Make it to Syria and the first place I recommend you go isn’t the ancient citadel in Aleppo, the magnificent desert ruins of Palmyra or the even the stunning Crusader castle The Crac De Chevalier. See all three, but before you do take a taxi to Damascus’s Old City and ask for the Al-Hamidiyah Souk, a vast hangar which houses the country’s most visually stunning indoor market. Half way along this palace of smells you’ll find the finest ice-cream in the world.
Bakdash ice cream parlour has been there since 1895, and the reason for its popularity is right there on display at the front of the shop: a man wearing white overalls kneading and pounding a huge bucket of vanilla ice-cream into a kind of dough. When he’s happy he flings it across into an ice-cream mountain, where another employee chips away a huge brick of the stuff, smothers it in pistachio nuts and hands it overs to the customer. It’s called Booza, and all that pounding accounts for the thicker, more satisfying texture of the finished product. In the best tradition of Baathist Syrian bureaucracy customers queue up to buy a token first, then queue again to take delivery of their cone.
Last week, however, I couldn’t help noticing that the queues at Bakdash were considerably thinner. This wasn’t entirely surprising. Since an uprising sprung up against the regime in many Syrian cities earlier this year, the tourists have evaporated and the economy has begun to unravel. I wasn’t supposed to be here at all. Syria is a police state, and foreign journalists are now banned or carefully shepherded around the place; I’d only succeeded in gaining entry at the second attempt, after a great deal of perseverance and a series of strokes of luck. I’d arrived on the Monday evening, my adrenalin still pumping from the surprise of getting in, and the first thing I could think of to do was to go to the Souk and stand there eating an ice-cream.
In the next forty-eight hours I was to have more Boozas than were strictly necessary. The plan was to hook up with Khalid, an opposition activist I’d met on a previous visit to the country, before the street protests had even begun. When I’d first met him Khalid was disgruntled with the regime but cynical about the prospects of change in Syria. I don’t think it’s going to happen, he told me; people are too apathetic. But we’d kept in touch by Skype and the Arab Spring had turned this skinny chain-smoker into a new man – a cocky Syrian Che Guevara, chiding anyone who would listen that the “revolution train” was coming to his country and that very soon it was to be heading their way too. Khalid been texting me from a European mobile phone – some Syrian activists have taken to using foreign SIM cards, to minimise the chances that their communications will be listened in on – but I didn’t want to text him from within the country in case his phone was being monitored. Instead I text a mutual friend back in London who’s in touch with him on Skype. Sit tight, I’m told – Khalid is going to make contact.
And so I do. Moving from cheap hotel to cheap hotel I walk the streets of central Damascus as inconspicuously as I can, biding my time by living off the city’s incredible street food and sweet meats. I had my reasons. Tourists who stay at fancy Syrian hotels and who eat from the buffet often end up with crippling diarrhoea; the last time I’d been here, I’d spent whole days hunkered diagonally over an Arab toilet in the middle of the desert, the trousers of my favourite suit around my ankles, as if engaged in some tortuously ambitious new yoga pose. This time I was supposed to be working. I couldn’t afford to get the shits.
Whatever you read in the paper central Damascus doesn’t look like a city on the brink of a civil war. Its on the outskirts, in places like Douma and Herasta, that discontent with the regime boils over into demonstrations and violence. Life in the street markets and bazaars of the Old City goes on much as normal and, by the following afternoon, I’m hovering around the fake designer watch stalls. Last time I was here I picked up an Armani; it turned out to be a big hit at parties, mainly because its manufacturers had spelt Armani wrongly. This time I pay the equivalent of two dollars for a chunky contraption branded as a Dunlex. For a moment I imagine myself in one of those glossy magazine ads you see in the New Yorker, flashing it from the back of a taxi; some international business professionals wear Dunhill, others prefer Rolex; I’m James Harkin and I’m here to tell you to split the difference.
That evening I walk the length of the souk to Bab Sharqi, home to many of Damascus’s best pubs and restaurants. I remember it being riotously busy but now it looks mostly dead. The internet cafes, on the other hand, are full to bursting. After a magnificent street pizza I head into a pub I remember called Abu George. In the corner is a solitary huddle of young men, student types wrapped in trendy scarfs. I hear the words ‘Mubarak’ and ‘Arab League’ but little else; they’re virtually whispering. After a glass of Arak I prepare to head to another pub nearby, but my friend back in London advises me against it; it’s bound, he texts, to be crawling with secret police.
After two days I’ve had enough of all this. Maybe Khalid is too busy organising his revolution to talk to me; worse, maybe he’s gone on the run or been picked up by the police. He’s been arrested before. In the morning I wake up and resolve to try to get to Homs, a city under military lockdown which in recent weeks has become the focal point for an increasing bloody Syrian revolt. But before I leave I store my bag at the hotel’s reception and walk the half mile back the old Souk – and stand there in the queue holding my token, as meekly eager as an eight year-old boy.
The unedited transcript of my ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ from Damascus, broadcast 26 November 2011 on Radio 4. Listen to it here