Originally published in 2008

I’ve just given up smoking, again, after a relapse in Syria. I mean, what can an ex-smoker do, returning to Sham? In Oman, where I live, very few people smoke. Abu Dhabi airport, where I spent an hour in transit, is of course smoke-free. But in Damascus airport the passport officials were smoking, and the police, and the baggage handlers, and the passengers. So it continued in the taxi, and in the house, and almost everywhere else. I’m not complaining.

I spent a too brief ten days re-experiencing Syria and Syrians: their pale eyes under dark brows and tall foreheads, the distinctive mixture of harsh and gentle in the people and in their environment. It looked to my pampered eye like chaos on the roads, but I didn’t see any accidents. The city is hazed with diesel fumes – six million people (or is it more now?) burning mazote to keep warm. And it’s ever more urban, close-packed stacks of flats in brown and grey – the colours of poverty. Buildings erupting like warts from the earth’s dry skin, stained orange, exhausted yellow.

The airport road is being worked on in anticipation of Damascus’s year as the Arab cultural capital. The taxi driver laments the death of Arabism, ‘Before the invasion of Iraq we had it in name at least. Now it isn’t even mentioned. Now it’s all parties, tribes, sects, ethnic groups, regions.’ I accept a cigarette. West of Damascus, what I remember as fields seems to have been transformed into mounds of rubble.

I visit the Old City. I hear the heartjumping exhilaration of the azan called by the four muezzins of the Umawi Mosque, one from each minaret. I have a meal in the courtyard of Bait Jabri. Nearby there are streets full of new cafes and restaurants. The Old City now boasts two five-star hotels in restored Damascene houses. A garden and cafe have been built beside the citadel walls.

The Road to Damascus by Robin Yassin-Kassab
The Road to Damascus by Robin Yassin-Kassab

It’s old news to say that everybody now has a mobile phone, and that there are far more cars on the roads since taxes have been eased. People worry about social divisions caused by the liberalizing of the economy. More than once I’m told that it costs 600 lire for a cup of coffee in Waleed bin Talal’s Four Seasons hotel. On the ramshackle outskirts of the city I notice a large supermarket, a furniture saleroom, a car showroom.

At Hijaz station the track has been ripped up and a deep hole dug. The plan was to build a new station underground, but the finance didn’t come through so it remains just a hole, an absence. The cafe in a train carriage where a decade ago my wife and I used to drink coffee has gone.

I saw Larijani, previously Iran’s nuclear negotiator, in the shrine of Sitt Ruqqiyeh. He pulled away his hand when an Iranian pilgrim tried to kiss it, and then sat quietly contemplating, only one bodyguard crouching beside him. He doesn’t need more security; Syrians express appreciation of Iran, even those Syrians who don’t like Shia.

On my last day I visited Sitt Zainab, the shrine of Ali’s daughter. The ten days of Ashura were not yet finished so the shrine and its surroundings were unusually crowded with Iranians, Lebanese, Pakistanis and, especially, Iraqis. Many of the refugees have returned to Iraq (and property prices are falling again), but there are still more than a million and a half Iraqis in Syria, and there are evident signs of their tragedy around Sitt Zainab. This is the only place in Syria where ragged, shoeless children beg for coins. There’s a young man missing a leg. There’s another with no legs. The atmosphere in the shrine is thick. People are kissing the door, the step, weeping and shuddering at the grille of the tomb, mourning the oppression of the Prophet’s family, the failure of Muslims to realize Islam and the string of disasters permitted in the world by darkness, persecution and injustice.

In the Iraqi restaurant the cashier wears a green turban. A video of the al-azza wallatm ritual plays on the screen suspended from the ceiling. Bare-chested men are red over the heart where they strike themselves in rhythm. The same ritual will start outside the shrine this evening, but I have to go to the airport. Next door there’s a cafe with a screen showing al-Furat TV, the channel of the Hakeem dynasty, and serving Iraqi men thin-waisted glasses of strong, Turkish-style tea. In the street, too much traffic, and stalls and hand-pushed carts selling the earth of Kerbala, prayer beads, and keyrings and badges and engravings of Ali and Hussain, of Sistani and Nasrallah, and plastic sandals and dolls and toy guns. Scarves illustrated with Ya Hussain! in letters of dripping blood, or with the Iraqi flag. Sweets and biscuits. Qur’anic verses. Women push through it, clutching their chadors closed at their noses, and others with hair in waves or tied in ponytails.

I heard Muhammad Habash, Member of Parliament, give a Friday sermon in Mezzeh. I liked his fine, quiet language, his comments on the Prophet’s migration and his criticism of some of today’s migrating Muslims, who give Islam a bad name in their adopted countries.

I spent a night in a village on the edges of the Golan. There are still some basalt buildings among the concrete, red soil and rubbish. Electric-white Jebel esh-Shaikh floats above the expanse. The Israelis are up there on the further peak. In 1973 their forces reached as far as this village. Now there are gypsies camped among the olive groves in patched white tents distinct from the more beautiful goat-hair black of the Beduin camps. They’ve come to sell trinkets and pull teeth.

The villagers I spend the night with don’t like Shaikh Habash because of his liberal fatwas – for instance, that it is permissible for a woman to travel without a guardian – and because his is, according to them, the Islam of the Sultan. They don’t much like the Shia either. Or the Sufis. They talk religion and politics and tell obscene jokes. Endless glasses of tea and coffee, and cigarettes. At dawn we pray in the village mosque where men wear kuffiyehs and wool-lined cloaks.

A character in Ahmad al-Aidi’s (Egyptian) novel Being Abbas el Abd says:

You want us to progress??

So burn the history books and forget your precious dead civilization.

Stop trying to squeeze the juice from the past.

Destroy your pharaonic history . . .

Try to do without the traffic in the dead.

We will only succeed when we turn our museums into public lavatories.

I have some sympathy with this exaggerated point of view, although the idolized history in Syria is Islamic rather than pharaonic. At another gathering, in Midan, a series of self-validating, optimistic and absurd statements are made. Like: Arabic is the origin of all languages. Like: Europe will have a Muslim majority within twenty years. Like: nobody has ever converted from Islam to another religion. The uncles speak and everybody nods. It’s not that the uncles are tyrants. In most cases they are the best of men, kind and well-meaning. You confirm their statements for social reasons, and their statements acquire truth status. Comfort and solidarity and identity are evoked and made tangible in this harsh environment. Many of these men have three jobs, and live in boxes. The same discourse that restricts thought makes life bearable, and more than bearable. Where else would you find such hospitality, such manly gentleness, such generosity and dignity?

The problem with turning religion into repeated legends and tales of the ancestors, with unreflective and near-masturbatory veneration of the Prophet’s companions and the rulers of old and the ulama, is that the universe is bigger than the Arab zone, time is longer than 1,400 years. Too much religion and too much certainty can domesticate the real and smother the spirit.

Syria reminds you of variations in electric current. The dimming of the lights. Waiting for the water to come.

And simple pleasures. Food, for instance. Not just the recipes but also the quality of the raw materials. I swear a Syrian chicken doesn’t taste like the usual dry blandness; nor do Syrian eggs taste like any other eggs. The rich sweetness of a Syrian mandarin is unrivalled. (For all my British childhood it was a burdensome duty to chew fruit. I didn’t understand how fruit should taste until I came to Syria). The traditional Syrian hammam – and I don’t mean the traditional hammam as-souq, wonderful though that is, but a normal bath at home, with mazote dripping into the fizzing stove, steam rising around you and hot water splashing in the plastic basin for you to scoop out in cupfuls and pour over your body.

We watch a Yasser al-Azmeh sketch about a blind man in a cafe complaining about the economy and the citizenry’s hard life. A spy reports him to the mukhabarat, who arrive to make arrests. Such criticism is no longer taboo on Syrian TV. The trend continues, excruciatingly slowly, towards greater individual rights and freedom of expression.

People say that Syria will survive. Despite the refugees, the Israeli raids, the American threats, the sectarianism, the poverty; despite the smoke, Syria will survive. Did not the Prophet say that God has blessed the lands around al-Aqsa? Did he not pray ‘Allah yubarik shamina,’ God bless our Sham, our Syria?