Gripping tales lure war-weary Syrians to Damascus cafe

MAHER AL MOUNES –

With a slender sword in one hand and an antique storybook in the other, Ahmad al-Lahham captivates a packed Damascus coffeehouse with tales of ancient kingdoms and brave conquerers.
Every evening, the 58-year-old heads to the cosy Nawfara cafe in the Old City of Syria’s war-torn capital to perform as a traditional Arabic storyteller or “hakawati”.
He sheds his furniture maker’s outfit and dons a bright red Ottoman-style cap, or tarboosh, reading out handwritten stories from the curling, yellowing pages of an old book.
“This occupation is steadily going extinct. I am the only hakawati left in the Old City,” he says. “If I stop, there will be no storytellers left.”
Lahham, who also goes by the stage name “Abu Sami”, settles into an ornately-carved wooden chair on a raised platform overlooking the cafe, where young men sip tea and smoke on bubbling water pipes.
Clearing his throat, he opens with a well-known tale of 13th-century ruler Baibars before moving on to the heroic antics of Antarah Ibn Shaddad, a pre-Islamic knight.
He says such tales of courage and conquest have become much more popular, at the expense of traditional poems or romantic stories, since Syria’s war erupted in 2011.
“We went through a period where we wouldn’t come out much, but the owner of this coffee shop insisted that hakawatis continue to tell stories — even if he and I were the only ones left,” Lahham says.
“But today, as you can see, the situation is much better, and dozens of people wait for me every night.”
‘We come to forget’
The storytelling nights usually happen once a week but during the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan, which ends this weekend, the show is daily.
Listeners pack the cafe in the shadow of the famed Ummayad mosque late in the evening after breaking their fast.
Many stay until the early hours of the morning to enjoy some sustenance before the fast resumes at dawn.
Damascus residents have grown accustomed to regular rocket and mortar fire from rebel-held districts on the edges of the capital, with occasional rounds even reaching the Old City.
But those fronts have calmed since a May deal that saw opposition fighters withdraw from several neighbourhoods, along with a separate agreement on “de-escalation” zones — including one in a rebel stronghold just outside the capital.
Even so, the war is never far away, and listeners at Nawfara say the hakawati nights help them escape it, even if just for a few hours.
“We’re living every little part of the crisis everywhere we go. Every media outlet broadcasts tragedies. So we come to the coffee shops to forget — the hakawati’s tales help us do that,” 49-year-old Mohammad Duyub says.
A regular at Nawfara for over 20 years, he occupies a prime seat in the corner of the cafe, a ribbon of smoke curling up from his water pipe as he watches the storyteller.
“His performance takes us back to the past to escape the reality we’re living,” he says. “The hakawati gives us space to breathe.”
‘Preserving the tradition’
Mohammad Jaafar, 57, closes his eyes and focuses on Abu Sami’s booming voice.
“Since Ramadhan started, I’ve made sure to follow the story of Sultan Baibars because it’s exciting and beautiful. It reminds us of the powerful history that we’re proud of — compared to our current situation,” he says.
Nawfara’s wood-panelled walls and ceiling are decorated with Damascene mosaics which, its owner says, date back to the 17th century.
One wall features rows of framed photographs of historical figures who feature in Abu Sami’s tales — as well as a simple portrait of an elderly man in a red tarboosh and white robe.
The Arabic caption reads: “Abdelhamid al-Hawari, the first hakawati of Damascus, born 1885.”
But the art of public storytelling is on the decline, says Wassim Abdalhay.
The 32-year-old was once a full-time hakawati but financial woes forced him to take a day job at a local power station.
During Ramadhan, he performs each evening at a luxurious downtown restaurant under the stage name Abu Shadi, sporting loose black pants, a white cap and his own thick storybook.
“Before the crisis, there was a huge group of us who would travel to Gulf countries and perform Damascene folklore. But because of the situation, we weren’t able to travel — so we focused on preserving the tradition here,” Abdalhay said.
“We’re currently suffering a hakawati shortage. I could count those that are left in the country on one hand.” — AFP