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Brushing my hand against the intricate embroidery of a tablecloth, purchased years ago, brought back a flood of memories
But when from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
Marcel Proust’s monumental novel, In Search of Lost Time (also known as Remembrance of Times Past), was inspired by a mouthful of sponge cake, a madeleine, dipped in tea. The taste evoked a cascade of involuntary memories that led to many, many pages of remembrances. Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell are powerful memory triggers. There are neuroscientific reasons for this, but we do not need to go into that now.
Christmas is rich in nostalgia. Every year, the first mince pie, glass of mulled wine, or cake crumb awakening, without conscious effort, previous experiences we thought long since buried. Recently, while rooting in an over-stuffed cupboard my hand felt the intricate embroidery of a tablecloth, bought a lifetime ago in a far-away land and I experienced my own Proustian moment. Involuntary memories and sensations flooded my consciousness with a sudden stark realisation of how the world has changed for all of us between then and now.
I brought the tablecloth to the kitchen and shook it out over the table. The red and green damask linen settled itself over the wood. I ran my fingers over the embroidery and remembered the man who sold it to me. I don’t remember his name, but he served my sister and I hot sweet tea from a gleaming silver teapot, in the back room of his corner shop in the Al-Hamidiyah Souk, in the ancient city of Damascus.
To get there from my sister’s apartment we travelled along the ‘Street that is called Straight,’ (yes, that is what it is called), the original Roman route to Jupiter’s Temple, where centuries ago, Saul met the disciple Ananias, and was cured of his blindness. Palm trees dotted the pavements on either side, stretching tall towards a lavender sky. We arrived at the Souq in time for evening trading. The vaulted roof was set with evenly spaced narrow windows that captured and condensed the thin evening light. Wall-mounted lanterns cast a warm glow on the already bustling marketplace.
Elephant husks, mosque lamps, turquoise Iznik tiles, handmade wooden marquetry, and pedestal tables lined the pathway outside the crowded stalls and shops of the bazaar. And in the shops, mountains of turmeric, cinnamon, freshly ground cloves; sacks of dried black limes, apricots, and prunes; dried red chilies the shape of small skinny fish. Further along, a lifesized jewelry box, where our eyes and fingertips caressed endless rows of white, cream, pink, lavender, purple, and chocolate-coloured pearls.
Pearls gleaned from the Arabian and Persian Gulf – or so the vendor said – and we believed him. We moved from one shop to another like children in a toyshop, mesmerised, and I wondered how much of this I could take home. Perched behind a long high counter-top, a darkeyed bearded man beckoned to my tall, blonde, smiling sister. Behind him were rows and rows of richly coloured linens, silk, and wool. Soft patterned rugs from Iran lined the walls.
Pashminas, in elegant baby blue and lime green, hung from a rail overhead. I ran my hand over a soft piled rug, while he disappeared into the back of his shop. A moment later he was inviting us in, handing us piping hot tea in delicate pink and white patterned porcelain cups. While we drank, he laid out cotton, silks, and linens on the counter and in perfect English, encouraged us to hold and caress the fabrics to fully appreciate the quality. My sister chose a cashmere pashmina shawl, lilac, pink, and lavender.
I held onto the tablecloth, my mind already adorning my kitchen table for many Christmases to come. We left the Souq as the unmistakable sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer rang out from the towering minarets of the Great Umayyad Mosque. Rich, melodious voices chanting in unison from a room with gold mosaic walls. Later, sitting outside the Al Nawforaa Café, drinking tea, we listened to the men indoors talking and laughing, the sweet scent of shisha drifting onto the street, and I resolved that one day I would return. I never did.
Not long after my sister and her husband left the city for good as war ravaged the country. We return only in moments such as these, gifts from the past, from our store of remembrances. Wishing all my readers a happy, peaceful, and nostalgic Christmas.
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