The main shopping thoroughfare in Damascus is the venerable souk al-Hamidiyya, named after the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and forms one of the main entrances to the medieval Old City of Damascus. Under the corrugated iron roof lie rows of shops selling jewellery, clothes, leather bags, Arabic perfume and embroidery competing for the masses of locals and tourists alike who have come to experience and contribute to what is part of the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlement.
The holes in the roof, lasting imprints of bullets fired from machine guns by French fighter jets during the Syrian nationalist revolt of 1925, create the illusion of a star-studded sky during the day, as rays of light pass through and illuminate the expansive souk, dark and sombre but for the loud chattering of the throng of shoppers. Intermittent electricity cuts are an almost daily phenomenon here, and during such times the whole souk will be abuzz with the drone of electricity generator motors coming from the wealthier shops, while the poorer stalls are left stranded in darkness.
The souk becomes a vantage point from which to observe the variety of people who form a parade of humanity along the winding thoroughfare. Young Syrian women wearing incredibly high heels, headscarves neatly tucked into their leather jackets, their male counterparts in rugged tight jeans and slicked hair; Iranian pilgrims covered rather clumsily in their chadors, middle-aged men constantly flicking their prayer beads, reciting the 99 names of God. Gulf Arab women can easily be identified by their abayas, black free-flowing robes concealing the female form, allowing only for subtle – but sufficiently visible – displays of wealth; the Gucci sunglasses, gold and silver bangles and glittering sequins across their abayas. And then there are the freckled-face, red-haired Arabs, a common enough occurrence in the Levant, the Arab region comprising Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, but which still provoke bewilderment to the first-time visitor accustomed to the conventional stereotypes of what an Arab looks like.
A familiar sight throughout the souk, even in the biting cold of winter, are shoppers licking the ubiquitous bouzat haleeb, milk-and-rosewater-scented Arabic ice-cream generously topped with pistachios. There’s the slightest whiff of almond essence, and you’re trying to figure out why the ice-cream is rather gummy. And then you realise it’s not the usual sort of ice-cream, and this is not the usual sort of shopping mall.