The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: Treasure hunting in Syria

Posted on: December 2, 2007

11:17 AM: The next two chapters get a bit more personal. “Aswan” focuses on Hodgson’s experience budget travelling in the 70s and her quest to find two water sellers in Marrakech 14 years later after her first Morocco trip in the 70s.

I was amazed that someone could travel on $5 a day, which is what Hodgson did when she was in Europe. However, the Egyptian government at the time required all foreign visitors to change $150 US into the local currency, so much of her month was spent trying to figure out ways to spend all the money. That wasn’t as easy as you would expect: the hostel she stayed at was 40 cents a night, bus fare from airport to busy city centre was 10, a “filling meal of pitas with vegetables and meat, along with rice pudding and tea, cost less than twenty cents”. Waaaaaaah? She ended up selling some of her pounds to tourists (in small amounts).

Not much about curios here unless you count the horrible, horrible skirt a local tailor made her. (There is a small picture of herself in one corner and the ugliness makes it through her distance from the lens and the shrunken photo size.) She did visit an Aswan market which, by description, was a lot “earthier” than previous examples and definitely not touristy. You can smell the dust, donkeys and camels by looking at the 1910 photograph which gets its own page. There’s also a photo of a pair of rubber flip flops she bought there, made in China, and still going steady after all these years. Hilariously, she bought them to “dress up” her outfit after a friend’s father asked her if the ugly attire was really necessary.

In a break from previous chapters a few of the photos are more obviously recent. “Marrakech” opens with a brightly coloured full-page photograph of the water sellers she took in the 70s. She does not think much of it, but I thought it was fantastic — in the book it’s a nice change from the (very very lovely!) sepia toned or black & white photographs and negatives. In this chapter it’s photography in the foreground as Hodgson shows how she met the family of one of the men (now deceased) in her photo.

After her more aimless travelling in that period (like Aswan) she decided that it had its points but, generally, it was better to have a goal, even if it was just to be a volunteer gardener at the Alhambra. Hence the idea of looking up the photographed water sellers 14 years later. Essentially, this is Hodgson’s curiosity leading her to learn more about the people in the lands she travels, this time not through old documents like identification letters, although there still was some distance between then and now. She only got to meet one of the men’s families but it’s a memorable moment. Hodgson notes that watersellers did not earn much, that the family must have even less now with the man dead, but their enthusiasm over the photograph showed that though it “could not materially improve their lives…I knew it would be treasured”.

In keeping with my idea that this book has something for everyone, “Aswan” read much like a backpacker story, while “Marrakech” had some detailed camera info that would appeal to photographers. The updated look of Hodgson’s selections really fit the stories. My favourites from them are the old Chinese made rubber flip flops bought in Aswan, and two in Marrakech: the water sellers and one of two girls at the end of a shadowy alley, half turned, caught in the sunlight.

9:04 AM: It’s a grey morning here. Quite a few inches of snow on the ground with the promise of more to come. I’ve just been walking with Barbara Hodgson through Damascus and Aleppo. I’m afraid I cheated a bit, dear reader, and travelled through Rochefort, Naples, Budapest and Istanbul on days that weren’t Sunday. I worried that I might end up finishing the whole thing, but the book’s pull on me receded on Tuesday when it had to compete with my studies. But it’s Sunday now and I have all the time in the world.🙂

Hodgson’s novels, as I mentioned last week, all have something to do with travel, so it’s no surprise that some of her trips were for proper research. In “Budapest” she mentioned her novel The Sensualist and in “Damascus” she was there for The Lives of Shadow.

It [Damascus] has been called the oldest continuously occupied city in the world, but its verdant gardens and elegantly ornamented buildings were even more renowned than its antiquity. At the peak of its beauty, it is said, Damascus was an oasis so heavenly that the prophet Mohammed turned away from it for fear of finding it better than God’s heaven.

In Syria, Hodgson’s aversion to the concrete, traffic-clogged, noisy urban milieu is made more obvious. That’s probably because so much of the old buildings are still there, making the contrast more obvious. I don’t think her nostalgia is naively romantic. She’s a qualified archaeologist and it comes through in her writings, over and over, how she is devoutly fascinated with how human artefacts are preserved and what they reveal about their personality, history and lifestyle. In a previous chapter she compared the “lifespan” of old receipts compared to the ones we use now on flimsy paper on computer ink that fades too quickly (it’s clear she’s speaking from experience). The implication is that close to a century from now it will be much hard for people of her inclination to walk through suqs to learn about our lives.

One interesting thing I learnt was that the dilapidated, crumbling exterior of houses that I’ve typically seen in that region are deceptive. Inside they are finely painted courtyards, comfortable cushions beneath high or low ceilings, intricate geometric designs on all sides, brightly coloured in “golds, deep reds, greens, and blues”. Bab Tuma, a Christian quarter, hides “elaborate grottoes dedicated to the Virgin…tucked away in back streets”. Predictably enough, Hodgson ambles with her guide through the myriad streets with a 1924 map of Damascus, a reprint of one from the 1200s. (How cool is that?) Surprisingly, the layout of the city is pretty much the same; only that most of the street names have changed, even the major ones, which provided an out-of-this-time experience similar to the encounter with the stranger and the 1940s Casablanca newspaper in Paris.

After staying too long in Damascus, Hodgson moved on to Aleppo still in search for old house deeds for the purposes of her book. The tattooed hand illustration at the opening of the chapter reminded me of another of her novels, The Tattooed Map (probably her strangest, which is saying something). In “Aleppo” you get a better sense that Syria is in Southwest Asia — at the suqs the touts speak German, as well as French and English, even a bit of Chinese and Swahili. Amusingly, the younger sellers are adept at appearing world travellers, armed with information of just about any city you could think of.

“Where are you from?” one of those omnipresent wizards asks. “North Vancouver,” you answer smugly, thinking no one knows anything about North Vancouver. “Ah,” he replies, “Is it still nice along Lonsdale Avenue?” You are positive he has never left Syria in his life, yet you quickly learn during your frequent encounters with him that no matter what town or city you name, whether Cape Town, Norfolk, or Guangzhou, he will talk about it as if he has lived there for several years.

The best part about “Aleppo” was Hodgson’s discovery of a house deed from the French Mandate which she found in a caravanserai that, in earlier days, housed the French, English and Dutch consuls. She happened to bend down to glance at strips of paper — she loves collecting all kinds of things, but documents, letters, paper materials of any kind seems to be what she prizes, whether bargained for in a shop, stripped off an alley wall, or picked up from the street — on which she could make out the French words for “residence” and “building”. She returned to the spot the next day and, with the help of some local sellers, searched through a garbage bin which ended up containing almost all of an “eight-page deed dating from 1937 to 1943”.

My favourite images came from both chapters. In “Damascus” there are two pages of photo negatives from a reel in which she took pictures of different houses in Damascus, featuring different architectural styles. I zoomed in on the one that was used as a book cover. In “Aleppo” it’s a small pile of photos and documents she bought at an antique shop in Jidideh. What I like best is the colourful paper underneath her finds — a bright blue print with a red border and partially seen yellow curves and lines, all covered in black Arabic script.

2 Responses to "Sunday Salon: Treasure hunting in Syria"

There’s a note from the library this morning to say that they have a Barbara Hodgson waiting for me. I’m really looking forward to it.

Yay! Which one did you get?

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