Letters from Dad—One of the first letters from Syria
If you let it, travel will broaden your understanding of the world and enlighten you about the cultures of other people. It has happened to me many times but the first time was in the Middle East during one of my earliest trips as an International Sales person for Harris. I had been in Damascus, the "pearl of the East,” for about three days and had accomplished the business I came for. My return flight was scheduled 1 day out so I had a free day to wander about this historic and famous city (the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world). As I was new to international travel and this was my second trip into the Middle East, I really had no idea where to go or what to see but I had heard that a visit to the old covered Suk (pronounced Sook) was a mandatory stop for all visitors who wanted to experience Arabic culture.
Every Islamic country has a bazaar where you can buy spices, fresh vegetables, clothing and all types of pottery. It is the equivalent of our Wall-Mart but it is always in the oldest and most colorful part of town. In the Arab countries, they call them the Suk or the Medina. You pass through a time warp and go back five hundred to eight hundred years when you enter one, but, as a westerner, you do it only in the daytime. At night, it is considered unsafe for a westerner. In these areas, one can wander through winding alleys, elbow to elbow, with people in traditional Arab dress. Cars and trucks are too wide to enter -- instead one finds only little beasts of burden plodding resignedly over the cobblestones beside their masters. Occasionally leading off the alleys are rambling arcades or ominous looking dark entryways that lead to other parts of the Suk or, if you follow along them far enough, another exit that takes you into the old parts of the city.
Stalls flank the alleys. Each with as much of its merchandise as possible displayed out front in the street, usually hung on the front of the stall and displayed on tables, boxes, and a variety of stands. The atmosphere is exotic and fascinating to foreign visitors.
Bargaining is the way of life and much shouting can be heard. Arabs engaging in this traditional activity, stand so close to one another that their noses almost touch and they shout with such vigor that they can be heard a half block away. Facial expressions portray various extremes of emotion -- usually anger, calculated to intimidate, but can change dramatically and with practiced ease to disdain, contempt, disinterest, and condescension.
When a Westerner sees this for the first time, he usually stares anxiously, expecting a fight to the death with knives. The act is cultivated from childhood, all native people do it superbly, and I suspect enjoy doing it. Often the prospective buyer feigning either disinterest or anger, will go stamping off in a great and dramatic huff at which point the seller may run after him shouting ever lowering prices until he reaches his lowest offer and then he assumes the role of the aggrieved one and with a murderous expression on his face he strides resolutely back to his little stall -- sometimes with the buyer running after him holding out an amount of money just under the lowest offer.
For me the custom of bargaining was new and posed a real dilemma. I was not accustomed to the vigorous discussions and had to learn a mastery of this art by watching others and then trying, on a very modest level, to imitate the successful people I had seen. My first efforts were for a tablecloth that I wanted to purchase for my mother and fortunately the merchant was kind to me.
I knew better than to immediately go to what I wanted. I would walk about pretending interest in many things and asking the price. In each case I would tell the merchant that his prices were too high and that I was a poor engineer who could not afford such luxuries. My interest was to find a very nice but not expensive gift for my mother and I did not wish to disappoint her.
At his point, he ordered tea which came in small glasses. I knew I could not refuse as it is an insult to refuse hospitality. We took some minutes to enjoy out tea and then returned to looking around the shop. At one point, I saw this beautiful green tablecloth with gold thread that was just perfect. I picked up one next to the one I wanted and we started to talk price. The one I had in my hand was inferior to the one I wanted.
The merchant started at a very high price of well over $100.00 in Dinars (the Syrian currency) and I started at 90% less. Each of us in turn would tell the other how foolish we were to expect that price and we started to narrow the gap in very small steps. As we came closer, the tempo of our conversation increased until finally the merchant called a halt and we again had tea.
As we finished our tea, we came to within a dollar of each other and at this point, I picked up the one I really wanted and said I would take this one for his price. Again, the bartering had to start but we were much closer to a final price. In the end, he got to his best and final and I still wanted to pay less so we compromised. He gave me a small gift and I paid about five dollars more than I wanted.
The negotiation was completed in a mixture of French, Arabic, English and sign language. The process took nearly an hour to complete and in the end I feel sure I paid more than an Arab would have done but I learned the process, had tea with the shop owner and came away feeling a degree of pride I had not expected.
While my drama was personally satisfying, as you walk along the streets, at any moment, one can see and hear many such dramas taking place. As I learned the techniques of bartering, I became greatly impressed at the amount of thespian talent one sees in these native bazaars. I regret that I have never video taped the sights and sounds of the Suk. Foreign visitors, like me, sometimes fall naturally into the bargaining custom and enjoy it as much as the Arabs. Others cannot accept the practice and loose an opportunity to interact with the shop owner who finds joy in the exchange.
Merchandise on display is often fascinating. You see rich brocades, woven baskets, leather purses, shining copper, hand crafted gold necklace and brass pots in the making. You hear the sound of the artisans hammering these metals on their anvils. The shouts of street venders hawking their wares. Shops selling all sorts of wicked looking knives and daggers. There are always many jewelry shops displaying gold and silver necklaces intricately worked by hand, bright colored beads and puzzle rings of silver and gold, which come apart if you take them off, and fall into a jumble of seemingly unrelated pieces. From time to time you are drawn by the aroma of Arab coffee to some tiny stall or hole in the wall entrepreneur. You may be tempted to forget the calories and have a piece of halva which is made by rolling out pastry until it is paper thin, spreading honey over it, folding it, spreading more honey, folding it again and so on until is perhaps a hundred or more layers thick at which point it goes into the oven.
The one section of the Suk that I love the most is the spice area. The smells are never to be forgotten and even now I can close my eyes and once again smell those pungent fragrances of spices sitting in open containers. Each merchant has his own specialty and each is shouting at you to come to his shop for the “best deal”. For me, just a walk though is a delight.
Shocking to the Westerner are the small native butcher stalls where sheep and goat meat covered by flies, evidently wrenched apart rather than cut, hangs on gambrels in the hot sunshine, out where people are walking. There is no refrigeration and I have no idea how long the meat hangs before it is sold.
After I toured the Suk, I managed to have a quick look at the Great Mosque and the wall of the Temple to Adad dating from the first century. It impressed me that the city was already well established in the time of Abraham and was over-run in the first millennium B.C. by the Armenians. Damascus has known many conquerors and many cultures. It was for a time part of the Persian Empire, then followed conquests by the army of Alexander the Great, the Egyptians, the Romans, and finally the Arabs again. There was much more in this fascinating city of great antiquity than I had time to see.
In the evening, I joined my friend and his charming wife for drinks at their apartment. They were of Palestine origin and both came from prominent old families. Ali was about forty, neatly dressed in a dark suit and very distinguished. His slender brown haired wife would have been not much over thirty and was quite attractive. Their apartment was expensively decorated in impeccable European fashion but with many fine Persian rugs and oriental object d'art. Ali and his wife had been educated in Europe. Both were fluent in English, French and Arabic.
I was impressed by their refined manners -- their extreme consideration and politeness which I came to understand was typical of Arabs. Although I saw many things that I thought particularly beautiful in their home, I knew better than to say so. The people of the Middle East have an ancient tradition of hospitality that compels them to give you whatever you admire so one must be careful about offering any compliments.
My evening ended and I returned to my hotel. Tomorrow was Friday and I was scheduled to fly out.
Herb & Barbara our interests and family