Damascus – TURKISH DELIGHT
The Bab Sharqi is the eastern gate of Old Damascus. It is the entrance to the Christian quarter along the Via Recta. This street is mentioned in the New Testament as the place where the former persecutor of Christians Saul was baptized and became the apostle Paul. That is the grand story. Another one, straighforward in its simple truth, was told to me twenty centuries later. August Thiry
Bab Sharqi – Old Damascus
Ashot Galstyan Coiffeur. A name and the French word for barber. The three words are written in white lettering on the window of the barber’s shop about halfway in the Via Recta. A small hot room, two revolving chairs facing a desk, a mirror with a crack – that is all there is to it
The owner is fluent in French. Bienvenu dans mon royaume, he says. Welcome to my kingdom. I hear the asthmatic voice of an old man. He was about to close for his midday break, he says, but that can wait. Please, please sit down. What will it be?
He wears a blue dustcoat over a clean white shirt and a tie. I take a seat in the left chair. His trembling hands touch my neck when he spreads the piece of cloth around me and fastens it. I see it happen – the sharp blade of a barber’s knife scrapes around my Adam’s apple, a trembling hand misses its movement and cuts, blood thickens the thin red scar. No shaving, I say, just trimming my hair a bit
My barber gets started. His comb moves through my hair, the blades of the scissors snap skilfully over the crown of my head. No clippers, he says, he never used them. So, why change at his age? I make a guess, he immediately corrects me. Mais non, he says, he is eighty years old. Eighty? My full respect then, he really looks great, bien conservé, for his age!
A compliment straight to his heart. He smiles, his eyes twinkle behind the thick glass of his spectacles. Old trees may crack a bit, but they don’t fall that easy, he says, that is what he always tells foreigners when they come to his shop. He points at the desk, at the cards fixed to the frame of the mirror. There is a whole collection of them. He always asks foreigners to leave their address card, he says. Most of them are willing to do so and it means a lot to him, he says, that the whole world is coming to his place, it reminds him of the old days
Ashot Galstyan – the name sounds Armenian. Bien sûr, he nods, he is Armenian. He learnt his French from his father. His father worked for the French after the First World War. It was the period of the protectorate, when Syria was under French rule. Those were the golden years, une époque dorée, as his father always called it. They had a good life, the French administrators respected educated people like his father, who was fluent in four languages: Armenian, Arabic, Turkish and French. When the French left, before the Second World War, everything changed; but not for the better, alas. And yet, one never forgets what is deep inside, he says. The French language is precious to him, comme une promenade dans le jardin du passé – it is the garden of his youth.
I look at his face in the mirror. Ashot Galstyan, French-speaking Armenian barber in the Christian quarter of Old Damascus. His bony hands with the comb and the scissors caught in a moment of rest above my head while he stares at the carafe with water and the small bowl on the barber’s desk. The glass bowl contains loukoumi, pieces of Turkish delight strewn with powdered sugar. Perhaps I want to taste some? He pours out a glass of water and holds the small bowl in front of me. The water has a stale taste, the sickly sweet loukoumi sticks to my teeth. Ashot has also taken a piece and starts sucking on it, blissful satisfaction all over his face
Ashot coughs, scrapes his throat and continues his work with his comb and his scissors. His father was really fond of loukoumi, he says. Ashot remembers the scene quite well: his father carefully choosing a nice piece of loukoumi from the dish in the old house he rented in Damascus, and then mumbling that it was the only sweet memory he had kept from his youth in Turkey
I feel the sudden change. The comb moves too fast, the scissors get stuck and pull at my hair. His father was born in the south of Turkey, he says, in Adana at the Mediterranean Sea. He asks if I know that town. From hearsay, I answer, but never been there myself. From hearsay, he repeats. I feel the sting, the bitter taste caused by my casual answer. And do I also know what happened in Adana towards the end of the 19th century? No? Then he will tell me. Murder and massacre, the Armenian population of Adana and the whole region rounded up and butchered. Why? Because they were different. They prospered as farmers, craftsmen and traders, they had money and they spoke foreign languages. And above all, they were neither Turks nor Kurds. There were Armenians who got involved in politics and wanted to revolt against Ottoman oppression, but the majority of them just tried to live a quiet and peaceful life in their native area. Alas, it was not to be, he sighs
Ashot stands behind me, but he is far away. His arms are hanging down, with the scissors in his trembling right hand. He speaks softly, carefully. He presents his address card once more to a foreigner who needs to be informed.
His father was just married when all hell broke loose in Adana. He and his young wife were the only survivors of the two families. They fled to Syria. At first they found shelter in Aleppo, there was a large Armenian community in that town. Then they moved to Damascus and in Damascus their only son was born. C’était moi, Ashot Galstyan, says Ashot, touching his heart with one hand. His mother? He has never known her. She was weak, she died in childbed. She rests on the Christian cemetery extra muros of Old Damascus, says Ashot. His father never married again. He died before the Second World War, shortly after the French protectorate came to an end in Syria and the French left the country. He was buried next to his wife, Ashot’s mother
Loukoumi – that was his father’s small joy in his old days, says Ashot. He sees it again: how his father took a piece of loukoumi between the tips of his thumb and forefinger and drank some cold water to go with it, and how he enjoyed that moment then and used to rake up memories about his family in Adana. Small stories with intervals of silence in between, while his mouth was filled with the sweet and bitter taste of those early years
The comb and the scissors go up and down. In my neck it feels all right, but on the crown of my head it looks like a mess and I fear that it will be the same around my ears. So what? There is no real harm done. It is just hair, it will grow back in no time at all
Snap! The scissors in his old hand mow away another wisp of hair. Adana must have been horrible, says Ashot, but it was just the beginning, the worst came in 1915 during the Great War. Two million Armenians throughout Turkey deported and slaughtered by Turks and Kurds. Men, women and children, an entire population, two million! Who remembers it today, that first genocide of the twentieth century? The Turkish Republic never recognized the massacres and the founder of the new Turkey, Atatürk, has always been an admirer of Hitler. Do I know what Hitler said when he decided to get rid of the Jews in Europe? He said: Just do it!
?Who remembers what happened to the Armenians
Who remembers it? repeats Ashot. He takes a small brush to brush me clean and takes away the piece of cloth. Voilà! he says. His short-sighted eyes blink behind his spectacles when he steps aside and points at my trimmed head in the mirror. A bit punky here and there, but no bald spots, better than I expected
I give him my address card and asks if he wants to go on much longer with his work, he is eighty after all. Ashot sighs. He is not married, he says, he doesn’t have children, he is the last descendant of an old family from Turkey and apart from the barber’s shop there is nothing he can call his own. So, why give it up? He hasn’t saved enough money to retire. And who would be prepared to take over such an old-fashioned business like his? Taking a rest – he just cannot afford it, he says, but soon he will get his eternal rest, for free
He grins. The wrinkled face of a very old man with a hooked Armenian nose. And suddenly I catch a glimpse of another face, the cheerful and at the same time sad look of Shahnour Aznavurjian, Ashot’s famous and equally meagre Armenian fellow man, the one with the unforgettable voice: Charles Aznavour
I pay the price. It is more than I had in mind. Has he noticed my hesitation? The haircut is very cheap, says Ashot, the surplus is for the loukoumi. He smiles again. I can live with that. Certainly when I remember that Ashot Galstyan, eighty years old and Armenian barber in the Christian quarter of Old Damascus, had to live his whole life with the sweet and bitter aftertaste of Turkish delight
One week passes; then I am back in Damascus. I walk through the Via Recta, looking out for the white letters Ashot Galstyan Coiffeur. There they are, but no sign of life, the barber’s shop is closed. A bit farther on in the street I enter the stockroom of an Armenian merchant specialized in oriental carpets. Perhaps he knows more. I sit down on a wooden stool, sipping from a glass of hot tea, while the fat carpet dealer spreads out one Bukhara carpet after the other in front of me. He starts talking in broken English
Barber Ashot very old, he says. Bad hands, you know, bad heart too. My barber has been brought to the hospital and the shop is closed. For long time, maybe for all time
The man spreads his arms and looks up to heaven. He moves the silver plate on the low table closer to me. Multicoloured loukoumi dotted with sugar. Take one, he says. I wave one hand: not now, thanks. Please, please, the man insists. And then: You not like Turkish delight? Too sweet for you? I nod. Sometimes I like, sometimes not, I say
The man fills our empty glasses with fresh tea. All around us Bukhara carpets are spread out. Their deep red glow lightens the semi-darkness