I HAVE long believed that the Middle East is too important, too culturally rich, to be seen only through the prism of war and strife. It resonates too vividly with history, with people, to be defined in terms of terrorism and tension. But this, sadly, is the image most Americans have. Almost always, it's our only impression.
During my years in the region as a journalist, I felt that I was never telling the whole story. Left unreported were the ordinary lives of people, valuable days spent in some of the most vital and dynamic places in the world. For example, the media speak of the ancient capital of Syria, Damascus, as one of the terrorist centers of the world. But Damascus is a queen city sitting in the center of the Arab heartland. It vibrates with life. On my most recent trip, free from the pressures of deadlines, I was committed to walking patiently the streets of the city. I was eager to get to know her again, and tell the rest of the story.
At first I marveled at how much Damascus has changed. Even in this seemingly timeless place, time has taken its toll. The old city, or "Ancient City" as the Damascenes call it, is being chipped away by the ubiquitous urban developers. New apartment buildings, offices, and hotels surround the old city like a cordon sanitaire. And yet, the marvel is that so much remains exactly as it has for thousands of years.
The 7th-century Umayyad Mosque is untouched by this "progress," and remains the spiritual and physical center of the city. It continues to provide believers and nonbelievers with relief from the day's labors and life's doubts. The multitextured hand-woven carpets that cover the floor of the vast, vaulted marble interior have faded over the years, their once-vibrant colors wiped gradually away by the bare feet of the faithful. Outside, the water from the fountain used to wash hands and feet before enteri ng Islam's third-holiest site still flows, albeit more sluggishly than it used to.
Like a crooked spoke, the Hamidiyeh souk stretches out from the mosque. It twists beneath corrugated tin roofs, and stretches along cobblestone alleys. It's more commercial each time I visit it, but that's the point. Hawkers implore me to buy everything imaginable from beautiful, delicate lace cloth to plastic water pistols and colored spices. Many of these merchant families have been selling in this exact spot for 200 years, and it is this sense of continuity, this feeling of "being and belonging," that
is so missing in all the stories of daily crises that cry out from America's newspapers.
The streets of Damascus have always been impossibly crowded, but more than ever since the Gulf war turned Damascus into a haven for those displaced by the conflict. So many people walking, running, gesticulating, and all at the same time! Afghans jostle Arabs from the Gulf who talk business with turbaned Pakistanis. Everyone moves in throngs and never in the same direction, so conversations are more often than not shouted over the heads of people.
Weaving and bobbing through this collective and exhilarating madness are the tea sellers. With their tall, colorfully decorated tea tanks on their backs, they move with startling grace, bending and turning to pour cups of steaming tea into small glasses. The jangle of the bells on their tanks provides a wonderful syncopation with the blaring car horns. In the coffee shops and outdoor restaurants, well-dressed Damascenes casually sip coffee with suited Western businessmen trying to make or modify a deal.
One of the joys of Damascus is the ease with which it's possible to escape the din and confusion. Turn down almost any street leading into the heart of the "Old City," and the silence is shocking. The scent of history mingles with the scent of fragrant flowers and the limestone from cool stone courtyards. So mysterious, so inviting, the courtyards are the inner sanctum of the Arab families. Graceful arches lead to private gardens and private lives that most Arab families would gladly share with caring vi sitors.
The houses here in the old city are not individual, free-standing houses as we know them. They are not numbered, and from the outside they are a seemingly endless series of archways or doorways carved into the wall that circles the city. To find the house that you want, you have to ask for the family that lives there. But since the streets are winding mazes that baffle even the locals, and since everyone is eager to help, wrong directions are often given rather than none at all. As I walk down the Street
Called Straight, that 2,000-year-old street of Biblical fame, I am angry and hurt that so few in the West know this part of the Middle East. The street still inspires an overwhelming, childlike sense of excitement. It was here where Saul was taken after he heard God's voice and became Paul. And at the Chapel of Ananias, you can visit the cellar of this early Christian disciple.
But the street is really a portrait in the sights, sounds, and smells of bazaars and shops where real people live and work: the rich, earthy smell coming from the bright red fire in the open brick oven filled with loaves of baking Syrian bread; the dark doorways with spinning grindstones and flying sparks, as the hunched knife sharpener carefully puts steel to stone; the perfume and sweet sellers; and the bronze platemakers, where an entire family taps out elegant designs on pure bronze plates in dimly l it shops. This is the fabled gold and silver souk where the silver and gold merchants offer bracelets and rings of incredible craftsmanship.
In the center of all this, through a very ordinary entrance, lies a wonder of chandeliered lights (a remnant from the French occupation), vividly tiled walls, ancient wooden bathtubs, and plenty of steam and water: the Turkish bath or the Hammam Noordeen. It's an 800-year-old wonder with a tall, 60-foot domed ceiling, noble arches, colored rugs, and textured wall hangings. A Turkish bath is not just where one goes to relax; it remains the place to catch up on the gossip and, in bygone days, hatch palace plots.
I stop off by the East Gate of Damascus at Al Nufura, the city's most traditional and charming coffee shop. Beneath a grapevine-covered arbor, men and women sit outside and talk. It is fun to sit and be part of that animated group. As a parent of two teenage daughters, I am especially touched and a little envious at the ease with which the generations mix. Older men and women chat happily with young students, while kids of all ages sit on laps and play games with each other.
The atmosphere in Damascus seems more open and relaxed this trip than in my previous visits. I don't see the young "toughs" with pistols in their belts and armed soldiers everywhere. Perhaps this stems from the Syrians' efforts to attract visitors from North America.
As I listen while the last call to prayer drifts over this remarkable desert city, I become more convinced than ever that there is too much potential in the Middle East to be seen only through glass darkly.