From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”
I flagged down a taxi on Sharia Zablatany, outside the AIDS testing center in the Old City of Damascus after receiving my school-required test results. I assume I was HIV-negative, because the cashier at the testing center handed me the results, open faced, in front of a crowd of people with no fanfare. My Arabic is barely good enough to speak to a toddler; it is certainly not good enough to interpret medical findings.
“To Qaymaria,” I said in poorly pronounced Arabic, “ in the Old City of Damascus.” Damascus, especially the old city, is compact enough to walk, but the streets are winding and the traffic grueling enough to be in-navigable, so I generally don’t ask questions. But after driving what felt like far too long, the driver pulled over and asked me, “Where you go in the Old City?” His English was about as good as my Arabic. I showed him a picture of the street sign near my apartment, which I had moved into only a day before. He stared at it for a long time until finally saying,” Qaymaria! You should have said so.” I took a deep breath. The damascene heat poured into the taxi as we slowed down and the breeze no longer cooled us. I fanned myself uncomfortably.
“Hot," said the cab driver.
I laughed. “Yes, very.”
“My English is not very good, “ he said, with a shy giggle. “Just a little.”
I smiled back at him. “That’s ok. Shwai arabiyya faqat (I speak only a little bit of Arabic).” He smiled and reached into his glove compartment, revealing a box of thick tissues. He wiped his head, then leaned back and offered one to me. “No, shukran,” I said. “Water?” I gestured toward him with an unopened bottle. He shook his head no and grinned.
Another painfully long—although it couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes—cab ride and the driver stopped to ask an old man on the street, “Ayna (where is) Qaymaria?” After a brief conversation (of which I understood none), the driver instructed, “You can get out here and walk about 200 kilometers to left. You will get to Qaymaria. ”I paid my fare, thanked the driver, and got out. Uneasily, I began my walk down the thick, stone-lined street.
Within moments, I knew I was lost. I retraced my steps to get back to the old men who had first directed my cab driver. “Minfadalak,” I asked them, “ayna Qaymaria?” I watched their hands gesture rapidly toward the souq, then curve to the left. I tried again to follow their instructions, thinking perhaps I had not walked far enough to begin with. For the first time, the sights and sounds of the busy marketplace invaded my consciousness, breading in me a sense of both wonderment and terror. Then the smells—oh the smells. Spices and mint, fresh baked bread, sweet baklava, roasting shwarma. I had eaten nothing but a few crackers since my flight from Egypt, now almost 24 hours ago. I hurried past to avoid the hunger sickness I knew would no be far off.
Again, I found myself in an unfamiliar place. Although it was not so unfamiliar: the narrow, stone-lined streets and jagged paved alleyways of the old city seemed to repeat themselves over and over again throughout the neighborhood, differing only in the carpets and artwork that hung on the outer walls of the nearby shops. I approached a young mother who, unlike most Syrians, wore no veil. She held in her arms an infant while playfully chasing after a little girl in a pink dress. “Minfadalik, ayna Qaymaria?” I said a silent prayer that she would answer me in English. No such luck. She pointed me back in the opposite direction, gesturing like an airport flagman with her point hand. I caught only the word “qareeb” (close) in her list of directions, so turned around and began checking every street sign, smiling with a thankful wave as I left her. But before I long, I was back at the entrance of the covered souq.
I stepped into a shop, surprisingly staffed only by veiled women. “Minfadlik, ayna Qaymaria?” I asked again, each time sounding less and less like I actually knew the language. Directions again came only in Arabic. The women pointed me back in the direction I had come. Defeated, I wandered back and forth between the women in the hop and the point where I had spoken to the young mother, checking and rechecking every street for nearly an hour.
As I neared tears, I noticed a group of young Syrians laughing and smoking in the street. Their age and gender-mixing indicated to me that perhaps the spoke English. I fought back tears, mustered all of my courage, and approached the group. “Enkaleezia?” I asked hopefully. All of the teenagers turned toward one girl, who stepped forward. “Yes,” she said, “I speak English. Do you need help?”
I explained to her that I was in Syria—heck, the Middle East—for the first time, it was my first day, and I had gotten lost on my way home. I showed her the photograph of my street sign that I had taken on my phone that morning, and she took it over to the local food vendors a few meters away. She and her friends engaged the shopkeepers in conversation, and I guessed from their gestures and smiles that they knew where I was going. The English-speaking girl turned to me and began relaying the directions. “Walk this way,” she said, beginning to gesture back from whence I had come, “and then…” She stopped. “Would you like us to walk you there?”
A huge sigh of relief flew from my toes, up through my legs and into my stomach before being slowly released through my mouth. “If you don’t mind, that would be wonderful.”
“Of course!” she said, and looped her arm through mine. The shopkeepers wished me well, and I set off with the girls and her friends, maybe 5 or 6 of them: 2 men and several girls. “I’m LuLu,” she said, “and what is your name?” “Sarah, “ I responded, and she smiled. “Are you here to study Arabic?” she asked she pushed me gently to the side of the narrow street to allow a car to pass. I told her about the Damascus University Arabic program, that I had arrived only a day ago to take a placement test, register for the class, and take an AIDS test. She laughed. “Well, I can give you my telephone number and you can call me,” LuLu offered. “I will help you with your Arabic. And you can help me with my English!”
Suddenly, like something out of a crudely cut movie, my street sign appeared, as out of nowhere. “Here you are!” she said. “This is right?” I nodded enthusiastically. Her friends politely bid me adieu in the best English: “Goodbye!” “Nice to have meet you!” LuLu put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me on each cheek. “Good luck, “ she said softly. “Enjoy Damascus.”
Relieved to be back in a place that I had recognized, and to have made a friend in the city, I stopped to open my phone and review the photos I had taken that morning of my route out to the taxi. The picture before my street sign showed a rather non-descript street, a green trash can, and a man standing below an overhang covered in plant life. If you have ever been to Damascus, you will know that these things are not unique. Still, I walked down the street in search of the scene from the picture. I walked the hundred or so meter to one end of the street without seeing anything familiar. After a deep breath, I tried again, walking back to where I started and again looking for the narrow alley hat held my apartment. About halfway down the street, a young man—he couldn’t have been more than 16—who had seen me pass once already approached me. “Do you need help?” he said, in near perfect English. I explained to him my situation and he offered to help. Still overwhelmed with joy at the treatment given my by LuLu, I cheerfully agreed. As we began to walk, he asked my name. “Sarah, “ I said, paying him only scant attention as I scanned the adjacent alleys for my home.
“I’m Abdu, “ he said. “I am from Iraq, but I moved here during the war. I go to school here now. I live with my mother and brothers. My father is still in Iraq, I think.” I smiled at him as I realized we were back at the end of my street. The boy had no idea where I was going.
“Can you give me some money?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, “thank you for trying to help.” I took out m purse and retrieved a 50-pound note for him, hoping to restart my search on my own.
“Give me more,” he said abruptly.
I did a double take, startled by his force. “I’m sorry, but that is all I can give you.”
“No,” he replied abruptly, “you can give me more. Give me 100 more.”
“No, I’m sorry, but that is all I will give you,” I asserted in the way I might refuse a beggar on the streets of New York.
“You are American,” he said plainly. “America invaded Iraq. You owe me. Come on. Give me more. You can give me 100.”
“I cannot,” I said, and began back down the street in a hurry. The boy followed me down the street at close range. “Give me more, you owe me more, you can give me 100,” he repeated. He continued to follow me down the street for several meters until I turned onto another unfamiliar street. The boy left me alone, but I again was lost. I walked nervously to the end of that street, but, unsurprisingly, saw nothing familiar. I again retraced my steps and returned to Assawwaf Street, on which I knew my home lay. But I walked no more than a few meters before Abdu reappeared. “I will find your house,” he said, “if you give me more money.” “No, thank you,” I replied and hurried along. Again, he followed me to the other end of the street and stopped as I left it and crossed to the next, like a loyal Labrador.
Shaken, I walked up the next street. It, too, was unfamiliar. I looked back toward my street, where I could see Abdu sitting on the cobblestone path, leaning against a black and white striped building under the shade of its awning. I didn’t want to walk past him again, but I knew that my house was on the street, and wandering through it was the only way I’d ever find my way back. I hesitated. Could I spend a few more hours out in the 100-plus degree heat?
I couldn’t. I took a deep breath and re-entered Sharia Assawwaf, keeping my eyes turned away from Abdu. Just moments before I passed him, Abdu attached himself to another white tourist, a man this time, with a long ponytail and hemp pants. I followed slowly behind them as Abdu repeated his story to the young man, who responded apologetically. I smiled as they turned under a stone bridge and down a side street.
But I still had no idea where I was. For 15 minutes I continued walking up and down the street, afraid to venture down the alley-like private walkways that leas to the entrances of the tightly packed houses and workshops. Suddenly, my sixth sense kicked in as I felt someone staring at me, coming toward me. I looked up uneasily.
“Bruce!” I cried out as I saw the tall, thin man approaching me. “I thought I recognized you,” he said in a thick Australian accent, his gray beard sprinkling crumbs as his mouth moved. “I can’t find my way back to our house,” I told him. “Ahh,” he replied, confidently, “the trick is to turn at Beit Jabri,” he said as I followed him around the corner.