I’d severely underestimated the heat of Damascus and after wandering back through the souks to my hostel I settled down for a late afternoon siesta and a shower before heading out again to enjoy my night in Damascus.
I’d heard about Al Nofara cafe at the eastern quarter of the Ummayad mosque, established 250 years ago they are one of the few places where you can be entertained on a nightly basis by Abu Shadi, one of Damascus’ last traditional “Hakawati” or story tellers.
I arrived at the bustling cafe as one of the famous Ramadan television soaps was showing on a small corner television, to the delight of the assembled crowd and settled into a good seat with an arguileh and tea to await the arrival of Abu Shadi.
Using my appalling Arabic I had ascertained that he would start at about 730pm but this being the Middle East it was nearer 9pm when he did arrive by which time the small cafe was full to bursting with locals and tourists alike.
Alas my Arabic didn’t stretch as far as what the actual story was, apart from the fact it seemed to be about Saaladin, a famous battle story or something I imagined, but really it was simply a joy to watch how animated the story teller was in conveying his tale to the crowds.
Using a cane, he repeatedly would crash it down on a nearby table to the delight of some, consternation of others, his voice rising from near whisper to a roar in seconds to convey the drama of his story.
By now the waiters were unable to pass and members of the audience were soon passing glasses of tea and charcoal for the arguilehs amongst themselves, something which added to the intimate atmosphere.
When Abu shadi had finished, most of the tourists began to leave but I settled in with my book and stayed to enjoy the next wave of people coming into the cafe to meet with friends, knocking back several of the strong black teas that people seemed to be drinking exclusively and despite the guidebooks warning that as a single woman you may face hassle, I was very much left to my own devices and treated with kindness by anyone I did interact with.
After I finished the last of my teas I decided to head to Bakdash, the souks famous ice cream seller. I’d passed by earlier in the day but as it was Ramadan it had been closed and I had walked straight past it unknowingly. There was certainly no risk of that this time.
Crowds thronged through the ice cream parlour and on the street outside, making for an exciting find. Inside Bakdash I ordered what appeared to be the “signature” ice cream – “Booza” a pounded icecream made with a mixture of sahleb (dried orchid roots) and mastic (pine resin) coated in pistachios and with the most wonderful, almost chewy texture which was most unlike any ice cream I have tried before.
My habit of photographing my surroundings bought me to the attention of the handsome looking couple in my album attached to this, they were quite determined I should take their photograph too and were delighted with the outcome. I took a copy of the photo back to Bakdash when I returned to Damascus in February of last year, I have no idea if they were regulars or would have seen it, or indeed what impact the awful events of the past 15 months have held in store for them but I like to imagine they received it all the same.
By now it was quite late and I decided I would call it a night as i planned to take an early morning trip to Basra so I made my way back to the hostel where I stumbled across this most wonderful bakery where the bakers were toiling well into the night. Using a sort of tandoor, they produced a fantastic Arabic flat bread which I bought a few pieces of to take with me back to the hostel, again with plenty of photos of the bakers at work (again all with permission)