Banking on hospitality and other simple pleasures


DAMASCUS -- In the clap and clatter of world events, the sweet notes go unheard. They are often found in the simple conversation of daily life, the hum of routine.

Take Yhia. He is a working man, 37, with a wife and two children. He is poor. But then, so are most of his neighbors, so he doesn't notice it much. He has little time for politicians or the pressing global issues of the day.

He could be in Baltimore. He happens to be a citizen of the most ancient city of Damascus. What lights up his day is not the latest round of peace negotiations but the excited greeting he gets at the door as he comes home from work.

"Ba ba" screams the little one, escaping from the door to run stark naked into the alley as Yhia arrives. A hand from behind the door snatches at the 18-month old, misses and, sensing a stranger with her husband, retreats indoors. Yhia parks the ancient, battered motorbike that is the family vehicle and scoops up his son.

His wife, Salmiya, was in shorts and a T-shirt behind the door, but now she greets the guest in a long black Muslim robe and a scarf that frames her face.

Her husband grumbles that he does not like the outfit, but she says she likes to be "decent." Her pretty face does wear a trace of makeup, and she has sewn two thin strips of sporty black sequins on the shoulders of the dress.

It has been a long day, and Yhia is glad to be home. The weather labored toward 100 degrees, the air sagged with humidity. Only the yelps of his sons banish his weariness.

Yhia sells candy from a small pushcart in the vegetable market. ** His wife is 22; his other son is 4. Their house is a simple one: bare concrete floor, one double bed, a wardrobe, dresser and refrigerator in one room. An old radio is often tuned to the Voice of America's Arabic programs.

The concrete patio is the playground for the children. A wispy bean plant and a couple of flowers are the only decorations.

"I do not have much," he says apologetically. He overlooks his wealth of hospitality.

If Yhia clears $100 a month, that is good. He worries about paying the rent. His older son, Sami, needs a special teacher, because at age 4 he is only starting to talk. That would cost $150 for the year, which Yhia does not have. But he is sanguine about life.

"Both the rich and the poor can live here," he says of Damascus. "For the poor, like me, it is difficult, of course. But you can live. The food is very cheap, and what is most important? To have food every day."

On cue, his wife serves a filling meal of chopped lamb mixed with boiled vegetables, fresh bread, hot peppers as a condiment, and watermelon as a cool dessert. The family sits on the concrete of the patio to eat.

Salmiya is impish. Over her husband's objections, she shows wrinkled photographs of his life before they met. He spent several years in London, and Salmiya proudly offers pictures of a handsome, long-haired waiter she never knew. Yhia is less pleased to recall the time. "I got lost there," he says tersely. "I would have been better-off to stay here and work."

He is content now to spend quiet evenings visiting neighbors. Over sweet tea and a bowl of fruit, his friend Jabal, 70, rejects a reference to Syria's dictatorial regime.

"I have seen the French here. I have seen the English here," the old man recalls. "This is the best time I have ever seen." Property values are high, and Jabal is considering tearing down his gracious, high-ceilinged old house to sell the land for a modern apartment.

But what about political freedoms?

"I can say anything I want," insists Jabal, his voice contradicting with a whisper. But "I have my work, and the president has his work. I leave his work for him."

He did vote for President Hafez el Assad in the last mandatory election, he said. "If you stay in a man's house, and he makes sure you are safe and have food and a bed, don't you thank him?"

Yhia has little patience for such discussions. The moon is full, and he wants to show off the grand expanse of Damascus from nearby Charkassyeh Mountain. Indeed, it is a lovely sight, admired from this spot by shepherds, Crusaders and conquerors for 5,000 years.

Yhia sits silently, drawing in the cool breeze, pondering the winking lights below.

"Life is good here," he says. "You only have to open your eyes."

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