I spent the day shopping and wandering around the old medina, shops, and market. It’s really an experience, especially if you’re a somewhat foreign looking female, or any female at all for that matter. People really want to sell you things and they think that if they call to you “bonjour,” “khello,” or “come here,” you will suddenly be inclined to buy from their shop.
I saw saffron and wanted some. A man saw me looking and ran over to me. I asked where his saffron came from. He said Spain. I said where can I find Iranian saffron? Mistake number one. You shouldn’t ask people in such a competitive market to send you to their competitors.
“Follow me,” he said.
He walked quickly, with little regard for me. Another red flag.
He showed me a pyramid of saffron tubs. “The ones in blue writing are from Iran, black writing from Spain.”
Idiot Sally fell for it. “How much for the Iranian?”
“And the Spanish?”
“I’d like 2 of the Iranian but for 35”
“Ok,” he said.
I should have known! Barter rule 1, if the person gives in so easily, they’re ripping you off and have to walk away. Mama always said, Sally your first offer should always be half of what they’re asking for. She taught me that in one of our countless trips shopping in the markets in Damascus.
I handed him two 20 dinar bills. “Here,” he said handing me a “Spanish saffron” box, “I’ll throw this in.
“Thank you,” I said, “but where’s my 5 dinars?”
“That last one was for 5.”
I laughed out loud to scoff at his hospitality. And I walked away livid.
Next I was to buy a Tunisian jebbah (dress) for Wafa’s hammam—a traditional bath for ladies before a wedding. Nowadays the traditions have changed and become more modern. They were all over the shops but I had very specific criteria for the one I wanted. Red, tank top, and short (half-calf as opposed to floor length). They didn’t have what I was looking for at the first 8 places I asked. Finally I went into a big shop and they had exactly what I wanted. The guys helping me were so nice and immediately knew I was chamiya. “Ahla w sahla b ahl el Cham” (welcome to the people of Damascus!) Our hearts are with you, it will come back to how it was enchallah.”
I hear this a lot when I travel in the Middle East since the start of the war. The Arab people feel a great solidarity for the Syrian people and feel pity for the destruction of such a beautiful country.
I bought what I needed and assured the men I would recommend their shop to my friends. Since I liked and trusted them, I asked where I should go to buy harissa–a North African red pepper paste for cooking. They gave me directions to a good place and off I went. And didn’t find it. So I found a lady seated at a jewelry shop (who had given me directions once before and had been very kind) and asked her where I could buy harissa. She pointed me to the same place the men had told me about and gave me the name. I followed her directions, or so I thought but still couldn’t find the place again so I stopped a woman shopping who reminded me of a cousin of my mother’s to ask her where I could buy harissa. “My girl, come with me,” and took off.
So I followed. We wove through the medina and the shops and she talked and talked. I didn’t catch it all but I could tell she was commenting on the people she didn’t approve of or garbage on the street. She led me to the part of the market that sells food products—spices, olives, etc.—and pointed me to the place she herself shops.
“Thank you so much I have troubled you,” I told her
“Baaa,” she said and hugged me. “I am happy to.”
I walked into the spice shop she has suggested and was hit with the smell of spices. I love that, black pepper, with cinnamon and cumin, brined olives, red pepper. I found an attendant and told her I wanted to buy 2 kilos of harissa, but in 2 bags. She nodded. She had hair very similar to mine and was giggling to herself about my different dialect.
She packaged and weighed it for me and gave it to the clerk to ring me up. I paid and went back to get more bags (so I don’t make a mess of my suitcase) and the man who was helping me grunted huh as he ripped off one bag.
“More please,” I said.
“Huh,” he grunted again as he tore off another.
“One more, if you don’t mind.”
He looked up, looking me in the eyes and started tearing bag after bag making he same grunting noise, huh, with each tear. 1, 2, 3, 4, I started giggling with glee and his face lit up. He put them in my bag and laughing, I said thank you, bye and left.
Next stop, marche central, the central market. There were colored crates piled high and vegetables everywhere. It reminded me of the central market in Lisbon. I walked around and stumbled upon the fish market. People were yelling like it was the New York Stock Exchange. And the smell of the sea was intoxicating.
I asked a guy if I could take a picture of his octopi as he took a big gulp of water. He said yes, and then offered me his water bottle. I laughed said thank you took my photo and was on with my day.
Now I wanted to walk home and put away my newly acquired treasures, shower, and relax. So I wove my way back to the hotel. After my refreshing shower, some girls also here for the wedding had written me to see if I wanted to join for lunch. Yes! They sent me a photo of the restaurant they were at and off I went, again zig-zagging through the labyrinth of the medina. I found the restaurant but they weren’t here. “Excuse me,” I asked the owner, “were there some girls here? One with short blonde hair.”
“Come,” he said, and started walking.
He walked me to a restaurant down the road, where my two friends stood.
“It’s closed,” they said.
“Do y’all still need to buy jebbah? If so, I’ll take you to this place I found that I like and then we can go to lunch from there.”
So we did.
As we walked into the jebbah shop I said, “Mr. Ziad, I promised you I would bring friends and here I am!”
He said some niceties to my friends about how since they were my friends he would be happy to help them. The two ladies bought their jebbahs and finally we could have lunch. We went to Fondouk al Attarine, a very nice restaurant in an old Arabic house, the type with a courtyard.
I was still irked by the saffron experience at lunch and told them about it. One of them said, you paid to leave the uncomfortable situation. I really liked that analysis so I’m going to go with that because I’m still annoyed and feel played for a fool and if you know anything about me…that is something I detest.