I am sitting in one of the oldest cafes in the world. It is situated in one of the oldest, continuously populated urban city in the world…. Damascus. There are no belly dancers; no hands held out, no greedy eyes following you. There are just tourists mixed in with the locals
Hot tea with sugar and mint is brought in small glasses balanced on tiny saucers.
The storyteller is seated on a platform, his mischievous and wise eyes behind his pince nez perusing the crowd like a teacher evaluating the intellectual level of the children in the class. A maroon and gold Ottoman cummerbund encircles his generous middle, and he begins the story……..
I feel I am in the story…..in a time warp, in the thousand and one nights. Waiters in white melt in an out of the crowded aisles, balancing engraved trays arrayed with hookah bowls for the brave and tea glasses for the timid like me.
As they set the hookah bowls next to the hookah smokers they poke a few holes in the foil covering the bowl with the hot coals and place a few coals on top of the foil. Their movements are deft. They go in and out of the aisles silently performing their tasks without a clink of glass to disturb the unfolding story of the Arabian nights spinning from the lips of the storyteller.
There is a group of older men sitting next to the storyteller, and some in the back at the end of the room, and in between are people like me. People passing through with no knowledge of Arabic who have stopped by to soak in this age-old tradition of which we will never be a part.
We are visitors from another world, where stories are spun on celluloid, and turned on and off with a switch.
We find ourselves in the storyteller’s café where he appears everyday after praying Maghrib at the Ummayad mosque. Having paid his dues to Allah, he turns to transport the avid listeners in the café to another world.
As the hookah smoke swirls around me laced with the fragrance of apple, I can see how an inexperienced traveler would be seduced into trying out the tobacco laden, apple camouflaged hookah in a place as exotic as the storyteller’s café
As the evening progresses so does the story in the singsong Syrian intonation of Arabic. Some of the older men in the back now high from their cigarettes have started conversing with each other, and their murmurings reach the front of the platform. Suddenly the storyteller picks up the sword in his lap, brandishes it in the air for a second and brings it down with force onto the table beside him. A startled shout goes up acknowledging the action, and then the crowd falls silent and the story continues……..
After a few minutes his cell phone rings, he digs into his manifold cummerbund, pulls out his ‘mobile’, flashes a charming smile of apology at the gawking crowd, and begins to talk in soft loving tones into the cell phone, blows a kiss into it…….. picks up his story book and the story continues……
I feel it is the story of my life…….there are punctuations of emotions, of distractions, of gustatory needs, and sips of the sweet mint tea to assess the audience of my life…….and grief.
My companions in the café are like the companions in my life, some though of recent introduction can sense my feelings and me theirs, and others are completely enveloped in the swirling world of smoke and timelessness. They are unaware of me even though I am sitting next to them sharing this enchanting atmosphere, and yet we are in the same story.
I am keenly aware that I am a traveler and as I pass out of the portals of the storyteller’s café …….will perhaps melt into another world; another page of my story will turn……….
The others who are regulars at the café feel that the storyteller’s café will always be there for them to come back tomorrow and the day after. They will enter again tomorrow after Maghrib prayers to unwind, smoke a hookah while listening to the story unfold, unaware that it could be different tomorrow.
This is what Allah SWT tells me ………..Some like me have become acutely aware that I am only a passerby in this world of dunya……and have still to reach my destination (Akhirah). I cherish those I am with but am keenly aware that as I walk out of that door I may never see them again.
……..While others are so wrapped up in the rituals of this dunya…….that they are confident they will return tomorrow after Maghrib prayers for another round of hookah and the story teller will be here to continue the tradition and life and dunya will continue thus……..
Once upon a time I was one of them. I thought I was a permanent visitor to the storyteller’s café…………that it would always be there for me and me for it, that my companions of the evening would always be there. They will continue to look at me with friendship, understanding and recognition and that life will go on as such. The swirling smoke of the hookah will continue to rise softening the harshness of life and the evening.
Sipping my sweet hot tea steeped with fresh mint leaves, I now know that at this moment as I look across at the eyes of my companions………that this moment is precious, unrepeatable, and like the apple fragrance of the hookah will fade…….as I continue my journey in this dunya towards the next.
Are you a traveler or a permanent visitor at the storytellers cafe?