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Damascus—and an ode to shopping at the souk.

June 15, 2010

Shopping in a souk is a hallucinating experience. Always. Inevitably. You wander around, your eyes lost between all the exotic trinkets, and then you find yourself lost in labyrinthine alleys. But not to despair, no. On the contrary… because you are surrounded by treasures of all kinds. And even more importantly, you are surrounded by shopkeepers who want nothing more to than to achieve a friendly sale. Along with tea!

The look. Smile. They wave, and then approach. Engage you in conversation: “Where are you from?” is always the question. Politely, they invite you into the store, and then they hook you…”Just look, just look!”

Without failing, I have never left the souk empty handed. No… It’s impossible, you see? There are all those little treasures that you simply have got to have.

And so the other day, in New York Times Style Magazine, I found Confessions of a Soukaholic.

I’m not the onlyone. Oh no! I’m not the only one…


Don’t be like me. Don’t fly to Damascus; book a room in one of the exquisitely restored Ottoman-era boutique hotels in the Old City, wheedle an address from a local for the best place to buy embroidered aghabani tablecloths, push through the labyrinth of the Souk al-Hamidiyeh and beyond to find said naperer (Abdalla and Dubbane) . . . and then fail to buy your mother the most perfect aghabani on earth, because you’ve been marathon shopping for three days and are too whipped to hunt down an A.T.M. Know that you may never see that tablecloth again — all 14 feet of cream-colored cotton, filigreed with scrolling garlands stitched by seamstresses in a molten shade of amber, 16 napkins included, for 9,000 Syrian pounds (about $190).

I should have realized that this purchase was not optional when I ran into a group of women at Abdalla and Dubbane who’d traveled from Jordan to stock up on new patterns. Their ringleader was Alma Lou Annab, a grandma in gold Nike sneakers and a purple tracksuit, who’d met her husband — a Jordanian — at Arizona State University in Tempe. “One day I walked across the street and saw those dark eyes and that gorgeous black mustache, and I said to my girlfriend, ‘Get a load of that!’ And then a day or two later, ‘Get a load of that’ walked into the campus coffee shop!” A year later, she married him, and eventually they moved to Amman. “Everyone in Jordan knows that this is the place to come for tablecloths,” Annab said. She offered a lesson in bargaining. “Never insult the product, just say you can’t afford it and act regretful,” she said. “When the salesman asks, ‘What could you pay?’ offer a price 25 to 50 percent less than you’re willing to pay, and if he says no, sigh and leave. If he wants to sell it, he’ll come after you — you hope.”

The first time I visited Damascus, in 2005, I had no idea about the shopping. In those days, Syria was better known in the West as a popular destination for war refugees, not for thrill-seeking, bargain-hunting tourists. I’d traveled there on impulse and on tenterhooks. Two expat friends of mine had bumped into one another in Damascus, learned they had me in common and urged me to visit. For a while, I waffled.

It was two years into the Iraq war, and the fact that Syria shared a border with Iraq unnerved me. Also, I worried that Americans might not feel welcome in Damascus, given that the Bush administration had recalled the United States ambassador earlier that year. Still, I booked a ticket, with a strict goal of not offending any Syrian citizen in any way.

To that end, before leaving New York, I asked a Middle Eastern friend to teach me how to say, “I like the people of Syria” in Arabic, as an ingratiating ice breaker. But I hadn’t listened well enough, and on the last day of my visit, I learned from an amused cabdriver that what I’d been telling Damascene shopkeepers as I giddily snapped up copper trays, brocade runners, kilims, ouds, camel leather purses and other bounty, was: “I like young Syrian men.” It’s possible that this phrase, misleading though it was, may have generated a fair amount of international goodwill. Still, by the end of that trip, I realized that my pre-journey jitters had been unnecessary. Damascus has been a metropolis for millennia, not to mention a hub of trade on the old Silk Road, and Damascenes have had plenty of time to get used to foreign visitors.

At the heart of the Syrian capital is the walled Old City, and within it, the Umayyad Mosque — with a vast marble courtyard that shines like water, reflecting the mosque’s cloisters. Many people enter the Old City through the bustling, shop-lined street known as the Souk al-Hamidiyeh. Newcomers to Damascus have often heard about Souk al-Hamidiyeh but don’t understand that it’s only one of many souks in the Old City. Locals shop here for household goods, while the choicer offerings lurk in the labyrinth beyond al-Hamidiyeh. Walking those ancient streets, you feel as if you were in a medieval French village, until you come upon a towering Roman column or arch, a reminder of those who came to Damascus before, and left. Besides the impressive columns, the Romans left behind the Via Recta (“Straight Street”), which Damascenes call Medhat Pasha. The street cuts through the Old City like a plumb line and is a useful orienting tool for non-Arabic-speaking visitors.

This spring, when I returned to Damascus, I was curious about the touristic renaissance that has recently overtaken the city with the opening of some magnificent hotels like Beit Al Mamlouka and blue-chip properties like the Four Seasons. Some Damascenes consider this newfound popularity a mixed blessing. They complain of a supposed decline in craftsmanship and influx of cheap imports. Like the parents of a shy, gifted child who suddenly blossoms and turns into a prom queen, they seem wary — suspicious of their city’s newly broad appeal and resistant to overpraise. But to an outsider, the charges are slanderous.

At the Seher al-Sharck mother-of-pearl workshop well outside the Old City, where few tourists venture, I had the privilege of watching a team of men adorn a suite of Louis XV-style chairs with shimmering shell. One man carefully chiseled a floral pattern into a walnut chair back, following a paper pattern; another carved out the hollows in the chiseled piece where shell or camel bone would later go; others sanded chips of shell and bone and glued them into the hollows; others smoothed out the finished piece, then oiled it to make it shine. Finally, the chair would be upholstered in Damascene silk brocade.

But I hadn’t come to Damascus for chairs; I’d come to Damascus for remedial shopping. I operate under the assumption that you can’t get what you want if you don’t know what you want, and the first time I came here I’d been unprepared. This time I knew what to covet — like an aghabani tablecloth. With my priorities in order, I stopped by the opening of a new upscale minimall on Medhat Pasha called the Khan on my first evening. I found myself in a fancy galleria, with a throng of foreign ambassadors, Syrian socialites and television reporters, all of them sipping fruit juices and nibbling petits fours. The Khan’s boutiques offered (in addition to Dolce & Gabbana, Ralph Lauren and the like) lace and silk bras with beaded pearl straps that doubled as necklaces; clutch handbags silk-screened with images of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum; and even a mother-of-pearl-inlaid foosball table. There were also traditional shops: a handmade-soap boutique and a brocade room dominated by an antique 7,200-needle loom. Throughout the evening, an elderly weaver patiently worked the treadle. “Rich Syrians who come here will have never seen such a thing,” observed Amjad Malki, one of the owners. Is this the future of the Damascus souk? Well, it’s certainly not the past.

This was definitely a new Damascus, but I craved the rough-and-tumble shopping experience I’d stumbled upon five years earlier. I needed expert guidance, though, and this can be tricky as Damascenes, like Parisians, have a cultivated, contrarian spirit and enjoy disparaging one another’s recommendations. I sought the advice of two locals: Jacques Montluçon, a French-born engineer and specialist in antiquities restoration (he once led a team that preserved relics from the Titanic), and Sameer Hamsho, the owner of the rug shop Old City. As we sat in the back room of Hamsho’s store, the two men argued about whether the continuing conversion of Old City beits (private homes) into chic hotels and restaurants was a good or a bad thing and debated which of the thousands of surrounding shops most deserved a visit.

“Think of Damascus as a giant department store, only instead of aisles there are streets,” said Montluçon, who handed me a sheaf of papers containing his top picks. In one “aisle” you’ll find hammered copper and brass trays and coffeepots (Souk Medhat Pasha); in another, barrels of spices and candies (Souk al-Bzourieh); in others, mother-of-pearl-inlaid furniture and Bohemian-glass hookahs (Bab Sharqi and Hanania Street). “Anything you want, you can get in Damascus,” Montluçon told me. “But first you must know where to get it.”

The Souk al-Hamidiyeh, the main shopping drag of the Old City, mostly sells everyday wares, but Middle Eastern women know to go there for red-hot lingerie. From a cluster of storefronts, middle-aged merchants (men) sell bras and panties in gumdrop colors, trimmed with net, feathers, paillettes or Muppet plush. At these stalls, you will see Iranian matriarchs, dressed in black robes and veils, un-self-consciously fingering purple sequined bras. My friend Pauline took me on a naughty knickers tour and persuaded a merchant to show us his most elaborate line of string bikinis, which are battery-operated and work by remote control. One had a rubber tongue set into the crotch. When he pressed a button, the tongue started to writhe; we shrieked and ran away, as if we were 12.

Over the next few days, whenever I ran my compiled choices by opinionated Damascenes, they would raise their eyebrows and offer their picks instead. Ultimately I decided that my own unassisted eye was as good a guide as any. Outsiders must retain the strength of will when shopping in Damascus to beg tips from local cognoscenti; to ignore the cognoscenti and trust their own taste if they see something they like; and to pay cash if the Visa machines won’t work. (They often won’t.) There may be no place on the planet where so many beautiful things are concentrated in a few square cobblestoned miles. It’s worth the effort. And whatever you end up choosing, no matter how connoisseurs may judge it, no matter how well or how badly you bargained for it, it will always retain this indestructible value: You had to go to Damascus to get it.


Confessions of a Soukaholic was originally published in The New York Times Magazine on May 2, 2010. It was written by Liesl  Schillinger. To read the rest of the article, click here.

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