The next couple of entries are in honor of Reem Tarjouman, a friend I barely got to know before cancer took her from the world far too early. She was at once a modern woman, an educated woman and also a religious woman who loved her country from top to bottom. She showed me a side of my own hometown that made me want to stay forever. There’s a vibrancy to Old Damascus that defies time and politics, yet until this trip the intimacy of the area was lost on me. Thank you, Reem, for inviting me to see that world again.
On a tour through old Damascus, Reem showed me the workshop of sculptor Mustafa Ali. It is in an old Jewish home in the Jewish district of Damascus. People are still calling it the Jewish district although the last of our Jewish community left years ago. The Zionist equation had simply made travel to other communities in Israel and Palestine too difficult, so the Jews in Damascus had become isolated and had dwindling numbers over the last decade or so. Even with the wars over the last several decades, it wasn't until more recently that travel and communication became insurmountably problematic for them. With fewer than ninety families as early as the mid-1990’s, they believed that they could no longer marry or sustain their culture in Damascus. Even so, most of the Jews leaving supposedly chose to go to the US or other countries outside the Middle East rather than move to Israel. No doubt, they were tired of being forced to live such a politically charged life. It's very sad. The Jewish community in Damascus was probably one of the oldest in the world and the Middle East. It has been a cornerstone of the Damascene identity to have all three “religions of the book” (a.k.a. Judaism, Christianity, & Islam) living side by side in peace ever since the Muslims arrived in the 7th century.
When the Jewish community left Damascus, they sold their homes in the Jewish quarter, inside the walls of the old city. Some of those homes were very old. When I say old, I mean OLD. The ancient and revered Church of St. Ananias (Hanania in Arabic) is built on the two thousand year old foundation of the home of the saint himself, with the original chapel cut out of the bedrock beneath. So, even if a home in that district is only a few hundred years old, the property on which it was built has been a part of Damascene life for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
There is one upside to the situation. The departing families sold their properties. It was the first time so much real estate was available inside the old city walls, near Straight Street and the Eastern Gate. The area is full of locally crafted goods, from all three of the “religions of the book,” but buying into the neighborhood had been next to impossible for most of the last century. Artists bought some of the Jewish homes and made them workshop/galleries with private spaces attached. So, now, the Jewish quarter lives on as a cultural renaissance.
Mustafa Ali’s gallery is one such place. Reem and I browsed his catalog of work, saw scale models of some pieces, and looked at some of the work from local artists he was featuring in his gallery. Meanwhile, he was busy working in a building nearby while a team was renovating an upstairs wing into an apartment for an artist residency program he was anxious to get started.
His sculptures are intimate, lyrical, modern, and yet hold echoes of the ancient and prehistoric sites that are all over Syria. Just when you think you know his style, he introduces a new facet. He’s one of my all time favorites, and least of all because of being Syrian. Really, I just love his work. Please visit his facebook page to see some photos, there are many and they demonstrate how versatile yet unique Ali’s work is.
Here’s a link to a wonderful article about Mustafa Ali, written by Lara Dunston:
After our visit to Mustafa Ali’s gallery complex, Reem and I peeked into the Talisman Hotel. WOW!! It’s a modern restoration of an old Damascene house with each room decorated using Arab handicrafts like inlaid furniture, brocade and embroidered table cloths. I had been to another old Arab house come hotel, Beit Wakil, in Aleppo with my father in 1998. That antique (possibly ancient) bed and breakfast was exotic but not particularly luxurious at the time. The rooms were all sparse little singles opening onto the courtyard (from its days as a hostel of sorts for trade caravans). What Beit Wakil lacked in amenities, it made up for in uniqueness. The reception area featured what looked like an Islamic dome that once sheltered a Muslim prayer area but also held a fountain hinting that the space may have been a Turkish hamam in a previous generation. In it’s second courtyard, where the restaurant was housed, Beit Wakil boasted five levels of cellars ending in a passage that may once have connected to a secret network that had served the Aleppo Citadel. So, when I tell you that the Talisman will blow your mind all over again, take my full meaning. Talisman begins where Beit Wakil left off! The intricate embroidery and mosaic, brass work and other local handicrafts is exquisite. At the Talisman, expect to experience luxury living at the level of princes in antiquity, even while sleeping in western style beds. Both Beit Wakil in Aleppo and the Talisman Hotel in Damascus are highly recommended. I don’t have photos of the Talisman, and my photos of Beit Wakil are not digital, so I defer to google image searches for the cream of this blog entry.
Here is a link to a google image search for Beit Wakil, Aleppo. Not every photo is from Beith Wakil, but most of them are. They have a facebook page but it currently features pictures of the damage inflicted by the war. I would rather you saw it’s splendor first.
Use this link for pictures of the Talisman Hotel. As you scroll down, beyond the 5th row or so, some are not from the Talisman but other hotels in Damascus or even elsewhere. If you search hard enough you might even see a picture of Brangelina standing in the main courtyard of the Talisman.