Damascus, it's been such a long time ...
It's been such a long time, and I was just a child then
What will you say, when you see my face?
Time feels like it's flown away, the days just pass and fade away
What will you say, when they take my place?
Its funny now, I just don't feel like a man
What will you say, when you see my face?
- Jeff Buckley: What will you say
No matter how many words I write, it is almost impossible really to express the complex web of emotions that I experienced in Damascus last week, my first time back since we left for London in 1990. Yes, my eyes filled to the brim with tears as we first drove through the city, but I held them back. Yes, my heart pounded and my blood raced through me, but I took deep breaths. Yes, my legs trembled and my knees were weak but I stood up straight and walked faster. Yes, I was afraid, afraid of nothing but myself, but I'm here. I'm here and my 'Ud is beside me. For it was my 'Ud that opened the doors, it was music that brought me here.
Many people have often told me that my story is interesting. Even the Lebanese 'Ud player Charbel Rouhana commented that it would make a good novel when we met for the first time in Beirut a few weeks back. But to me it seems ridiculous, so ridiculous: first, that I could be so afraid of experiencing my past, when it contains nothing particularly fearful or painful. And second, that I am even telling people about it. But it makes sense to step through these shadows and experience this directly. Because if I can be so haunted and so moved by something so simple, I can at least then have some personal reference for understanding human nature, human suffering, human joy.
If I was, and am, so affected by this simple experience, then how must my parents have felt when they first stepped onto Iraqi soil after more than 30 years in exile? If I can be so moved by sitting next to our old neighbour after 20 years of distance, then how must my mother have felt sitting next to her mother after over 30 years of tragedy? If I felt all of this while walking back into Damascus with my 'Ud in hand, music as my guide and BBC R3 documenting my journey, then how must my father have felt when he walked back into Baghdad in 2008 with his first novel in hand, with the word as his guide, with press and people congratulating his literary achievement and return? If I can be so moved by the scent of Jasmine on the streets of Damascus and the green of the square beside our old home (pictured, left), then how must my father have felt experiencing the smell of refuse and the rubble of the city that once nurtured and nourished him?
Although it is difficult to articulate any answers, one thing is blindingly bright and obvious, that I am of the lucky few.
The first day after our arrival in Damascus, I had a couple of sessions with Ilham al Madfai, struggling with awkward fingering positions, learning a few more songs and getting accustomed to how he likes his repertoire to be performed. Then, I was introduced to Taoufik Mirkhan, an excellent young Qanun player from Damascus and Omar Majid, a percussionist from Baghdad. (The picture (right ) shows me with Taoufik Ilham and Omar Majid, taking tips from Ilham al Madfai in preparation for the recording.) We spent two days holed up in the basement of a recording studio trying to put together some repertoire for a World Routes recording session having never met before. No pressure then!
The next day, with my mind and heart unable to really understand what I was doing, we headed across Damascus and into the old town, down some very narrow streets and into a beautiful, grand, old Damascene house, which has been long used as an art gallery and cultural centre by the Syrian sculptor Mustafa Ali, who turned out to be an old friend of my father's. Luckily we managed to pull together a great session which will be broadcast as part of World Routes on Saturday 7th of August and you will be able to read more about it in a Backpage feature for Songlines magazine which will be published in their July/August issue.
Unsure of what to expect and unable to really comprehend what I was experiencing, the following day was set aside for a trip into the subconscious. For some or many reasons, my memories of Damascus are scarce and a little hazy. As I stepped out of the taxi and stared at my old school the following morning, nothing really kicked in. I wasn't surprised, but upon taking the first few steps inside and seeing the old corridors and classrooms almost unchanged, unlike many other parts of the city, a torrent of emotions came flooding. After an hour spent wandering the school building and grounds, I drew another breath and stepped into another taxi, this time en route to our old home.
So much had changed in the area that I hardly recognised anything and had to call our old neighbour and ask her to meet me in the square, just to be sure I was in the right place. After a short and intense time spent talking with her and wandering around, I headed back to the hotel to meet the World Routes team and take them over. There we recorded some content for the programme under the eyes of the neighbours hanging from their balconies, and a short interview in the nearby square, watching young boys playing and trying to comprehend it all. By that point I wasn't the easiest interviewee to say the least.
If that wasn't enough of an emotional roller-coaster ride, we then took a drive up mount Qasiun from which you can look out over the whole of Damascus stretched out below. As I sat staring out at the city in awe, with the moon hovering perfectly and luminously above, Marvin and James set up the microphones to record the adhan, the call to prayer. It was dusk.
As we sat quietly, listening intently and observing, we witnessed Damascus react to the change from day to night. From such a vantage point, random sounds of children playing or music playing from a car stereo would filter up as clear as if they were beside you, whilst the city mumbled below. As the sun started to set, the green lights of the minarets would appear one by one, scattered across the city, followed by the lights of the Ummayad mosque and the larger new buildings, with the tiny city lights in succession. Before we knew it, the adhan started in the western part of the city and the sound slowly moved eastwards until it took over the rumble of the streets and became a sea of voices. Then whilst the soundscape of the city began to take over again, the city lights did the same and without even realising, we found ourselves staring out across a black sea of sparkling jewels in amazement. If you are ever in Damascus, please do the same. It is truly dumbfounding and beautiful.
Exhausted from the most intense emotional experience I have had for a long time, it was impossible to sleep. It seemed as if my brain was still background processing the sounds, images, smells and emotions this ancient city bombarded me with. The next morning I awoke more dazed than the night before and prepared for chapter 3, the road trip to Amman, via Borsa, with no idea of what more this journey could hold.