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Storytelling at the Al-Nawfara Coffee-House Enhances Damascus's Charm

posted on: Sep 30, 2020

By: Habeeb Salloum/ Arab America Contributing Writer 

The muezzin’s evening call to prayer sounded soothing as we made our way through the side streets of old Damascus to the Al-Nawfara (the fountain) Café, famous as a story-telling haunt. In a few minutes, we were sitting in this charming coffee-house, surrounded by water pipe smokers and curious tourists, waiting expectantly for the story to begin. We did not have long to wait. In the shadow of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus’s crowning jewel, as we sipped our coffee or qahwa (which in Arabic means both coffee and the coffee-house), the hakawati or storyteller entered the café greeting the customers one by one.

Clad in flowing Arab dress with a covering jacket and a white skullcap, he made his way to an elevated chair, looking down on the patrons. Surveying the people below, he opened his book and began to read one of 356 installments recounting the legendary sirat (tale) of Sultan Baybars, the Egyptian Sultan who defeated the Mongol hordes. This evening the story began with the setting just before the Battle of Ayn Jalut, which historically proved to be one of the most decisive battles up to that time.

Romanticizing history, the sirat is an epic, embellished with a rich tapestry of magic and superstition, which portrays Baybars as the champion of the common people. As the hakawati read, it was as if we were back in the Middle Ages when one of the most preferred types of entertainment in the Middle East were the storytellers with their tales of war, chivalry, love, oppressors, rogues, and romance.

The aura of the coffee-house seemed to add authenticity to the storyteller and his tales. Al-Nawfara Café (also spelled Nufara, Noufara or Nofara), nestled behind the eastern gate to the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus is the oldest cafe in Damascus, dating back some 250 years. Located in a former bathhouse, its atmosphere and age make it an ideal setting to bring to life the epic Arab sagas from long ago.

Damascus has always been famed for its coffee-houses. Every coffee- house like Al-Nawfara is an interesting story in itself – an inexhaustible source of folk tales and folk activities. A European traveler in the past described these Damascene cafés as ‘oriental treasures’ and ‘precious stones in a Damascene necklace’. Similar to the cultural centers of today, they played an important role in Syria’s cultural, political, and social life.

Al-Nawfara has for many years been a meeting place of prominent Arab literary personalities. Arab literary personalities like the Iraqi bard Safi al-Najafi, the Syrian writer Mohammad Maghout, and Lebanese poet Amin Nakhlah, as well as prominent politicians, artists and professors have all called this café home.

From his rostrum, savoring the ripping, guttural sounds of literary Arabic as well as their effects on his attentive listeners, the storyteller continued with Baybar’s tale. As his Damascene customers, consisting of businessmen, shopkeepers, traders, and workers, sprinkled with tourists, sipped on their tea or coffee while smoking an ‘argileh or shisha (water pipe), he spoke of heroic and kind princes, beautiful maidens, just sultans and cruel invaders. His powerful voice, suggestive mimics, and perfect intonation made even the tourist understand the story. The audience seemed transfixed in a spell listening to tales with which no doubt they were familiar.

However, the hakawati, even though emotionally involved in his reading, still noticed everything happening in the café. Every time a new patron would enter he would stop the story and greet the newcomer before becoming serious again. Gesturing with his hands and speaking with emotion his voice echoed throughout the premises. “When the Defender of the Faith, Baybars, gathered an army to stop the cruel Mongol hordes, no one thought that he could stop them.”

Someone shouted, offering advice, “Of course, he would crush them! Was he not chosen by God to save the faithful?” Another patron broke in. “Long live Baybars, the savior of Islam! He fought nobly and God was on his side.”

The hakawati waited for the commotion to end before again beginning to spin his tale. His booming voice drowned out the clatter of cups as he waved a flat sword in the air. Soon the audience was silenced by the slamming of the sword, for dramatic effect, against a table to punctuate each turn in the story.

“Baybars wanted to bring back the days of Arab glory as he led his army into battle”, the hakawati appeared to be excited.   “Baybars! You are great! Get these Mongols!” the voice of an agitated patron stopped the storyteller. “Go on! Baybars is our hero!” another customer shouted.

About an hour had passed and the story had reached the point of the fury of battle when the hakawati put his book aside and rose to leave after promising to continue the next night relating the outcome of the Battle of Ayn Jalut.   “Did Baybars win?” an excited customer asked as the smiling storyteller made his way out of the café.

At times during these readings, some of the patrons become so excited waiting for the conclusion of an episode that they will attempt to stop the storyteller from leaving until he concludes the episode. A story is related around the coffee-houses in Damascus that once a man went to the hakawati’s house at night and asked him to come and complete the story since he could not sleep because the story had stopped when the hero was put in the prison.

Our experience was unique in that we had witnessed the dying tradition of storytelling, once very common throughout the Arab world, but now rare. It is said there are only one or two of these narrators left in Syria. They have long since been overwhelmed by modern forms of entertainment. However, in Al-Nawfara, the storytellers have since the early 1990s, gained a following, including many tourists, not seen in any other modern Arab capital. Syria, called the heart of the Arab nation, remains the living home of Arab culture, heroes and traditions.

Hence, we relished that evening at the Al-Nawfara Café. It crowned our day of exploring Damascus and added much to the enhancement of the city’s historic charm. Of course, if we stayed in Damascus for another day, we would return and, like most of the café’s patrons, be thrilled by the vivid description of the Battle of Ayn Julat.