“I’m not going in there.” Chris shakes his head and his face says it all. He sees the shop-front crammed full of people. We’re standing in Damascus’ Suq Al-Hamidiye and, despite Chris’ instant signal of defeat, I’m determined to buy an icecream.
The suq is alive and bustling with people. Locals dodge and weave through the crowd strategically. Vendors are yelling out their specials for the day. Younger boys are either purposely pushing their bikes weighted with packages or heaving their way through the masses carrying trays packed with tall glasses of freshly brewed welcome tea for their customers. The air is filled with a mixed smell of spices, sweat and dust. Yet, the doorway beckons me. It’s a modest shop-front announced by Arabic script followed by its English translation - Bakdash.
Men, women and children of all ages have filled the narrow shop to its brim. An eager crowd mingles loudly outside, waiting for its turn to barge into the doorway to be rewarded with the ultimate prize of a crunchy cone full of luscious, freshly pounded booza, or icecream. I gather my strength to undergo one of the biggest elbowing battles I will ever encounter.
Within seconds of passing over Bakdash’s threshold, the pushing and shoving begins. It’s as if a heavy tide has forcefully ripped my body out to sea. Men and women twice my age but half my height push and pull me in the direction of the counter. There is no defined queue in sight anywhere. Shop workers are dressed in crisp white cotton shirts and stand to attention to tackle the day’s promising trade.
Suddenly, there’s a loud thumping sound to my left. Two of the workers are raising long thick wooden poles into the air then smashing the poles with full force into a deep silver basin submerged into the counter. This is where the booza is being pounded, battered and whipped right before my eyes. My attention is ripped back to the crowd as an arm shoves me forward. I apologise profusely to locals in front of me but they ignore my presence.
I finally arrive at the cashier and hand over my 25 Syrian pounds in exchange for a plastic token. I’m then swept back into the crowd as the tide changes. I struggle to remain balanced on my feet. To my right, a shop worker on my side of the counter yells in Arabic and motions me to step to his direction. I squeeze through the crowd and position myself right next to my newfound friend. He smiles at me cunningly and I shout a breathless shukran for his trouble. He knows I’m the tourist without the slightest clue about how to use my elbows effectively in this bedlam scene yet I’m the one worrying over the thought of offending or hurting the locals.
Customers before me plead for chocolate. Shop workers refuse abruptly by shoving cones full of elastic, vanilla confectionery into their hands. Some leave with a sullen look in their eyes. It’s then my turn to let my demands be heard and I cheekily ask for chocolate. I know my luck is running thin but it’s worth a try. My host then yells to his comrade. A rotund waffle cone is crowned with a glistening smatter of rich chocolate icecream then rolled roughly into roasted crushed cashews seconds before it's shoved my way. My host smiles and nods to me and I’m elated! I feel extremely grateful knowing that I’m only a select few who are rewarded with chocolate today.
I hand my friend my token before waving him goodbye and I re-emerge in the suq with a sense of determination and success. While it’s one thing to experience Bakdash’s traditions which are over a century old, it’s an entirely different matter if you leave with the flavour you desire. You just have to look beyond the crowds and elbows first!