I have just returned from a successful shopping excursion to track down an elusive minkar for my Bellini buddy back in Australia. A minkar is a special kitchen utensil used to take the cores out of zucchinis so they may be stuffed with meat and then baked. My Bellini buddy has scoured the shops back home for such a magic wand to no avail so upon hearing of my planned trip to the homeland of the stuffed zucchini she bribed me with Prosecco to find her one. (Note to favour-hunters – Joanna J will do pretty much do anything (except George W Bush perhaps or anyone with orange peel skin for that matter) for a glass of the sparkly stuff!)
Being the local I am, I headed in a slow, almost stationary pace, to Souk-al-Bzouriyya where I had previously spied a few household stalls amongst the spices and sweets. I must confess that lady luck eluded me at first and all my cried of ‘minkar minkar’ accompanied with appropriate de-coring-of-zucchini-mime-actions seemed to bring me little joy. Someone offered me a potato peeler though which at least meant the vegetable theme had been taken on board. Anyway perturbed but not beaten I finally spied a man putting on the culinary equivalent of a fireworks display on a rug in the street by the Umayyad Mosque. Sprays of carrot, potato and tomato everywhere – cut into latticed wheels, shredded like explosions and lo and behold amidst all the vegetable-inspired frenzy sat a minkar on the verge of de-coring. I asked the man to demonstrate its wizardry a number of times before purchasing two: one for my Bellini buddy and one for myself in the hope that its addition to my kitchen tool kit will bring forth a more substantial meal than chips, salad and Thousand Island dressing.
Shopping mission achieved I then spent the next two hours roaming the streets of the souks looking for nothing in particular and finding everything instead. There are some absolutely gorgeous fabrics here in Damascus. I adore the way they sparkle in the shops but fear they would translate into tack central if I were to export them into my room beside my lava lamp and plastic plants. I ended up having tea with shop-owner Assiz and his father Mohammed. Mohammed used to manage the Damascus museum and is an expert on all things Islam. I was invited to ask him any questions I might have on such topics but all I could think of asking was how exactly they make their hoummus so creamy without a blender. The family also has an Ali Baba cave behind the great mosque full of ancient, elegant things which Assiz took me to see. Amongst all the beautiful things was a writer’s chair from the sixteenth century that a writer used to sit on outside the Government offices. Whenever someone needed the services of a writer (to scribe an official document for example) they would come to this office and choose one of the writers from the row of men sitting on their chairs. Each porcelain chair was illustrated by the writer so prospective clients could see the quality of their work; a form of early advertising I suppose – quite practical for the writer’s bottom as well. The Ali Baba cave had a terrace as well with views of Jesus’s minaret and Saladin’s dome and I have been invited to return ( with camera) to have lunch one day. Apparently Assiz’s older brother is a very good cook and it is mandatory that I taste it for myself. ‘Come around at 1 pm any day’ where the specific instructions. I told Assiz how much I wanted my parents to come see Damascus and he suggested we marry to make them come. Actually he was polite enough to assume there was a waiting list for my hand and asked only that he be added. I’d let all these declarations of love go to my head if I believed a single word.
I also went to a hammam today. Honestly some days I wear a sloth’s skin and do nothing at all and other days I am ’action man’ without the lump of plastic in my pants. So being in the latter category today I decided to visit my local – the Hammam Bakri – for a bit of a scrub down Syrian style. I am not really a hammam-type person typically speaking. Sweaty nakedness with unknown persons in close proximity is not my forté (I have very English blood) but this is actually the reason why I go. To challenge myself, to stretch my limitations, to let the hairy beast breathe where other beasts go to breathe as well.
Anyway the hammam itself was very beautiful. Carpeted seating surrounding a courtyard brimming with plants and cool, flowing water. Above it was a charming old dome with holes that let the Damascus sky in. I suppose God is allowed to peek in from above since She is a woman after all! I decided to go for the full scrub massage thing – if you are going to challenge yourself you might as well do it properly – which began with me squatting in a steam room until my eyes bled. Then a woman carted me away and got me to lay down on the marble where she encouraged me to remove my swimwear (no easy feat ) and scrubbed my flawed skin until it shone like polished sand. Then she massaged me gently ( none of this Turkish sumo wrestling style here) and left me to loofah and wash myself with all the other women. It was very relaxing and it was nice to be left to my own devices – to prance about naked with all my other naked sisters. The last time I went to a hammam ( which incidentally was my first time too) was in Syria too - in Hama, a lovely town three hours from Damascus. That experience had been completely different. The hammam had been crowded with local women all determined to scrub me senseless. It had been a wonderful experience filled with dancing, singing and a lot of home cooking but I actually appreciated the solitude this time. The quiet thoughtfulness of washing.
Now I am scrubbed and shopped and ready to face dinner with the stomach of soldier.