One taxi driver steals our biscuits, and another takes us to the bus station. There, two companies offer buses to Istanbul, our next stop. One is a couple of hundred Syrian pounds cheaper than the other.
“Don’t go with them”
The more expensive one advises us,
“they will stop in Antakya and make you pay more”.
The man speaking is slick-haired and overfriendly. I instinctively don’t trust him. But what if he’s right…?
“Don’t listen to them”
The cheaper one warns,
“they telling lies”.
We’re stuck between the price and the risk. Eventually our slick-haired friend lowers his price to match next door’s, and we go with him. He’s excited by my guitar- he play the Oud, he says. A memory stick appears in his hand and we’re hunched over my laptop, listening to flamenco. He gives me folders of music and says I must come to his house at 5.30pm so we can play together. His name is Ma’an, he says.
Although I’m grateful for the music, I still don’t trust Ma’an. Security was breached by the bus dilemma, and I feel like I witnessed in him a sly businessman in action, something I intensely dislike. I say I’ll call him, and Billy and I pocket our tickets and head into town.
Damascus: another loud, busy hub, but somehow different. The sunlight feels older here, and there’s a pedestrian life buzzing in spite of the cars, louder than their honking. Mountains of coffee beans line the market streets; a horse and cart trot through; sellers cry out with capital-city confidence. There’s a darkness, too. On a footbridge, a child sits on a square of cardboard with his small hand outstretched and a frown set in his brow. He can’t be older than four. An older boy in a torn T-shirt watches him beg.
There are a lot of children in the streets here, darting between legs or working on the stalls. Unbroken voices join the chorus of men shouting Coffee, Soap, Walnuts For Sale.
“Super Top Best Hip Hop”
reads a pair of not-Nike shorts hanging at a stall,
We find the Old City. It’s a jumble of ancient pillars, ancient walls and new tat, bright stuffed toys and bras and brushes. Tourists amble slowly, not looking ahead, while Syrians hustle through fast. There are red and yellow mounds of spices, and brass Aladdin lamps, and a garden with real trees.
It’s been a long time since we saw a garden: the last two weeks have been a parched expanse of desert. We sit in its shade gladly and watch enormous ants exploring a wall. Swallows scoop flies from the air. A river runs by.
Things to do, though: we eat falafel and I get my hair cut by a market barber whose shop hides up a set of stairs. Cigarette smoke wreathes my head as his clippers buzz it tidy. The warm press of the machine shaving my skull and the chanted prayer from the television soothe me into a trance, exhausted as I am. Then he slaps me with cologne, brushes me down and spins me off the chair. That’ll be one pound fifty.
By the time I’ve found an internet café, got the blog half up to speed and looked for presents for Laura it’s long past five thirty, and I think perhaps I’ll call Ma’an after all. It’s half an hour before I find a place that’ll let me call a mobile.
“Where were you? I am waiting at five thirty.”
I hurry onto a minibus and run to meet him outside the bus station. He isn’t there. A group of street kids play with a small digital radio and count at me in English.
“One Two Five Four”
I correct them and they cluster around me, eager for a lesson. We count all the way up to Ten together, the eldest one bright with pride that he’s managed it. I wonder when they last spent a day in school.
Ma’an arrives, in jeans and a smart shirt with a friend. He’s all smiles, and is so genuinely disappointed that I didn’t come earlier that all my suspicions about his motives disappear.
“It is too late to go to my house now. Let’s get something to drink”
We sit outside a teashop and talk music. Ma’an’s vocabulary comes to life when music is the subject, all Notation and Melody and Tone. A warmth builds quickly between the people of our group, a phenomenon I’ve noticed often when chatting to Middle Eastern men. Friendship is announced and nurtured from the very first, bolstered by smiles and nods and listening eyes. Within minutes we’re firm friends, and within half an hour we’re close to tears at parting. I try to pay for the tea, but Ma’an and his friend physically restrain me and insist on paying themselves.
“It would be shaming for us if you paid, you must understand”.
A sadness of no longer flying is that it’s less likely that you’ll return to wherever you visit; it’s just so much harder to come. But Ma’an makes me promise I’ll come back, and I do believe I will.