City breaks 2010: Damascus

A new poem by Cathy Dillon

Fridge magnets are displayed at a shop selling items for tourists in Damascus in April 2011. Photograph: Louai Beshara/ AFP/ Getty Images

Fridge magnets are displayed at a shop selling items for tourists in Damascus in April 2011. Photograph: Louai Beshara/ AFP/ Getty Images

 

The travel site said now’s the time
to go.
So you flew into the earth’s oldest living city,
a topography of roses woven into its name.
Stayed in a boutique hotel, with wifi and antique kilims,
down an alley where the houses stand so close
it’s as though they want to kiss.

In a courtyard of marble and geometry,
a lemon tree cast an arc of shade over your table.
A waiter with a pony tail, a gold crucifix,
and a civility that’s the bequest of millennia,
brought olives and flatbread and sweet white wine.

Later, outside the Umayyad Mosque,
a flock of doves, disturbed,
flapped up, up, past minaret and balcony,
towards a pair of planes
droning across the blue.

You walked down Straight Street,
the only one mentioned in the Bible
- Acts 9:11, no less -
and still Starbucks-free,
past the house of Ananias,
who plucked the scales of
dead skin from Saul’s eyes

At lonely Palmyra, your guide,
who had eyes the colour of jade,
tucked a stray lock of hair inside her hijab,
offered a water bottle,
as you squinted in the sun,
your brain splintered
by the intricacies of history.

You scanned the parched walls
for something simple to rest your eyes on,
and found a stone carving of a vine,
its grapes fat with promise,
tendrils curling towards the future. 

Go now, the site said, before it changes.