The City and the Writer: In Damascus with Abed Ismael

By Nathalie Handal

Image of The City and the Writer: In Damascus with Abed Ismael

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Damascus as you feel/see it?

The citizens of Damascus—the name “Damascus,” first appeared in the geographical list of Thutmose III in the 15th century BCE—are often preoccupied with their daily cares. Oblivious of their own mythical city, which was first settled in the 2nd millennium BC, a city universally known as the oldest continuously inhabited metropolis in the world, people rush forward, emotionally split, mentally distracted, half religious, half secular. They put on easy, mechanical smiles, but one trivial incident may throw them back into the abyss. The young look more optimistic, holding tight to their colorful mobiles, PC cases, and dreams, as they chase whatever is fashionable, high-tech or up-to-date. The elderly show different sentiments as they mourn the rapid change of the old city, systematically swept away by stylish cafés, luxurious restaurants, and night clubs, newly built along the banks of the famous Barada river which flows through the city, although sadly dry now. The mood is one of resilience and mystical resignation. Still, beyond the dark yellowish clouds, white doves fly, drawing violet circles above the city, nicknamed many centuries ago “The City of Jasmine.”

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I was sixteen back in 1980 when I saw a horrendous scene resulting form the sudden collapse of a building nearby, just a few meters from where I was standing, waiting for my morning school bus. Debris and flying stones scattered all around me. Seconds later, a strange deafening silence followed. Soon afterwards, screams, car alarms, chaos, panic, all at once. I will never forget the face of a young girl, covered with blood, being carried away into an ambulance, with head twisted backward. I recall her gaze, and the partial eclipse of her figure. At that moment, I felt I was also wounded, if not actually killed. I rushed out of the scene, and ran fast, faster than I could imagine. Maybe I am still running.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The ruins of the Jupiter Temple, believed to have been built in the first century AD by the Romans, at the entrance of the ancient al-Hamidiya Souq (a long roofed market built in 1780 on the way leading to the famous Umayyad Mosque, built in 705 AD), which lies on the south bank of the river Barada, surrounded by old shops, pathways, and narrow alleys, whose history stretches back to the Middle Ages. Locals, tourists, archeologists, and even sightseers, rarely notice the temple’s existence, as they are usually more attracted to other famous edifices in this caravan city which was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century B.C. The Roman architecture of the temple is quite visible, especially in the great wall surrounding the city itself, which originally contained seven gates, but now only the eastern gate (Bab Sharqi) remains from the Roman period. According to the Acts of Apostles, both Saint Paul and Saint Thomas, lived in the area.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

In addition to the internationally acclaimed poet Adonis (born 1929), who published in 1960 a landmark diwan titled “Songs of Mihyar the Damascene”, considered to be a turning point in modern Arabic poetry, I pick Nizar Qabbani, (1923-1998) who was born to a famous Damascene family and was unique among Syrian and Arab poets in his celebration of the city’s landscape. Qabbani, moreover, had been closely connected with the city’s social interior, exposing, in particular, the oppressive traditions afflicting love relations between men and women, as his diwan “Outlawed Poems”, published in 1972, clearly shows.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I like to chase my shadow across the ancient city, looking for forgotten spots, outlawed secrets, and hidden images in the old alleys and streets. I like, in particular Al-Hijaz Cafe in the old part of Damascus, near the Hijaz Railway built by the Ottomans at the beginning of the 20th century. I listen to tales of voyagers, adventurers, scholars and even Orientalists, who often visit the place. I feel sometimes that history is really a nightmare from which I would like to wake up, as James Joyce once said. I like also to spend my afternoon hours at al-Rawda café downtown, another iconic space frequented mostly by intellectuals, politicians, artists, and poets.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

A famous café in downtown Damascus called “Havana” built in 1945, where poets and politicians used to meet. The place is often associated with the poet Mohamamd al-Maghout (1934-2006), widely acknowledged as the spiritual father of the modern Arabic prose poem, who used to sit there, drink his famous Arabic coffee and compose poems and plays. Although the place has been renovated recently and lost some of its iconic glamour, it is still referred to as the birthplace of many novels, poems, and even “ideologies.”

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I would say that the “underworld”, which is tightly controlled, has been blooming in silence for decades. Damascus, like most modern cities, is multilayered, highly diverse, ethnically colorful. The modern part of the city is growing very fast. The Westernized residential quarter in the Mezza area, for instance, is a case in point. The urban center is shifting northward along the Barada Valley, surrounded by the Ghouta Oasis, which has been, unfortunately, decreasing in size with the rapid expansion of modern housing projects. Modernity brings with it its own demographic discourse, so to speak. As a poet, I am always intrigued by the hidden, the suppressed and the forgotten.

Where does passion live here?

In every corner and alley, visible or invisible, in the city. It is no accident that most of the old stories written about Damascus assert its erotic natural beauty. When he visited Damascus in 1869, Mark Twain described it in The Innocents Abroad as “a type of immortality.” According to Twain, “so long as its waters remain to it—so long will Damascus live.” Nizar Qabbani, the poet of love and passion, expressed his nostalgia for the old houses of Damascus in his poem “Letter to My Mother,” in which he says: “Damascus at night, Damascus jasmine/ Damascus houses/ Find a home in our hearts.” Therefore, like jasmine, passion blooms everywhere.

What is the title of one of your poems about Damascus and what inspired it exactly?

A poem called “Mirrors of Damascus,” originally written in Arabic in 2003, and published in my volume of poems, called Saat Raml (An Hour in the Sand). The poem was translated into English by the scholar Issa Boullata and published in Unbuttoning the Violin. It was later published by the American literary magazine, New Letters (2008). The poem was inspired by the gradual erosion of the Barada River over the last ten years, due to harsh climate changes. In one of the passages I write: “and we read the Quran’s opening chapter/ over the bones of the river/ the river that Medusa saw/ and turned into a walking stone.”

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Damascus does an outside exist?”

For me, life always dwells somewhere else. I need to continuously invent my own space. Damascus, as a city burdened with its own ancient past, always dwells outside itself. A cradle of diverse civilizations: Aramaic, Akkadian, Assyrian, Greek, and Roman, it seeks now to absorb modernity. Saints and Popes used to live here. Mystics and Sheiks too. But the city harbors a different passion, a desire to cross new frontiers, without, necessarily losing its own Arab identity. However, Damascus for me will remain an enigma, always wrapped up in its own angelic fog, a city older than time, continuously weaving its untold stories behind closed doors.

Abed Ismael is a poet and translator, teaching American literature at Damascus University. He has an MA and a PhD in modern American literature, having done his postgraduate studies at New York University with a Fulbright Scholarship. His publications include: five collections of poems—some available in French, German, and English—and several books of translations from English into Arabic namely, works by Walt Whitman, V. S. Naipaul, Willis Barnstone, Jorge Luis Borges, Harold Bloom, Christopher Norris, Candace Bushnell, and others. He writes book reviews for several literary magazines and newspapers including al-Hayat, Banipal, and Assafir, and is a news editor for Syrian public television.

NH’s Discovery of the Month: Damascus is a maze—once you think you know it and that you’ve found your way, you’re lost again. And that’s what makes it so fantastic. It loves to confuse you, to keep you in between mysteries. And there are so many portraits to fill the page: brass trays next to the coffeepots next to barrels of spices next to the hookahs next to olives and dates next to a woman taking her six children to Bakdash—one of the most famous ice-cream parlors in the Arab world. And there’s more: a crumbling house with a BMW, a colony of coffeehouses, people speaking about the next Hollywood film in Damascus or about famous musicians coming to town, others immersed in soap operas and the political conversations never too far—a shaky economy, corruption, censorship. And then the glass-blowers close to cool art galleries like Ayyam Gallery (www.ayyamgallery.com/#/artists/), representing hot Middle Eastern artists. And the painter Yousef Abdelke (considered older generation), whom I met in Paris in the 1990s comes to mind. He moved back to Syria a few years ago. Basically, it was time to return to his homeland. Some say Syria has opened up, others say the situation is worse. Young writers tell me that there are more readings, the literary scene is growing, and the chance to publish abroad greater than ever. Some writers to consider reading: Nizar Qabbani, Haidar Haidar, Mohammad al-Maghut, Nouri al Jarrah, Hala Mohammad, Monzer Masri, and Lina Tibi. Also, Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love (check out Interlink—www.interlinkbooks.com—the publisher, Michel Mousabeck, has been amazing in promoting Middle Eastern literature). Damascus is where time sits. I am reminded of that everywhere—in the al-Hamidiyeh souq, by the Umayyed Mosque, in the Old City, the Old City, the Old City, and mostly, when I am lost in alleys of woodworks, some of the most extraordinary inlaid woodworks I’ve ever seen. Every curve, a world, a poem, a sigh. And next, off to the magical and sacred city of Maalula—which means “the entrance” in Aramaic.


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