Here we are again with the next in my very irregular series of Mary Stewart quotations and excerpts. I am just back from a really wonderful family mini-break which gave me little real chance to read but I dipped in and out of the beginning of The Gabriel Hounds.

This book is set in Syria and Lebanon. It was published in 1967, 50 years ago, at a time when neither country was ravaged by war (remember the 1980s when Beirut was, without fail, called ‘war-torn Beirut’ on the news?). I have not re-read this book since the Syrian conflict began but reading the first dozen or so pages has shown me a Damascus that is now lost – or, more hopefully, lost for now – as Mary Stewart opens her novel with this evocative portrayal of the city:

I met him in the street called Straight.

I had come out of the dark shop doorway into the dazzle of the Damascus sun, my arms full of silks. I didn’t see anything at first, because the sun was right in my eyes and he was in shadow, just where the Straight Street becomes a dim tunnel under its high corrugated iron roof.

The souk was crowded. Someone stopped in front of me to take a photograph. A crowd of youths went by, eyeing me and calling comments in Arabic, punctuated by ‘Miss’ and ‘Allo’ and ‘Goodbye’. A small grey donkey pattered past under a load of vegetables three times its own width. A taxi shaved me so near that I took a half step back into the shop doorway, and the shopkeeper, at my elbow, put out a protective hand for his rolls of silk. The taxi swerved, horn blaring, past the donkey, parted a tight group of ragged children the way a ship parts water, and aimed without any slackening of speed at the bottleneck where the street narrowed sharply between jutting rows of stalls.

I adore this description for its sound, heat and movement. I have always pictured something similar to a 1980s bazaar in Turkey (with added donkey) and looking at photographs it seems that this is a fair enough comparison.

This photograph of Straight Street was taken in around 1965.

This 2010 photo shows the roof structure.

What I always missed until this reading, however, was the significance of that opening line: I had thought it was written as ‘the street called Straight’ rather than just ‘Straight Street’ simply because it sounded ‘better’ or less prosaic. I really should know better – there are always layers of meaning and allusion in Mary Stewart’s writing.

You may not be aware, just as I was unaware until recently, that there is a precedent for Straight Street being referred to as ‘the street called Straight’: this is how it is written in the New Testament in Acts 9:11, when Ananias is told to go there to find Saul (later named Paul, St Paul). This perhaps reveals Mary Stewart’s upbringing as the daughter of an Anglican vicar.

The other significant point about Straight Street is that it is a Roman road (and weren’t we all taught about the Romans that they liked to build their roads straight?); from her very first novel, Madam, Will You Talk?, Mary Stewart demonstrated her interest in Roman remains. For more on the Roman past of Damascus and Straight Street, read this interesting post by Syria Photo Guide.

Another excellent article is this The New Yorker one from December 2013, written by Rania Abouzeid on the war in Syria, and including a section on Straight Street. It tells of displays of ‘intricate, handcrafted inlaid woodwork renowned across the region’ but also of closed antique shops, unofficial-sounding armed checkpoints, images of the dead and the missing, and describes the street as ‘devoid of its once-familiar hustle’.

The contrast between Damascus past and present is a desperate one, I can only hope for the end of civil war and a chance for Syria to rebuild. The Gabriel Hounds demonstrates that Damascus was a vibrant city in the relatively recent past. May it be so again.

Please let me know your thoughts on The Gabriel Hounds, I’d like to hear from you.