September 9, 2006

A souk in Damascus

S. called , she said : "Let's go downtown" . Downtown usually means the heart of the City, and that means : souks , bazars , vendors, merchants, hustle bustle , cacophonous car horns , crowds , traffic jams ...you name it .
I have never felt comfortable in crowded places . I avoid shopping malls and souks like the plague especially during peak hours . But this was no peak hour .
A feeling of angst washed over me . I could not tell where it was exactly coming from, or why it had suddenly emerged leaving me so indecisive and so restless .

"So what do you say ? " S. retorted impatiently . "Some other day " I, sheepishly, replied.
I could tell S. was not pleased and I felt a little guilty . After all this was not our first time downtown , and in the past it had been a relatively hassle free outing - apart from some occasional lewd remark or an unwelcomed stare from some passer by - usually male .

I hung up the phone and was adamant about getting to the bottom of this . Why this angst ?
I was curious , very curious .
I put on my CD of the day - The Jubran Trio - made myself a cup of tea , lit a cigarette, and sunk in my chair .
And for some unknown reason , the Hamidiye Souk of Damascus came to mind .
I saw myself about 11 years old , walking in that long souk, packed with vendors , high pitched shouts , endless rows of goods and a mixture of smells of perfume and grilled meat .
My mother would take me there everytime she visited Damascus which was often since we drove there from Beirut . I could see myself holding her hand and feeling rather intimidated by the crowd of people walking up and down the souk , negotiating , admiring , checking price tags and quality , meticulously examining what was on sale. I could see her talking to the shop owners and bargaining down prices , I could see the ice cream seller parading his skills , or the coffee seller with his clinking cups , or the old worn out shoe shiner sitting in some corner, eyes glued to the pavement and checking every step and what kind of foot wear every passer- by had on .
I could hear my mother's voice brashly saying " Yalla , you are too slow , move faster ", and ...
I could hear some creepy voice whispering in my ear whilst my mother was busy checking yet another shop : " you are a pretty girl ... aren't you " and I could feel some invisible hand either brushing my hair or pinching my bottom or whatever part of my body it could get hold of .
The scene was repetitive , to the point that subsequently , when it was time to go to the souk , I would freeze and refuse to get into the car , that cursed car that would take me to Damascus .

Now it is all coming back . Now I understand why I was always sick when I returned home , why I had headaches or stomach aches . Mother always blamed it on the ice cream vendor .
He had nothing to do with it . It was this evil whisperer and that anonymous hand that were the real culprits .
Of course , I could not tell her then and never told her since . I kept dutifully silent and would bite on my lips and hold back my tears till I felt them swelling in my throat about to strangle me. No, I said nothing .
It is only now , decades later , that I am allowing myself to feel the anger . The anger at having been viewed at this tender age of 11 or 12 , as some public property . The anger at having my body seen as some good along with the other goods exhibited in this souk . A piece of something to be examined and fondled ....

The Jubran Trio kept playing on their ouds , a soothing musical piece . I took another sip of tea and remembered , not long ago , the sight of a little veiled girl standing next to a very stern looking father . She was about 6 , and I felt quite disturbed .
Something about my facial expression must have been a give away for she kept staring at me with those big innocent eyes of hers , as if she was pleading with me . Maybe now I have a better understanding why he had to veil her at such an early age and imprison her under a piece of cloth . Maybe he used to be one of those young men , lecherously preying somewhere in some souk ....

I called S. a few hours later . "Do you still want to go downtown ?"
"Did you finally make up your mind ?" she asked .
"Yes , let's go ".
I grabbed my hand bag and tied a headscarf around my neck , just in case ....