Stephanie Clifford-Smith joins regulars at a Damascus cafe to hear the master of a dying tradition.
ABU SHADI speaks Arabic, however coming to see him perform at the al-Nofara coffee shop in Damascus's old heart is about much more than the narrative. There's been a professional storyteller, or hakawati, entertaining patrons of this atmospheric cafe for the past 75 years; the tradition itself dates to the 12th century. Hakawati were once a part of street life but when coffee drinking became popular during Ottoman times, they followed their audiences into the coffee houses.
On the evening of our visit, we sat outside sipping black tea from sturdy glass tumblers until the performer arrived. Waiters with engraved brass trays carrying cardamom-scented coffee, cola and shisha pipes wove between the customers. Next to us, a girl of about 18 in black hijab with gorgeous kohl-rimmed eyes held her wriggling toddler in one arm and negotiated the pipe with minimal assistance from her young husband.
The regulars here are mostly men who come to play backgammon and smoke. The shisha at al-Nofara is highly regarded because the pipes are well maintained, the water is clear and the tobacco flavours remain pure and distinct.
An elevated throne awaited Abu Shadi inside and we managed to nab a couple of chairs near enough to it. The room was barely cooled by fans moving slowly overhead, so the doors and windows were left open. Timber-lined walls were densely covered with pictures: an odd mix of chocolate box landscapes, heraldic crests, tall ships, travel posters and old photos.
There was a time when Shadi's audiences dwindled, thanks to competition from TV, cinema and the internet. Now, perhaps due to the Syrian revival of interest in tradition, audiences are returning to the cafe and that night the room was filled with families, teenagers and tourists, local and foreign.
Before taking to his decorative throne, Abu Shadi popped a deep red tarboosh on his head. With spectacles perched on the end of his nose, he read legends from a plastic ring-binder, projecting his powerful voice and punctuating the tales with startling cracks of his sword on a nearby table.
He sipped black tea and occasionally stopped to light up a Marlboro Red. Regulars knew when to chime in with responses to his rhetorical questions and he worked the room for laughs, breaking the Arabic with singsong English phrases such as "I love you" and "Thank you very much".
Under a poster of David Beckham advertising airconditioning sat a young couple, unchaperoned. The man rested his arm along the back of her chair as she, wearing silver chandelier-like earrings, diamante-encrusted jeans and a tight pink top, leaned into him. His hair was stiff with gel and he affected a casual air with his two-day beard growth and easy pipe smoking.
Another girl, with a full pout, heavy eyeliner and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Hip Hop" across her large bust, looked restless. She got up to leave early, all eyes falling on her backside showing above low-rise jeans.
These girls had uncovered heads but many women in the audience teamed a scarf with figure-hugging clothes. This group, according to a common Middle Eastern saying, want to be observant and observed.
Because Abu Shadi's stories are G-rated, involving thrilling exploits of Islamic heroes, people bring along their young children to listen. In the audience that night were several little girls wearing frilly satin dresses and carrying weeny gold handbags; a boy aged about three, wearing a mini Syrian army uniform, its red epaulets extending beyond his shoulders by at least a star's width, sat perched on a window sill.
Abu Shadi, himself an avid reader, sticks only partially to the script. Sometimes he'll make up stories, adding relevance by weaving current events into tales or elaborating on the classics with jokes, audience banter and character voices. The content may be beyond the reach of non-Arabic-speaking visitors yet some locals miss out, too, because some stories are delivered in an old linguistic form not widely understood today. Rather, everyone comes for Shadi's entertaining delivery, the atmosphere, people-watching and to witness a dying tradition.
It's not the lack of interest that will wipe professional storytelling out, Shadi believes, but the lousy pay. He certainly can't survive on it and is lucky to have trained as a tailor.
His son, a successful puppeteer, says he'll carry on the work after his father retires but Shadi is urging him not to, if he wants to keep his family in kebabs and kibbeh. For now, however, he can still be found every night at al-Nofara, just after evening prayers.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel.
Emirates flies from Sydney to Damascus via Dubai, priced from $2031 return. 1300 303 777, emirates.com.
The Afamia Hotel has double rooms from $77 a night. +963 11 222 9152, afamiahotel.com. Intrepid Travel's Cairo to Istanbul 21-day tour includes two days exploring Damascus. 1300 364 512, intrepidtravel.com.
Hear Abu Shadi at the Al-Nofara cafe, Sharia al-Qaimariyya, Damascus, next to the eastern wall of the Umayyad Mosque.