From a Journal NY Times


May 19, 2010

Don’t be like me. Don’t fly to Damascus; book a room in one of the exquisitely restored Ottoman-era boutique hotels in the Old City, wheedle an address from a local for the best place to buy embroidered aghabani tablecloths, push through the labyrinth of the Souk al-Hamidiyeh and beyond to find said naperer (Abdalla and Dubbane) . . . and then fail to buy your mother the most perfect aghabani on earth, because you’ve been marathon shopping for three days and are too whipped to hunt down an A.T.M. Know that you may never see that tablecloth again — all 14 feet of cream-colored cotton, filigreed with scrolling garlands stitched by seamstresses in a molten shade of amber, 16 napkins included, for 9,000 Syrian pounds (about $190).

I should have realized that this purchase was not optional when I ran into a group of women at Abdalla and Dubbane who’d traveled from Jordan to stock up on new patterns. Their ringleader was Alma Lou Annab, a grandma in gold Nike sneakers and a purple tracksuit, who’d met her husband — a Jordanian — at Arizona State University in Tempe. “One day I walked across the street and saw those dark eyes and that gorgeous black mustache, and I said to my girlfriend, ‘Get a load of that!’ And then a day or two later, ‘Get a load of that’ walked into the campus coffee shop!” A year later, she married him, and eventually they moved to Amman. “Everyone in Jordan knows that this is the place to come for tablecloths,” Annab said. She offered a lesson in bargaining. “Never insult the product, just say you can’t afford it and act regretful,” she said. “When the salesman asks, ‘What could you pay?’ offer a price 25 to 50 percent less than you’re willing to pay, and if he says no, sigh and leave. If he wants to sell it, he’ll come after you — you hope.”

The first time I visited Damascus, in 2005, I had no idea about the shopping. In those days, Syria was better known in the West as a popular destination for war refugees, not for thrill-seeking, bargain-hunting tourists. I’d traveled there on impulse and on tenterhooks. Two expat friends of mine had bumped into one another in Damascus, learned they had me in common and urged me to visit. For a while, I waffled.

It was two years into the Iraq war, and the fact that Syria shared a border with Iraq unnerved me. Also, I worried that Americans might not feel welcome in Damascus, given that the Bush administration had recalled the United States ambassador earlier that year. Still, I booked a ticket, with a strict goal of not offending any Syrian citizen in any way.

To that end, before leaving New York, I asked a Middle Eastern friend to teach me how to say, “I like the people of Syria” in Arabic, as an ingratiating ice breaker. But I hadn’t listened well enough, and on the last day of my visit, I learned from an amused cabdriver that what I’d been telling Damascene shopkeepers as I giddily snapped up copper trays, brocade runners, kilims, ouds, camel leather purses and other bounty, was: “I like young Syrian men.” It’s possible that this phrase, misleading though it was, may have generated a fair amount of international goodwill. Still, by the end of that trip, I realized that my pre-journey jitters had been unnecessary. Damascus has been a metropolis for millennia, not to mention a hub of trade on the old Silk Road, and Damascenes have had plenty of time to get used to foreign visitors.

At the heart of the Syrian capital is the walled Old City, and within it, the Umayyad Mosque — with a vast marble courtyard that shines like water, reflecting the mosque’s cloisters. Many people enter the Old City through the bustling, shop-lined street known as the Souk al-Hamidiyeh. Newcomers to Damascus have often heard about Souk al-Hamidiyeh but don’t understand that it’s only one of many souks in the Old City. Locals shop here for household goods, while the choicer offerings lurk in the labyrinth beyond al-Hamidiyeh. Walking those ancient streets, you feel as if you were in a medieval French village, until you come upon a towering Roman column or arch, a reminder of those who came to Damascus before, and left. Besides the impressive columns, the Romans left behind the Via Recta (“Straight Street”), which Damascenes call Medhat Pasha. The street cuts through the Old City like a plumb line and is a useful orienting tool for non-Arabic-speaking visitors.

This spring, when I returned to Damascus, I was curious about

the touristic renaissance that has recently overtaken the city with the opening of some magnificent hotels like Beit Al Mamlouka and blue-chip properties like the Four Seasons. Some Damascenes consider this newfound popularity a mixed blessing. They complain of a supposed decline in craftsmanship and influx of cheap imports. Like the parents of a shy, gifted child who suddenly blossoms and turns into a prom queen, they seem wary — suspicious of their city’s newly broad appeal and resistant to overpraise. But to an outsider, the charges are slanderous.

At the Seher al-Sharck mother-of-pearl workshop well outside the Old City, where few tourists venture, I had the privilege of watching a team of men adorn a suite of Louis XV-style chairs with shimmering shell. One man carefully chiseled a floral pattern into a walnut chair back, following a paper pattern; another carved out the hollows in the chiseled piece where shell or camel bone would later go; others sanded chips of shell and bone and glued them into the hollows; others smoothed out the finished piece, then oiled it to make it shine. Finally, the chair would be upholstered in Damascene silk brocade.

But I hadn’t come to Damascus for chairs; I’d come to Damascus for remedial shopping. I operate under the assumption that you can’t get what you want if you don’t know what you want, and the first time I came here I’d been unprepared. This time I knew what to covet — like an aghabani tablecloth. With my priorities in order, I stopped by the opening of a new upscale minimall on Medhat Pasha called the Khan on my first evening. I found myself in a fancy galleria, with a throng of foreign ambassadors, Syrian socialites and television reporters, all of them sipping fruit juices and nibbling petits fours. The Khan’s boutiques offered (in addition to Dolce & Gabbana, Ralph Lauren and the like) lace and silk bras with beaded pearl straps that doubled as necklaces; clutch handbags silk-screened with images of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum; and even a mother-of-pearl-inlaid foosball table. There were also traditional shops: a handmade-soap boutique and a brocade room dominated by an antique 7,200-needle loom. Throughout the evening, an elderly weaver patiently worked the treadle. “Rich Syrians who come here will have never seen such a thing,” observed Amjad Malki, one of the owners. Is this the future of the Damascus souk? Well, it’s certainly not the past.

This was definitely a new Damascus, but I craved the rough-and-tumble shopping experience I’d stumbled upon five years earlier. I needed expert guidance, though, and this can be tricky as Damascenes, like Parisians, have a cultivated, contrarian spirit and enjoy disparaging one another’s recommendations. I sought the advice of two locals: Jacques Montluçon, a French-born engineer and specialist in antiquities restoration (he once led a team that preserved relics from the Titanic), and Sameer Hamsho, the owner of the rug shop Old City. As we sat in the back room of Hamsho’s store, the two men argued about whether the continuing conversion of Old City beits (private homes) into chic hotels and restaurants was a good or a bad thing and debated which of the thousands of surrounding shops most deserved a visit.

“Think of Damascus as a giant department store, only instead of aisles there are streets,” said Montluçon, who handed me a sheaf of papers containing his top picks. In one “aisle” you’ll find hammered copper and brass trays and coffeepots (Souk Medhat Pasha); in another, barrels of spices and candies (Souk al-Bzourieh); in others, mother-of-pearl-inlaid furniture and Bohemian-glass hookahs (Bab Sharqi and Hanania Street). “Anything you want, you can get in Damascus,” Montluçon told me. “But first you must know where to get it.”

The Souk al-Hamidiyeh, the main shopping drag of the Old City, mostly sells everyday wares, but Middle Eastern women know to go there for red-hot lingerie. From a cluster of storefronts, middle-aged merchants (men) sell bras and panties in gumdrop colors, trimmed with net, feathers, paillettes or Muppet plush. At these stalls, you will see Iranian matriarchs, dressed in black robes and veils, un-self-consciously fingering purple sequined bras. My friend Pauline took me on a naughty knickers tour and persuaded a merchant to show us his most elaborate line of string bikinis, which are battery-operated and work by remote control. One had a rubber tongue set into the crotch. When he pressed a button, the tongue started to writhe; we shrieked and ran away, as if we were 12.

Over the next few days, whenever I ran my compiled choices by opinionated Damascenes, they would raise their eyebrows and offer their picks instead. Ultimately I decided that my own unassisted eye was as good a guide as any. Outsiders must retain the strength of will when shopping in Damascus to beg tips from local cognoscenti; to ignore the cognoscenti and trust their own taste if they see something they like; and to pay cash if the Visa machines won’t work. (They often won’t.) There may be no place on the planet where so many beautiful things are concentrated in a few square cobblestoned miles. It’s worth the effort. And whatever you end up choosing, no matter how connoisseurs may judge it, no matter how well or how badly you bargained for it, it will always retain this indestructible value: You had to go to Damascus to get it.


HOTELS: Beit Al Mamlouka Tastefully designed boutique hotel with a lovely courtyard. 011-963-11-543-04-456;; doubles from about $100. Beit Zaman Hotel An elegant restored beit conveniently located on Medhat Pasha. 011-963-11-543-538-088;; doubles from about $200. Four Seasons Hotel Damascus Luxury property just outside the Old City. Avenue Shukri Al Quatli; 011-963-11-339-1000;; doubles from $360.

BOUTIQUES: Abdalla and Dubbane The best source for embroidered aghabani tablecloths. On Ibn Khaldoun Street, near the Souk al-Hamidiyeh; 011-963-11-221-8748. Alkhayat Antiques Three side-by-side shops that offer a wide selection of hand-blown glassware, kilims, Berber rugs and textiles. At the end of Medhat Pasha, right inside Bab Sharqi (the Old City’s east gate); 011-963-11-544-5574. Anat Offering exquisitely embroidered wall hangings, abayas, purses and tablecloths. The shop employs craftswomen from Syrian villages and refugee camps. On Medhat Pasha, near the Bab Sharqi gate, next to the Armenian Orthodox Church; 011-963-11-542-7878; Antiquo A wide selection of tablecloths. On Medhat Pasha, near the giant Roman arch; 011-963-11-541-3750. DanMas The owner designs most of the products, from towels to dog beds. On Qeimariyeh Street, near Al Nawfara coffee shop; 011-963-933-319-180. George Dabdoub A one-stop shop with carpets, kilims, icons, brocade, jewelry, mother-of-pearl-inlaid furniture and more. Right next to the Azem Palace; 011-963-11-221-6988. Ghraoui Damascenes come here for delicious chocolates, candies and jams. On Port Said Street, west of the Old City; 011-963-11-231-1323; The Khan New minimall in the Old City with high-end fashion and design boutiques. On Medhat Pasha, near the Maktab Anbar house; 011-963-11-544-993-40; Kozah Art Gallery The husband-and-wife owners design silver jewelry and also sell paintings and sculptures. On Medhat Pasha, near the Roman arch; 011-963-11-543-4599. Old City Rug shop with Syrian kilims and antique Persian and Turkish carpets. Next to Al Nawfara cafe; 011-963-11-544-3861. Yana Kilims Offering beautifully preserved Bedouin salt bags as well as one-of-a-kind kilims. In the Old City, across from Al Nawfara coffee shop; 011-963-11-542-3229.

NY Times



36 Hours in Damascus


DAMASCUS loves to flaunt its age. It claims to be the world’s oldest inhabited city — replete with biblical and Koranic lore, Roman ruins, ancient Islamic edifices and Ottoman-era palaces. But that’s not to say the Syrian capital is stuck in time. Dozens of centuries-old mansions have been reborn as Mideast-chic hotels, and fashionable shops and restaurants have arisen in the ancient lanes of the Old City. Throw in a fledgling generation of bars and clubs, and the age-old metropolis has never looked so fresh.


5 p.m.

“Rise and go to the street called Straight.” That was God’s dictum to Ananias of Damascus, who cured Saul after he was famously blinded by the light, leading to his conversion and new identity as Paul. It’s still excellent advice. In recent years, the ancient edifices along Straight Street have welcomed design shops, Wi-Fi cafes and stylish hangouts like the Khan (Straight Street, Midhat Pasha Suq, Maktab Anbar district; 963-11-544-99340; The artsy mall opened this year in a 17th-century mansion and is filled with cool shops and galleries like Tajalliyat Art Gallery (which specializes in Syrian contemporary painters), Yabi & Yamo (modern updates of classic Syrian furniture) and Khanoum (Middle Eastern fashion designers).

8 p.m.

Also on Straight Street is Naranj (963-11-541-3600), a stylish new restaurant across from the Roman Arch. Under carved wood ceilings and soaring archways, a well-heeled international crowd smokes water pipes and chats animatedly as white-clad waiters serve excellent mezze including mekanek, tender sausages soaked in a light lemon broth. Also worthwhile are djaj mousakhan (a Levantine answer to the egg roll made from diced chicken that gets dusted in tangy sumac powder and deep fried in an oily-crisp bread shell) and burghal bi dfin (a slow-cooked leg of lamb served with mounds of fluffy steamed burghal). A large meal for two, without wine, runs about 2,000 lira (as Syrian pounds are commonly called), about $45 at 44.5 lira to the dollar.

10 p.m.

Cozy couches, bookshelves, local artworks and a decent bar have made Cham Mahal Art Café (Al Amin Street; 963-11-543-5349) into a de facto living room for the city’s creative set. On certain nights you’ll find jazz, guitar, flamenco or other groups giving concerts. The music sounds even better with a bottle of Lebanese Al Maza beer (100 lira) or a glass of Lebanese wine (175 lira) from Chateau Ksara.


10 a.m.

One of the holiest sites in Islam is the Umayyad Mosque. Built in the early eighth century on the former site of the Roman temple to Jupiter, the vast rectangular structure is celebrated for its green and gold mosaics, and for the Islamic figures buried there. Just above the north wall is the mausoleum of Saladin, the celebrated medieval leader of the Islamic forces against Richard the Lion-Hearted and the Crusaders. In the east wing, black-clad mourners pay their respects at the silver coffin of the Shiite martyr Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, whose murder in A.D. 680 cemented the great Sunni-Shiite split. Admission: 50 lira.


Looking for great hummus, tabbouleh and kebabs? Look elsewhere. The tiny Grape Leaves cafe (just south of Al Qemerieh Street; 963-11-542-6160) ditches Mideastern culinary stereotypes in favor of simple, rustic home cooking. The young guys behind the counter serve earthy dishes like sheikh al mahshi (a gloriously sloppy ragout of zucchini stuffed with ground lamb in a warm yogurt sauce over rice) and fasoulia bil zeit (a vegetarian mix of slow-cooked green beans and lentils in a tomato-garlic sauce). The milky-sweet rice pudding is a fine finish. Lunch for two is around 550 lira.

2 p.m.

While the Old City’s best-known bazaar is undoubtedly Souk El Hamidiyeh, the real treasures are hidden deeper in the maze. Fadi (across from the south wall of the Umayyad Mosque; 963-11-221-1848) has gauzy red vests with ornate embroidery handmade from camel and goat hair (2,500 lira). The two-year-old DanMas shop (Maktab Anbar Street; 963-93-331-9180) carries hand-loomed cotton towels (2,200 lira) and hooded bathrobes (6,000 lira). And Ghassan Orientals (across from Al-Maljaa park; 963-11-543-5615) specializes in handmade furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl patterns.

5 p.m.

Sweltering in a hot, wet underground room and having your skin scoured by a stranger might not sound like the sexiest form of fitness, but the time-honored tradition is remarkably restorative. Built in the 14th century, Hammam Al Nasri (Al Nassiri Street, Old City, south of Straight Street; 963-11-543-6126) reopened this summer after a half-century of disuse. Grab a towel, take a seat in the tile-lined inner sanctum and let the superheated vapors purge the filth and toxins from your pores. Afterward, a hammam worker will rub you with an exfoliating glove, wrap you in soft towels and lead you into the tea lounge. The experience costs 380 lira. Note: The hammam is women-only every day until 4 p.m. Afterward it is exclusively for men; Friday is men only.

8 p.m.

If you learn only one Arabic phrase, “kebab karaz” might offer the tastiest payoff. It means cherry kebab, and the combination of succulent lamb chunks and sour-sweet cherry sauce is a beloved dish from the Syrian city of Aleppo. At the new Luluat al Sharq restaurant (Jisr al Abyad, New Damascus; 963-11-331-1604), which translates as Pearl of the East, the noted chef Yasser Jneidi serves Aleppan delicacies in a lavishly restored early-20th-century mansion. The silky-smooth hummus is whipped with generous infusions of tahini and lemon juice, and the glistening red muhammara (made from finely diced nuts, spices and olive oil) has an admirable kick. A meal for two, without drinks, runs about 2,500 lira.

11 p.m.

Rub elbows with the city’s young, Western-oriented Syrians at Z-Bar (Omayad Hotel, corner of Maysaloun and Brazil Streets, New Damascus; 963-11-221-7700; , a sleek rooftop bar with some pricey bottles of Roberto Cavalli vodka on the shelf. The style-conscious and alcohol-laden crowd sways to house, trance and Arabic pop music, while marveling at the nocturnal views. Even swankier, the open-air dance floor of Dome (Unknown Soldier Road, East Doummar district; 963-99-155-5444; feels like Syria via South Beach, with its white Chesterfield couches and white neo-Baroque bar stools. The 20- and 30-something patrons get dolled up in high hemlines and plunging necklines, designer jeans and fat silvery watches.


10 a.m.

Visitors to the National Museum (Al Jamiaa Street; 963-11-222-8566) usually make a beeline to its two famous artifacts: a tablet from the ancient city of Ugarit inscribed with what is believed to be one of the world’s first known alphabets and the ornate Jewish temple from the vanished desert town of Dura Europos. But other masterpieces lurk in lesser-viewed corners. Among them are the Mari wing, which includes a gypsum statue of the singer of the temple of Ur-Nanshe, with his curiously androgynous look, and a wing devoted to Islamic-era ceramics, metalwork and carvings, including a rare plate depicting the Tree of Life. Admission: 150 lira.

1 p.m.

Damascus offers much more than just tablecloths and cheap souvenirs. The handicraft souk next to the Tekkiye Suleymaniye mosque is noted for its skilled artisans and (generally) fixed prices. The leather master Ahmad Jaqmiri (main alley; 963-11-224-7590) fashions handmade belts (600 to 1,500 lira) and bags in all sizes (from 350 lira). And just off the souk’s main passage in a small courtyard, the female weavers at Wardy feed strands of wool into a wooden hand-operated loom. The colorful, geometric carpets (1,000 lira) weave together age-old tradition with contemporary styling.


Opened this year, Agenor (Straight Street; 963-11-541-3651; is a luxurious 12-room boutique hotel in a 19th-century mansion brimming with ornate mosaics, intricately carved wood, hammered copper, inlaid furniture and other sumptuous traditional details. Doubles from $225.

Al Pasha Hotel (Zaitoun Street; 963-11-543-0100;, another 2010 creation, is a 16-room minipalace that features lavish old- style Damascene décor. A gym, spa and pleasant outdoor bar are on the premises. Doubles from $195.

Decades ago, the grand Art Deco-style Orient Palace Hotel (Hijaz Square, new Damascus; 963-11-221-1510; entertained visiting celebrities and heads of state. The hotel is now a shell of its former self, but the faded glory and central location make it a decent budget option. Doubles: $60.