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A poem for Damascus

Damascus residents feed pigeons at Marjeh Square in early November. (Joseph Eid -- AFP/Getty Images)

A New York Times story on the growing violence in Damascus, Syria's capital and long a center of culture and history in the Middle East, ends with a nod to a poem about life in that city. "Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me?" is by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, who died in 1998, long before the rebels began advancing on his hometown, a place that would probably feel very different to him today. Here are three of my favorite of the poem's 14 numbered sections.

I open the drawers of memory
One... then another
I remember my father...
Coming out of his workshop on Mu’awiya Alley
I remember the horse-drawn carts...
And the sellers of prickly pears...
And the cafés of al-Rubwa
That nearly—after five flasks of ‘araq—
Fall into the river
I remember the colored towels
As they dance on the door of Hammam al-Khayyatin
As if they were celebrating their national holiday.
I remember the Damascene houses
With their copper doorknobs
And their ceilings decorated with glazed tiles
And their interior courtyards
That remind you of descriptions of heaven...

The Damascene House
Is beyond the architectural text
The design of our homes...
Is based on an emotional foundation
For every house leans... on the hip of another
And every balcony...
Extends its hand to another facing it
Damascene houses are loving houses...
They greet one another in the morning...
And exchange visits...
Secretly – at night...


I put on the jubbah of Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi
I descend from the peak of Mt. Qassiun
Carrying for the children of the city...
And sesame halawa...
And for its women...
Necklaces of turquoise...
And poems of love...
I enter...
A long tunnel of sparrows
Clustered jasmine...
And I enter the questions of perfume...
And my schoolbag is lost from me
And the copper lunch case...
In which I used to carry my food...
And the blue beads
That my mother used to hang on my chest
So People of Sham
He among you who finds me...
let him return me to Umm Mu’ataz
And God’s reward will be his
I am your green sparrow... People of Sham
So he among you who finds me...
let him feed me a grain of wheat...
I am your Damascene rose... People of Sham
So he among you who finds me...
let him place me in the first vase...
I am your mad poet... People of Sham
So he among you who sees me...
let him take a souvenir photograph of me
Before I recover from my enchanting insanity...
I am your fugitive moon... People of Sham
So he among you who sees me...
Let him donate to me a bed... and a wool blanket...
Because I haven’t slept for centuries

Qabbani's use of "Sham" is a reference to Bilad al-Sham, an old name for the historic Syria and the greater Levantine region it used to encompass.

Here, also cited in the Times story, is a 2010 hip-hop re-interpretation of the poem, by Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum, who grew up in the District.

It's not clear what will happen next, but it's hard to imagine a bright future for the city, as government forces dig in for a long fight perhaps like the one that has consumed much of Aleppo, Syria's largest city.



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Max Fisher · December 10, 2012

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