curreNt-ISh eveNtS go to the airport. Next door there’s a cafe
with a screen showing al-Furat TV, the
channel of the Hakeem dynasty, and serv-
ing Iraqi men thin-waisted glasses of strong,
Turkish-style tea. In the street, too much
Robin Yassin-Kassab re-experiences the complexities of an ancient land
traf_f_ic, and stalls and hand-pushed carts
selling the earth of Kerbala, prayer beads,
’ve JuSt GIveN uP smoking, again, of the economy. More than once I’m told and keyrings and badges and engravings of
after a relapse in Syria. I mean, what that it costs 600 lire for a cup of cof_fee Ali and Hussain, of Sistani and Nasrallah,
can an ex-smoker do, returning to Sham? in Waleed bin Talal’s Four Seasons hotel. and plastic sandals and dolls and toy guns.
In Oman, where I live, very few peo- On the ramshackle outskirts of the city Scarves illustrated with Ya Hussain! in let-
ple smoke. Abu Dhabi airport, where I notice a large supermarket, a furniture ters of dripping blood, or with the Iraqi flag.
I spent an hour in transit, is of course saleroom, a car showroom. Sweets and biscuits. Q.002ur’anic verses. Wom-
smoke-free. But in Damascus airport the At Hijaz station the track has been en push through it, clutching their chadors
passport of_f_icials were smoking, and the ripped up and a deep hole dug. The plan closed at their noses, and others with hair in
police, and the baggage handlers, and the was to build a new station underground, waves or tied in ponytails.
passengers. So it continued in the taxi, but the finance didn’t come through so it I heard Muhammad Habash, Member
and in the house, and almost everywhere remains just a hole, an absence. The cafe of Parliament, give a Friday sermon in
else. I’m not complaining. in a train carriage where a decade ago my Mezzeh. I liked his fine, quiet language,
I spent a too brief ten days re-experienc- wife and I used to drink cof_fee has gone. his comments on the Prophet’s migra-
ing Syria and Syrians: their pale eyes under I saw Larijani, previously Iran’s nuclear tion and his criticism of some of today’s
dark brows and tall foreheads, the distinc- negotiator, in the shrine of Sitt Ruqqiyeh. migrating Muslims, who give Islam a bad
tive mixture of harsh and gentle in the He pulled away his hand when an Iranian name in their adopted countries.
people and in their environment. It looked pilgrim tried to kiss it, and then sat qui- I spent a night in a village on the edges of
to my pampered eye like chaos on the etly contemplating, only one bodyguard the Golan. There are still some basalt build-
roads, but I didn’t see any accidents. The crouching beside him. He doesn’t need ings among the concrete, red soil and rub-
city is hazed with diesel fumes – six million more security; Syrians express appre- bish. Electric-white Jebel esh-Shaikh floats
people (or is it more now?) burning mazote ciation of Iran, even those Syrians who above the expanse. The Israelis are up there
to keep warm. And it’s ever more urban, don’t like Shia. on the further peak. In 1nine.oldstyleseven.oldstylethree.oldstyle their forces
close-packed stacks of flats in brown and On my last day I visited Sitt Zainab, reached as far as this village. Now there are
grey – the colours of poverty. Buildings the shrine of Ali’s daughter. The ten days gypsies camped among the olive groves in
erupting like warts from the earth’s dry of Ashura were not yet finished so the patched white tents distinct from the more
skin, stained orange, exhausted yellow. shrine and its surroundings were unusual- beautiful goat-hair black of the Beduin
The airport road is being worked on in ly crowded with Iranians, Lebanese, Paki- camps. They’ve come to sell trinkets and
anticipation of Damascus’s year as the Arab stanis and, especially, Iraqis. Many of the pull teeth.
cultural capital. The taxi driver laments the refugees have returned to Iraq (and prop- The villagers I spend the night with
death of Arabism, ‘Before the invasion of erty prices are falling again), but there are don’t like Shaikh Habash because of his
Iraq we had it in name at least. Now it isn’t still more than a million and a half Iraqis liberal fatwas – for instance, that it is per-
even mentioned. Now it’s all parties, tribes, in Syria, and there are evident signs of missible for a woman to travel without a
sects, ethnic groups, regions.’ I accept a cig- their tragedy around Sitt Zainab. This guardian – and because his is, according
arette. West of Damascus, what I remember is the only place in Syria where ragged, to them, the Islam of the Sultan. They
as fields seems to have been transformed shoeless children beg for coins. There’s don’t much like the Shia either. Or the
into mounds of rubble. a young man missing a leg. There’s an- Sufis. They talk religion and politics and
I visit the Old City. I hear the heart- other with no legs. The atmosphere in the tell obscene jokes. Endless glasses of tea
jumping exhilaration of the azan called shrine is thick. People are kissing the door, and cof_fee, and cigarettes. At dawn we
by the four muezzins of the Umawi the step, weeping and shuddering at the pray in the village mosque where men
Mosque, one from each minaret. I have grille of the tomb, mourning the oppres- wear kuf_f_iyehs and wool-lined cloaks.
a meal in the courtyard of Bait Jabri. sion of the Prophet’s family, the failure of A character in Ahmad al-Aidi’s (Egyp-
Nearby there are streets full of new ca- Muslims to realize Islam and the string of tian) novel Being Abbas el Abd says:
fes and restaurants. The Old City now disasters permitted in the world by dark-
You want us to progress??
boasts two five-star hotels in restored Da- ness, persecution and injustice.
So burn the history books and forget
mascene houses. A garden and cafe have In the Iraqi restaurant the cashier wears
your precious dead civilization.
been built beside the citadel walls. a green turban. A video of the al-azza wal-
Stop trying to squeeze the juice from
It’s old news to say that everybody latm ritual plays on the screen suspended
now has a mobile phone, and that there from the ceiling. Bare-chested men are red
Destroy your pharaonic history . . .
are far more cars on the roads since taxes over the heart where they strike themselves
Try to do without the traf_f_ic in the dead.
have been eased. People worry about in rhythm. The same ritual will start out-
We will only succeed when we turn
social divisions caused by the liberalizing side the shrine this evening, but I have to
our museums into public lavatories.
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