restaurants, girls and clothes, yet the shop costs him 2000 lira a day, which is more than my average daily takings. He pays this to the owner and then he closes the shop to be with a girl! Once someone came by and sold me an ordinary kilim, which cost me 1000 lira, which I then sold for 1700 lira. So one of the boys says to the customer who bought it from me, “What did you buy? What did you pay for it?” Such behaviour in our business is really shameful. This is like going uninvited into someone’s house. This boy then sells him the same kilim for 1000 lira, which I know for a fact cost him 1500 lira. So the customer returns the piece to me. I may sound like an angry businessman and although at this level I am, I am much angrier at the violation of the rules of the game – the social game, the business game. After all, the greater part of our life is a game. I am angrier about this than about losing a customer, especially when the profit we are talking about doesn’t even cover the price of a meal.
‘Another man here sells shawarma and he represents a particular mentality in Damascus. For the longest time, he was the only one here to sell falafels. All the tourist guides mentioned him as being the only falafel shop in the area. He was really successful, as was his father and grandfather before him. This guy across the street opens a shawarma shop and this, too, was successful. The owner of the falafel shop then decides he will sell shawarma as well. The shawarma he sells is seriously disgusting. Meanwhile, he has lost his reputation as a falafel shop, which was named everywhere. And now, most of the time, he smokes and kills himself with envy at seeing his neighbour’s success. You’ll now see three falafel shops which are doing quite well. Isn’t it sad? The next shop sells sugar and tea and all the things we need. He is too busy to get dressed properly, and although he looks poor he is hugely successful – he changes money, rents houses, and is one of the people who control the shares market in Damascus. If the dollar is about to go up, he buys all the dollars available. You see again the mentality; he is rich in the true sense of the word. And then there is another man who sells batteries, etc, but where he makes his money is selling tea to Iranians, which is a big smuggling business. Syrian candies have a good reputation too, so his shop is always crowded with Iranians.
‘The most educated house in this street is also the poorest. The people in it are all educated, all the men and women have university degrees, they are always clean but dress poorly, and yet none of them can afford to make it through to the end of the month. They are the poorest people here and in this respect they reflect the value of education in this country. One of these kids I spoke about earlier makes ten times what these people make. One of them works for the foreign ministry, another for the city council. Any one of them, if he were to use his position to manipulate others, could make money. Even the father has a key position where by altering just one line of what he writes he could have made big money at a time when corruption was rife here. They live miserably in two rooms, half the house theirs and the other half rented to a bastard. This reflects the situation of many people in this country who refuse corruption. They can’t survive. For how long do you think they could survive? One of them is my age, 36 years old. When he comes from work he stops to say hello. I say to him jokingly, “When will you be happy in your wedding?” He answers, “Well, if I calculate my salary now until I reach zero when I have paid all my debts, I will need another four years salary but ten years after, with maybe a salary increase, then I might be able to ask the hand of a girl but by then I will be fifty and no woman will be interested in me.” This is so painful, even though he said it in a comical way. You can’t afford to marry here. The minimal rent for a house where there is room for a wife is 8,000 lira, which is the average salary. I would say fifty percent of women are not working and even if they were, they are not supposed to pay whereas men have to. 8,000 lira! Tell me, how can one be expected to pay the rent? They are not pushing you, but they are actually putting you on top of a mountain and telling you to go and steal and be corrupt. This is what they expect you to do.’
After what Yasser told me about his street and the breakdown of a business code, all I could hear was a flapping of wings, and although the analogy is something I would rather suggest than force, I began to see pigeons everywhere. The danger here was that I would make my argument fit, even if it meant making adjustments to the world as it actually is, and indeed there’s nothing so full of holes as a literary scheme. One falls deepest into those which one takes to be projections of one’s own intelligence.
Always to be avoided are those forced unions, the idea or image pushed into the service of a bigger scheme, which result in ungainly convolutions, although here, too, one might find pigeon analogies. The experienced pigeon fancier knew, well before genetics was ever on the syllabus, that putting just any male and female in the same cage was less productive than allowing pigeons to have mates of their own choosing. So there we have it: the songwriter ambles back to his score. The best pigeons come only of true love.
There is even more to startle a permissive age. Breeders have also noted that forced unions can also alter a pigeon’s sexual preferences, so you get males that want to be only with other males. And you get females that bed down with females. And then further confusion enters the picture: sometimes females mount males but refuse to be mounted themselves, and others are so docile they’ll allow themselves to be mounted by anyone. Would that it stopped there, but in such artificial relationships pigeons will often lay ‘clear’ eggs, eggs that are not fertilised, and which, in Arabic, are referred to as ‘eggs of the wind’ (bayd. al-rīh.). One might think this a neat Arabic turn of phrase, but despite the pleasant noise it makes the wording was invented not by pigeon fanciers, nor was it ever in the Arab demotic, but in all likelihood goes back to antiquity in ancient Greece. Aristotle’s Generatione animalium was translated into Arabic under the title Fī kawn al-h.ayawān and there one finds the word hypenemien meaning ‘windy’ which, when capitalised, appears also in Rabelais in a context too obvious to repeat here. The ancient breeders wouldn’t allow nature to take its course, but forced only the best pigeons to mate so as to preserve the pedigree. The Arabs took the opposite stance and would never allow interbreeding between close relatives for fear of poor results. The Mogul emperor, Akbar, also a fancier, was the first to cross different pedigrees. Ordinary pigeons mate for life, but when pent up together they look towards their neighbours’ wives.