Nature in Damascus


Allan de Botton’s book Status Anxiety is my favorite read.  I read it at age 32; it explained feelings of discomfort, displacement, social anxieties and the yearning to belong.

At age four, my mother and I traveled from Damascus, Syria to Khobar, Saudi Arabia to meet my father.  He had lived there for a year before we joined.  It was the early days of Saudi’s construction boom. Because of a shortage of skilled resources, professionals (engineers, doctors, accountants) were being recruited from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine.  Although I was young, the feeling of the scorching summer heat and humidity against my face was imprinted in my memory. It was a new sensation I had not experienced in Damascus; one that I would feel for the next 13 years on returning to Khobar from our summer vacations.

Damascus had four seasons.  The city was surrounded by forests (Al-Ghoota) and lush orchards.  Our house in Abu-Rummana (father of the pomegranate) neighborhood was the ground floor in a three story building.  The circular living room was surrounded by a small gated garden.  I recall walking out of the house and smelling the dark
reddish-brown
soil after the morning rain. I remember watching snails crawling around in the flowerbeds. The smell of jasmine and Ful (Arabian Jasmine) bushes planted at the entrance lingered into the house.

Family members alternated taking me to Sibki Park (Jenainet ElSibki). Across the street from our building, trees lined a walking path that circled the garden leading to the central pond where ducks and geese swam peacefully. A small playground stood where children my age took turns sliding and swinging.  At the garden gate is where street vendors park their carts to sell ice cream, corn on the cob, figs (teen) and sweet cactus fruit (sabbarah), calling out to passers-by to buy their products.

If we weren’t picnicking in Ghoota, we spent weekends at my grandfather’s house in
Zabadani
, a valley 30 minutes outside of Damascus. Jiddo Naim owned a few acres of farm land and ran boyscout camps for the summer.   I went for walks with my grandmother, An’a Radia in the orchards where apple, peach, orange, lemon, pomegranate, Loquat (Acadenia) and cherry trees grew. An’a Radia would instruct me to stay close to her because foxes were close by. Streams were abundant and cold. I could only put my feet in for a few seconds. Jiddo Naim would place a watermelon in a stream, and in a few seconds, it would crack open because of the cold water temperature.

My memories of winter in Damascus are faint.  Unlike summer, when visits from Saudi reinforced early childhood memories, we barely visited Syria in Winter.  My only recollection is that Winter was cold and dry in Damascus with occasional snow-fall. I remember the smell of roasting chestnuts on the Soba (coal heater), and the ritual of filling the house with rugs that had been stowed away in the spring / summer. One winter, we went up to the mountains to Bludaan, snow had covered roof-tops and hung on tree branches. We built snow men and slid down little hills.

To be continued..

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