Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Suq Hamidyeh and Faisal's Treasures

The entrance to Suq Hamidyeh is a rounded archway roofed in corrugated iron with a thousand small holes. Shafts of light reach through like long light fingers, catching and lighting the dust that swirls in the air at this time of year. The holes look like stars but are actually bullet and shrapnel holes dating from the French withdrawal in 1946. Under your feet are cobblestones, dark and satiny with age and wear.

Inside the tunnel is dark, but the shops glow down the sides like jeweled caverns. Brass table tops and lights, the glitter of gold, in tassels, in sequins on belly dance costumes, in fringes on elaborate curtains and the full-on scarlet and emerald and turquoise and azure of textiles of the Orient light the tiny cubicles – some not bigger than an Aussie bathroom.


If you walk on, past the entrance to the carpet suq on your right, past the feathered underwear, past the lines of mannequins (strangely like Russian war time posters in facial expressions and stance), past the leather, and the kitchen suq on your left – on in fact until you are almost at the Roman Archway you will reach my current favourite shop in Hamidyeh.

Little girls' dresses Mannequins in day wear
Mannequins in Feathers

Its official name is Omayed Stores, named after the Mosque at the end of the tunnel. No-one calls it that – it is just Faisal’s.

Faisal has a collection of textiles to die for. Many of the pieces in John Gillow’s book on the textiles of the World came from this shop. Also a lot of the wonderful costumes from Jehan Rajaub’s Costume Museum in Kuwait came from this shop. Faisal is a serious collector, and while he has the tablecloths and galabiehs of the other shops, he has a room upstairs that is a treasure room of textiles. He is a true collector, and handles things with pride and affection. He has pieces he keeps hidden as he doesn’t want to sell them. He tells a story of John Gillow coming into the shop and swinging both arms up, palms towards his face, in a full double armed beckon with the comment “Down, down, get it all down.” I was tempted by the ikat coats but that will be for next time.

One side of the shop

On my first day in Damascus I bought a Yemeni tunic from Faisal. These are intended to go over black pants. They are long and wide and very striking, with a curious woven silver metal trim which is formally twisted and couched down. Against the wall was a tower of them – possibly one hundred dresses. He gave me a coined cap and a silver and black headscarf that covers all the top of our queen sized bed. I also bought a black dress embroidered heavily with rust and orange – just because it was unusual.

Yemeni Dress

On the second visit to the shop I bought five absolutely stunning Syrian dresses, some to bring back for family and friends. Each was elaborately cross stitched and so much work – and less than the price of a single cotton shirt from Maggie T.

Four dresses from the front Front detail
Front detail The back
No wonder I had to buy a case.

Cabs and cases

Three things happened in a row. A lovely friend, Mohammed from Antiquo in the Street Called Straight, helped my by writing a note for me to show to a taxi driver. In effect, it said, “This lady who carries this note has done too much shopping in Damascus. She must buy another large suitcase to carry it on the plane. Please take her to a place where there is a good choice of cheap cases, then back to the Sheraton Hotel.

He then waved down a cab which just happened to be conveniently passing and spoke rapidly to him through the window, deeming the note unnecessary. The driver taxi driver took off, roaring through the narrow streets, taking large roundabouts on two wheels on the far outside edge – all the better to zoom around things, but meaning that he had to drive at twice the speed to keep up with those I the middle. At one point we skidded and fishtailed slightly and I asked him to slow down.

Two corners later he hooked around to the right (like our left turn) and at such speed that he very narrowly missed another cab who hooted and abused him, our driver swerved slightly, mounted the very high Syrian kerb with a bang, dropped off it again and fishtailed down the road with other drivers abusing him as he went. I exploded into quite rude Arabic, he slowed down, muttered an apology of sorts (Arabs on the whole do not often apologise as it implies wrongdoing – or maybe that is a bit of a boy thing?) and seemed very chastened. His driving became almost sedate, slightly spoiled by his attempts to lean out the window as he went to see if he had damaged his cab.

At about this point we realised that Mohammed might have told him we were in a big hurry. We were, but not enough to risk dying for! At least that idea explained some of the level of haste.

We arrived at a luggage suq – shop after shop of just cases. Three hefty young men – one of them good looking enough to make we wonder if he would fit in a case – took turns waving cases (large ones) around in mid air and telling me how good they were. Syrians are into big wheels and some of these looked like millipedes, they had so many. I think they would last two minutes in the average luggage handlers’ bay. As I started to move into the slightly more expensive ranges (big cases actually over ten Aussie dollars) they got more animated. Several cases were thumped and one even jumped on to show me how good it was. It was strong, but I could hardly lift it, even empty.

By the time I selected a $20 case and left (five minutes) I felt as if I had just had an hour crowd-surfing on testosterone.

Escalating tensions

There are changes outside the opening to Suq Hamidyah. In my earlier visits you were dropped on the opposite side of the street, and had to brave a constant wall of cabs and traffic. If you walked forward slowly and deliberately cars would duck you in front until they had to start dodging behind, and so on – across three lanes of heavy traffic, reversing direction on the centre, or more or less the centre, depending on the time of day. It was terrifying if you looked.

Now there is an underpass, actually lined with shops on either side like stations in central Sydney. Better still, while you have to use the stairs if you walk down, there are escalators for those going up. This is amazing, as they are very rare in Syria. Even hotels have lifts, not escalators. The airport has stairs.

A family stepped on, a few at a time and very warily. Last, and just in front of me was a small boy, whose mother reached back to assist him, then looked ahead. He tried to steady himself as the escalator moved, grabbing with flat hands at the side wall of polished stainless steel. His hands were warm and sticky and gripped well, but his feet went inexorably up while his hands stayed put, and I grabbed him when he was almost horizontal but still gripping for dear life.

A terrified woman was trying to board the escalator. Her foot would hover, and she would panic, and try again. Her husband had gone ahead not realising that there was a problem. A friend and I tried to help, offering to hold her hand and tell her when to get on and she dissolved in tears. In the end she gave up, went the long way and found stairs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those dresses are lovely, quite envious of the recipients. must admit I would not be able to choose which one I liked best.
As for your experiences with taxi drivers, I enjoy reading about your escapes and so glad you can see the funny side but it just confirms that I am a coward and my overseas travel may always be through another's eyes.

12:59 pm  
Blogger dijanne cevaal said...

Wow Jenny - those dresses are magical! Iam looking forward to encountering them!

And well do I remember our taxi ride from Cairo airport to the centre in the dark, with car lights only turned on if you wanted another car to get out of the way and where six lanes of traffic careered at speed along a three lane road- I was sure that one I would never see Cairo and two if I did get there I would have to change my clothing immediately - we took the bus back and even that was an interesting ride, but not quite as scarey.

2:07 pm  
Blogger Lin said...

Jenny, I love to read of your adventures. I would love to be there, but feel like I can experience the middle East, through your writings!! Thanks so much. I am off to China for a year in mid August, and am looking into being able to keep a journal in the same fashion, through a blog. It is so great to be able to be in touch with what you are doing, and your escapades, and also to be able to see your beautiful photos.

12:27 am  

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