After arriving and crashing out at a hostel somewhere in the lights of Damascus I awoke to find myself in a peaceful Arabic style house that was now a hostel. The Al Rabie hostel is one of the oldest remaining Arabic style houses in Damascus with a pleasant courtyard and fountain off which rooms are to be found. After a traditional breakfast of flat bread and olives it was out into the city in my first day in Al Sham (the nickname for Damascus meaning The Sun). I was in the Souq Sarouja area, just outside the old city, in an area that was once a graveyard of the city but out of necessity it became the sadlers' district before now it is a residential district. I wandered through the cool streets until I hit a large intersection where a lone policeman was directing the torrent of traffic streaming in all directions. With expert waves of his orange baton and a few whistles he was able to tame the traffic to his will, with any car disobeying being given a ticket, fine and a shout (presumably as some stress relief for the police officer). After wandering around trying to find the British Council and the French Institute for potential Arabic lessons (but to no avail) I found myself in the leafy University of Damascus Science Campus.
After asking some students where the University Language Centre was, I was whisked away in their car up the motorway to the Humanities Campus. Here my new friends took me to the administrative office to sort out my Arabic course and made sure I had everything, even buying me soft drinks before they left. The kindness and openness was only just one of many such events that I have experienced while being here. After eating falafal on Martyrs' Square (named after those killed by the French in 1925) we met up with the 2 Spanish backpackers (first met in Adana). They brought 2 friends who lived in the old city. After tea we all ventured out into the night and the lights and narrow passages of the old city. After walking down the main covered souq we arrived by the Ummayid Mosque - so vast I didn't realize it was it. I just assumed it was a city wall! Ate in a great restaurent with a huge courtyard, having a traditional meal and good conversation. One of the Syrian guys said he could fix us a house to rent and would meet with me tomorrow. After much food and talk I headed to the hostel through the still busy souq. What a first day!
The next few days were a whirlwind of seeing houses, signing contracts in dark alleyway offices, meeting with smiling lawyers, trying to remember where my house was, getting lost and attempting to get money out of the Syrian banking system. But I did get a house, it is in the Christian quarter of the old city between two gates, Bab Touma (Thomas Gate) and Bab Sharki (East Gate) in a simple comfortable house. It is a two and a half floor house with roof access giving amazing views of Jebel (mountain) Quassiuon and the other mountains around Damascus. At night the side of Jebel Quassiuon becomes lit up like Christmas lights with large numbers of slightly different coloured lights that create a twinkling effect. The house has a sitting room, hallway, utility room and toilet on the ground floor (complete with Christian Orthodox iconography - well it is a Christian house after all). Upstairs my room has a low ceiling and the longest bed in the house and no windows. It's a bit like a cave but I figured I am not spending all my time there so it is OK. Every morning I emerge and head up the stairs to the "dining room cum sun room cum kitchen". From here the rest of the kitchen, toilet and other bedrooms, randomly with bunk beds rather than beds, can be accessed.
The house was so dirty that my housemates and I had a go at cleaning it. It was going well until we tried to clean the upstairs toilet. I lifted up the grill on the floor to clean it and noticed it was moving so I dropped it naturally (being a bit of a wuss) and made a manly noise. From the grill and the hole below, 20 to 30 cockroaches poured out onto the floor. I and my housemate systematically carried out a shock and awe tactic of "taking care" of them. Only after we had carried out our mass genocide we realised in Syria it was Martyrs' Day that day (remembering those who died in the October war with Israel). We had created martyrs on Martyrs Day! After the cleaning was almost done and the house felt almost like home. Damascus was now a home rather than a destination.