From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”
As I continued on my search for woven blankets, I encountered a number of shopkeepers of various ages, demeanors, levels of devoutness, and English-speaking ability. When I returned for a second time to a shrunken hat salesman’s store to buy two more bright red costume fez in the biggest size available, the man grinned ear to ear, exclaiming, “I like you, American!” Seeking a gift for my 7-year-old cousin, I was dragged excitedly to the upstairs room of a dressmaker’s shop and filled to the brim with tea before being begged to try on a dress and offered it for no cost (which I refused, not wanting to exploit myself). In one of Hamidiyya’s plethora of scarf shops, I was rescued from a leering 20-something salesman by a grandfatherly man who picked up on my accent. “You are from America!” he said. “I got my PhD. in Pennsylvania. Where are you from?” As the words “New Hampshire” rolled off my tongue, he nearly jumped up and down with excitement. “You know it?” I asked, surprised. “I traveled in Vermont. I drove through New Hampshire!” he said proudly.
Only one thing remained constant: all the shopkeepers and their cohorts were men. And while the market was swarming with women in black gowns and hijab, many with entire faces covered under the niqab newly banned in public offices and universities, I realized none of these women were alone. They walked, whispering, arm-in-arm with mothers, sisters, friends, or children, under the anonymizing protection of the veil.
Conservative Muslim Dress at the Mosque
Having found and purchased my blankets (eight of them, in fact) from an elderly man who spoke not a word of English but managed to decipher my poor Arabic, I needed to head home to drop off my heavy load of gifts before continuing. I turned around in the middle of the souq and vowed to return that afternoon to experience the rest of it. As I passed through the market’s welcoming arches where vendors displayed ornate Qur’ans, prayer beads, and shawls, a younger man in a Tshirt and khaki shorts—the only pair I saw in Damascus—looked my way and said something indecipherable. I ignored him and continued walking toward home in hopes of keeping myself out of trouble. But after several minutes of walking through the independent handicraft vendors lining the streets behind the Grand Mosque, I felt like I was being followed. I pulled off to the side of the street where a table full of baby toys and shoes was on display and my fears were confirmed. The young man in the shorts pulled over, too, and stepped increasingly closer to me. I looked him squarely in the eye and said firmly, but quietly to avoid making a scene, “No. Halas.” But instead of backing off, a creepy smiled sprawled across his narrow face and he continued toward me, whispering something in Arabic I’m not sure I would have been able to understand even in full voice.
Now I had no choice but to use the people around me. So I repeated, in a louder voice this time, gesturing toward the man as I addressed the crowds with my eyes. “Halas! Laa! No!” He took a step back and looked at his feet, then, perhaps employing all of the English he knew, looked me in the face and muttered “beetch” before wheeling around on his heels and rushing in the opposite direction.
I walked home for lunch under the discomforting stares of Souq Al-Hamidiyya’s patrons, my bags now feeling a little heavier than before.