Upstairs in the library is a favourite chair of mine. It’s a rocking chair made out of an unknown wood, inlaid with some mother of pear and it features some interesting carved and turned details.
In 2004, we toured Lebanon and then went back to Damascus for a week. Damascus is one of my favourite cities in the world. It is an extraordinary place where you can trip over Soviet-inspired architecture from the 1950s and 60s next to some amazing bits of modernism up against the old city. The whole city, while huge, is surprisingly walkable and we spent our time poking around, touring old houses, finding interesting museums, hanging out in the tea and coffee houses and shopping – spices and door knockers was what I was after. On Straight Street, the Roman road roofed over by the Ottomans, we stopped in front of a shop to look at a rocking chair in the window. It wasn’t a design we’d seen before. We made a note to come back when the shop was open.
The next day we were passing by and stopped to look at the chair again and while looking the owner popped his head out and asked us if he could help us and invited us in for coffee. In any other country that’s the prelude to a sales job on the shop’s wares and it can be difficult to extricate yourself with any sense of dignity or politeness. In Syria, we had learned on a previous trip that coffee is just coffee and so, happy to rest the feet we accepted.
We chatted about the shop and the chair and about how much we liked the city. I also mentioned how much the city had changed in the few years since our last visit. It was a noticeable change with mobile phones, billboards, new cars – on our earlier visit while the elder Assad was still alive, the city was awash in ancient vehicles much like Cuba and was wrapped in a palatable fear.
Our host agreed and was happy to talk about the changes, albeit slow, being made and how he was hopeful for the future. He just wished reforms would happen faster. We stayed for more coffee and quite enjoyed our time in the shop. When we went back in a couple of days to buy the chair, it was more coffee (cardamon is ground with the coffee bean for a lovely drink) and conversation. We sat and talked about all sorts of topics, including lots of politics which was completely not possible on the previous trip in the 1990s, all while the chair was being cocooned in bubble wrap for its journey.
The chair made it home in one piece and it sits in the bay window upstairs. I look at it and think about the shop and the coffee and the time spent with the owner. I wonder whether the shop has, or can survive both the civil war and the encroachment of ISIS on the outskirts of the city.
As I think about the shop, I can’t help but reflect on how the government is determined to do the least possible for the refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and the region. Listening to various government ministers, spokespeople, and mouth pieces trying to explain why they can’t do more is enough to make your head explode.
Maybe they all need to get out in the world a bit more and meet real people.