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"Let's go and listen to the storyteller of Damascus."
"What do you mean a 'storyteller'?"
"It's a old tradition. I've read that it goes back to the 12th century. It started in the streets and then in the Ottoman times it moved into the coffee houses. There's just one left now. We can go and hear him tonight."
"Gosh, you've done your homework."
"Not really. It's in my guide book. It sounds great, doesn't it?"
"It certainly sounds different. I've never heard of it. Let's give it a go."

This was not what Lance had expected when he'd booked this holiday to the Levant six months earlier. But then he hadn't expected the Arab Spring either. Tunisia, Libya and Egypt had all been set ablaze by revolutions and he'd wondered whether his holiday would go ahead. But, here in Syria and now in March 2011, all was quiet, perhaps eerily so.

So far he'd seen no evidence of unrest whatsoever and spotted fewer policemen than he would at home in London. Perhaps they were in plain clothes.

He was on an organised tour and their guide seemed to feel that the current president Bashar al-Assad was more liberal than his father. Apparently he was planning to introduce some political reforms ...

Lance recalled a bizarre sight earlier today. They had stopped for refreshments in a café where all the walls were festooned with pictures of the three Assads - father, elder son, and the younger son and current president - but most of the customers were starring at a large television set showing live the civil war in Libya.

It was not a large tourist group - just nine - and, perhaps not surprisingly, they had not seen many other visitors to the country. He was the only singleton - all the others were couples - and he was easily the youngest - early 30s to an average of mid 60s for the others. What he knew about Syria was distinctly limited and largely sparked by one of his favourite classic films: David Lean's "Lawrence Of Arabia".

All the others - mostly retired teachers and civil servants - in the group were much better informed about the nation's history, culture and politics and one of the group - he worked at the British Museum - was competent in both Latin and Greek which had already come in useful in studying some of the monuments in what was arguably the oldest living city in the world.

But I bet he knows nothing of Java or C# or PHP, thought Lance, feeling that his skills as an IT worker had to give him some kind of edge here. In fact, he had expected tight controls on the web in this totalitarian state and was surprised to note advertisements for Facebook and YouTube in many of the cafés and shops.

When he'd enquired about this, the guide had explained that access to these sites had only recently been permitted, probably as a consequence of the youth-led protests in the Middle East and perhaps because it made it easier for the security services to monitor the dissidents.

Five of them agreed to meet at 6 pm in the courtyard of their hotel in the Old City - a former grand mansion converted to provide a small number of comfortable rooms in a structure that charmed with its intimacy and character.

The group member with the informative guidebook led the way. Part of the route was along the Shariah Medhat Pasha, known to English speakers as the Street Called Straight.

The self-appointed guide, with the aide of her trusty book, explained that two millennia ago when it was known as Via Recta, this was one of the most famous streets in the world. Indeed it is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, since Paul - after his conversion on the road to Damascus - here found lodgings and had his eyesight restored. Today it is believed to be the oldest known street in the world.

As Lance was discovering, Syria was that kind of place - dripping with history.

Yesterday the group had driven a short distance north-east out of the city to the village of Maaloula, one of only three villages in the world where Aramaic - the language of Christ - is still spoken. At the Church of St Serge and Bacchus, built in 325 AD, they were treated to a rendition by a local young woman of 'the Lord's Prayer' in the original Aramaic, of which even the man from the British Museum had no facility. Lance was not religious but even he found it a deeply moving experience.

How could a storyteller compare, still less compete, with such history?

A turn here and a turn there and they found themselves in a street called Sharia al-Qaimariyya at the end of which was the Umayyad Mosque which they had visited only that morning - unmistakable with its three minarets and three domes. Nestled in the lee of the mosque's eastern wall was their destination: the coffee house called "Al-Nawfara" ("The Fountain") which claimed to be the oldest in the city.

Weaving their way through the tables and chairs on the pavement, inside they found a version of Aladdin's Cave. A modest-sized rectangular room with high ceiling was suffused with tobacco smoke and aromatic smells from a dozen or more hookahs standing alongside rickety tables. As Lance's eyes adjusted, he noted that the walls were covered with framed pictures including the ubiquitous photographs of the Assads and that the place was dominated by local males with splendid moustaches and unshaven faces. He spotted an empty table in one corner where he led the British delegation.

Everyone ordered 'ahwa' or coffee - black, syrupy Arabic coffee laced with cardamom and served in small Chinese teacups. According to taste, different members of the group drank it, as the guidebook helpfully explained, as 'moora' (no sugar), 'wassat' (a little sugar) or - in Lance's case - 'helwi' (sweet). However sweet it was, it was damn strong and he took advantage of the water that was also served.

It was not long before the traditional storyteller arrived through a back door. He stepped up to a low platform against the back wall on which was positioned his wide, high-backed cane chair. Even before he said a word, he impressed.

His white curly hair was topped by a red 'tarboosh' or fez, his bushy grey eyebrows crowned rimless spectacles perched on the end of his nose, and atop the mouth was the inevitable but thin and well-trimmed moustache. Over an open-topped white shirt, he wore a maroon velvet waistcoat and the legs were festooned with baggy trousers almost covering his white socks and black shiny shoes.

The storyteller had two props. One was not unexpected: an untidy sheaf of scrappy papers covered in handwritten Arabic like the tracks of a drunken spider. The other was less expected: a long white stick which clearly had nothing to do with his eyesight.

Then he began, alternately looking down at his notes and then gazing around the room to capture every single customer of the coffee house. His voice was mesmerising: it rose and fell in volume, it strengthened and weakened in tone, and it was punctuated with pregnant pauses.

Then he suddenly slammed the stick on the side of his chair so loudly that Lance literally jumped in his seat and knocked his coffee cup spilling a little liquid. This was just the start. Clearly the stick was as essential to the tale as the notes. The storyteller would use it to point at members of his audience to draw them further into the narrative or wave it over his head to conjure some sort of supporting atmosphere.

Lance was spellbound. He had never seen or heard anything like it. He had always loved the escapism of stories. He had been read to a lot as a child by his parents and he in turn delighted in reading stories to his nephews and niece.

But this was different. It was not just a spectacle. It literally embraced the audience. The storyteller made jokes and the coffee drinkers roared with laugher. At what were presumably appropriate points, they would 'ooh' or 'aah' and on occasion shout out comments which the storyteller would catch, twirl around, and launch back.

When it was all over, Lance fell back against the upright of his chair, totally exhilarated. It was then that he noticed the girl. She was seating alone at a table diagonally opposite his group against the steamed up window. Her beautiful face shimmered through the haze of the smoke and sweat and he was instantly captivated.

She was dark, but he could not tell at this distance if this was because she was a local or a suntanned tourist. He would have been surprised to see a young local woman alone in such a place, but maybe she was the daughter of the storyteller since she seemed so at home. He caught her gaze and to his surprise and delight she held it for a couple of seconds before looking down to the table.

Before Lance could decide whether to do anything to advance this assignation, he was carried up and swept out by the other Brits and taken to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Everyone had a really appetising dish of lamb, aubergines, almonds and rice called 'makhlooba' which means literally 'upside down' (because of how it is served). He couldn't stop thinking of the girl ...

The following day was more sightseeing: the Chapel of Ananias, a cellar named after the Christian who restored the sight of Saint Paul after he was struck blind on the road to Damascus; the Chapel of Saint Paul where the saint is reputed to have been lowered in a basket from a window in order to escape the Jews who were angered by his teaching of the new Christian faith; and the National Museum whose many fascinating exhibits included finds from Ugarit, the home of one of the world's first alphabets.

That evening, all the others in the group went to a cultural evening of song and dance but Lance returned to the "Al-Nawfara" coffee house. He took his seat at the same table and in time was gratified to see the girl adopt her previous location in the opposite corner. He sipped and savoured his sweetened coffee.

The storyteller was in fine form. Lance was no longer startled by the antics of the stick and joined in some of the audience's sound effects. This encouraged a local man at the next table to lean over to him.

"You like? Yes?"
"Sure. I've never come across anything like it."
"It is very old tradition in this part of world. We call such man 'hakawati'. I do not know name in English."
"I guess the word is storyteller."
"'Storyteller'? Yes - right word. You understand him? Yes?"
"No. I don't understand a word. What's he saying?"
"He is telling his version of story of Zenobia."
"And who is that?"
"Zenobia was Queen of Palmyra in third century. She led famous revolt against Romans. They say that she was dark and intelligent and more beautiful than Cleopatra."
"In that case, I would like to have met her", quipped Lance.
"Maybe no", rejoined his new friend. "They say that she killed her husband so to become Queen."
"Well, if she was as beautiful as you say, perhaps I would have taken my chances."
"So, you fancy your chances with beautiful foreign woman, my friend?"

This question jolted him back from the third century to the here and now and he stole a glance over to the corner table. She was still there, she was looking at them talking and, when she caught his eyes, she flashed him a smile which was so warm and so bright that he almost melted in his seat.

"Let me tell you more about our wonderful Queen Zenobia", insisted his companion.
Lance feigned interest but everything he was told about Palmyra's one-time queen seemed to be strangely applicable to his new-found princess. His eyes slid across to the girl's table again - but she was gone, seemingly as mythical as Zenobia.

He was distraught. They were leaving Damascus in the morning - in fact to drive to the ruins at Palmrya. He was convinced that his chances of seeing the girl again were as non-existent as his prospects of seeing Queen Zenobia herself. But he had to try.

He muttered apologies to his companion and rushed out of the coffee house and into the busy street. He flashed his gaze up and down the street repeatedly, but could see no one who looked like her.

In desperation, he returned to "Al-Nawfara". He pushed his way through the tables and chairs to the man who he now knew to be the owner who had a little English.

"Excuse me. The young woman who just left. Is she the storyteller's daughter?"
"Him daughter?" He laughed. "You mean American woman?"
"She's American?" Lance gasped. "Will she be coming here again? I want to get a message to her."
"No here again. Go back America now."
Lance's face fell, his body crumpled, and he slid into the nearest vacant chair.

The coffee house owner came and stood by him, his face gradually metamorphosing from concern to amusement.
"She say, if you ask about her, I give you this."

A small piece of white paper, obviously torn from a note book, had been folded once and was now passed to Lance. He smoothed out the now coffee-stained note which could hardly have communicated a briefer or more meaningful message. It read simply:


Two years later ...

Lance drew the bedroom curtains to muffle the sounds of downtown New York. He had just finished putting his baby son to sleep. He had given him a bath, put on diapers and jump suit, and read him a fairy story - tonight it was "Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves". He realised, of course, that his son had no idea at this age what was being read to him but Lance was convinced that one could enjoy storytelling without understanding a word.

He entered the living room where his wife was watching the news on television. As he rounded the couch and saw her face, he could see the flickering images of the television reflected in her glistening tears.

"Sweetheart, what's wrong?" he pleaded.
"CNN has just announced that the death toll in the Syrian civil war has now reached 100,000."
"God - that's awful."
"And they said that he's dead."
"Who's dead?"
"The storyteller. The last storyteller of Damascus."


Published on 6 July 2013

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