National Geographic : 1974 Apr
Among the Damascenes, good food makes problems bearable, and their cuisine is fa mous throughout the Arab world. A favorite Arab nickname for Damascus is Al-Matbakh, the Kitchen. Wherever I went I was fed meals, sweets, and fruits, all of surpassing freshness and richness. The most notable dish, fattet makhdous, is to Damascus what chili is to Mexico. A mixture of laban (yogurt), egg plant, and bread, it is a favorite meal of Arabs, and renowned throughout the Middle East. During the six-day war in 1967, the Israeli radio was heard to demand, "Women of Damascus, prepare fattet for us. We are coming." Last Stop Before the Desert The eating-and the living-are not so good on the edges of the oasis. "We are the last stop," said Mukhtar Ali Hussein of Utaya, at the eastern end of Al-Ghutah. "Beyond is Al Sahra, the desert, then Baghdad, 500 miles away. This is where the Barada dies." The people of Utaya, like many at the edges of Al-Ghutah, grow cotton, which needs little irrigation. "When the crops are good," said Ali Hussein, "there are many marriages in the village." But though the government had been helping with crops and wells and improving communications, the future seemed uncertain. There had been no rain re cently, the Barada had dried up a little earlier than usual, young men had gone to Damascus looking for work, and fewer young women were getting married. I went to the desert to visit an encampment of Bedouin, whose camel-hair tents were clus tered in a depression five miles east of Utaya. The tribe's chief, Sheik Khalid ibn Moham med, dressed in boots and flowing robes, greeted me and led me to his tent, where we joined a group of tribesmen gathered round an early-morning fire. In a corner of the long narrow tent, I noticed an aged but obviously lovingly tended motorcycle, minus lights and Fetters of tradition still bind everyday Syrian life, despite the displays of movie posters (above). A variety of dress is toler ated among the young, but the attire of con servative Moslem matrons reveals no flesh between ankle and wrist. Here shoppers haggle and giggle in one of the city's crowded suqs (right).