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Volume 22, Number 5September/October 1971

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The Street Cries of Damascus

"Let none despise, the merry, merry cries..."

Written by George Taylor
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

Do you remember the lovely "Who Will Buy" sequence from the movie Oliver!, when a London square woke to the cries of a score of dancing street vendors? Or, in Porgy and Bess , the plaintive cry of the strawberry peddler in the black quarter of old Charleston?

There was a time when such colorful street vendors shouted their calls in the streets of cities throughout Europe and America. And although satirists from Juvenal in 1st-century Rome to Steele in 18th-century London inveighed against peace shattering hawkers seeking to mend old china, grind knives, tinker kettles or buy old clothes, we of the 20th century, having swept the hawkers from our streets, are now nostalgically blending their cries into the scores of our most popular musicals.

In the Middle East too, nostalgia may soon set in, for even in the crowded byways of the Damascus suq, the traditional cries are fading. A few of the old cries are still heard, but to me it seems fairly certain that most of them will have vanished—even from memory—by the end of this decade. I collected well over one hundred street cries while I was living in Damascus in the 1940's, but life there, as in almost every Arab city, has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. Women no longer stay indoors, and the once-ubiquitous sallah , the basket lowered to a hawker on a string from an upper lattice, is less often seen. There are far fewer intinerant peddlers in the streets today, and those who remain are changing their style. The seller of the thin, long cucumber, for example, who once would have shouted, "In the moonlight she stretched; she is cold!" now contents himself with, "Cucumbers! Cucumbers!"

Because England has a long tradition of street vendors, English travelers have long been fascinated by the cries of old Damascus. Sir Ronald Storrs, British diplomat and orientalist, wrote after a particularly tiresome stay there in 1908, "Street cries were my compensation." By that time the traditional peripatetic hawker (as distinct from the street trader with a fixed pitch) had become rare in British cities, and most Englishmen probably knew hawkers chiefly from Francis Wheatley's Cries of London, an immensely popular set of prints. Wheatley, an exhibitor at the Royal Academy from 1792 to 1795, first issued the series under the title The Itinerant Traders of London. He was not the first in the field; the most important collection. Tempest's Cryes of Old London , was published in 1668, and printed collections of London street cries have an ancestry dating back to 14th-century poems. John Payne Collier drew upon these poems when he edited the Roxburghe Ballads in 1845, for he included several verses of "The Cries of Old London," with the refrain, "Let none despise, the merry, merry cries of famous London town."

Many of the old cries—both their words and tunes—are still known. Among early examples are these :

From the bottom to the top

Swepe chimney swepe

Then shall no soote

Fall in your poridge pot.

A good sausage, a good,

And it be roasted . . .

Twelve o'clocke,

Looke well to your locke

Your fier, and your light

And so good-night.

In Damascus, it was not merely the continuing presence of street hawkers which fascinated British travelers, nor was it just their costumes, exotic as they sometimes were. The real fascination lay in the lyrical and picturesque quality of the cries themselves—many of them reminiscent of those illustrated by Wheatley. "From under the dew I gathered them!" shouted the man selling plump black grapes. "Like a Bedouin, this dark one!" sang a man with a sack of earthy-brown truffles. The foreigners were enchanted.

The 2nd edition of Karl Baedeker's guide book for travelers to Palestine and Syria, published in Leipzig in 1894, commented at length on the shouts to be heard in the Damascus suq . Based mainly on the experiences of Dr. Immanuel Benzinger, the book contained a number of street cries translated and interpreted for the English-speaking traveler.

The vendor of Refreshments, carrying on his back a wide two-handled jar with a narrow neck or a vessel made of glass, rattles with the brazen cups he holds in his hands shouting "Refresh thy heart!" or "Allay the heat!" The seller of jullab, or raisin-water, shouts, "Well-cleared, my child!" while the purveyor of khushaf, a beverage prepared from raisins, oranges and apricots, extols its coolness in the words "Take care of your teeth!" Liquorice water and plain water are carried about in goat skins by other itinerant dealers. An interesting custom is the so-called sebil ; that is, when anyone is desirous of doing a charitable deed, he pays for the contents of a water-skin and desires the carrier to dispense it gratuitously to all comers. Water-bearers with good voices are selected for the purpose, and they loudly invite applicants with "O thirsty one, the distribution."

Fruit of all kinds is sold in a similar manner, being generally described by some quaint periphrasis instead of being called by its name. Many kinds of vegetables are pickled in vinegar or brine and carried through the streets for sale in wooden tubs on the backs of donkeys. The commonest are beetroot (shawender), turnips (lift), and cucumbers (khiyar) ... The cry of the sellers is: "O father of a family, buy a load; for thirty paras a rotl of cucumbers!" The cress is praised somewhat as follows: "Tender cresses from the spring of Ed-Duiyeh; if an old woman eats them she will be young again next morning!" . . . Along with pistachios ("Fresh pistachios!"), roasted peas are also frequently purveyed, with the cry "Mother of two fires!", which means that they are well roasted, or "Here is something too hard for the teeth to bite!" Hawkers of nosegays cry Salih hamatak! ("Appease your mother-in-law!", that is, by presenting her with a bouquet.)

"Appease your mother-in-law" is a much-quoted gem from the Baedeker article. Its appeal has been universal; it has been the starting point for most searchers for the picturesque in street cries. But in 1944, hardly 30 years after Storrs had given "Propitiate your mother-in-law" as his version of the cry, I found not a single flower seller still using it, and after much searching, only one man who even remembered using it in the past. To humor me he began to shout it again, and Salih hamatak! was re-established—temporarily, at least—as a Damascus street cry. According to Colin Thubron, the most recent British chronicler of Syrian life, the flower and nosegay sellers of Damascus are still "swelling the noise with their shout 'Make it up to your mother-in-law!" so it seems that Salih hamatak! may have survived, though few other cries have.

The method I used to record the street cries which I hoped to gather and thus preserve will, I am afraid, shock and dismay Arabic scholars, but there are times when enthusiasm alone has to serve. When I heard a hawker I followed him until I had memorized his cry, and then wrote it down phonetically. To confirm the accuracy of what I had written, I stopped the hawker and persuaded him to repeat the words slowly and clearly. On most occasions had to revise my first version. Sometimes I could get no idea of what the cry meant at all, and several interesting ones eventually had to be discarded for want of adequate translation. None of the cries which I listed was from hearsay, for although I noted down some which friends assured me were well known, it was only when I had personally seen and heard the hawker that I added the cry to my collection.

Not all the hawkers were cooperative. Some of them, suspicious of the strange foreigner who tracked them, notepad in hand, suspended the shouting of the traditional cry to shout abuse; a few urged xenophobic bystanders to help them destroy the sinister pad before it was used against them. Once a notepad containing the fruit of many weeks' work was wrenched from my hands and ripped to pieces. But, on the whole, I must say, the Damascus hawkers were both patient and helpful.

The cries I was able to collect fell into three main groups: fruits and vegetables, sweets, and trades. Of the fruits, the cries for the mulberry, the apricot, and the prickly pear or cactus fruit outnumbered all others. Mulberry syrup is a Damascus specialty, and cries relating to it were particularly interesting. "At midnight on the ladder I gathered you!" "On the blow of a stick!" (That is, the mulberries had not been bruised by the fingers of the pickers.) "Strengthen your blood!" "Like baklowa , these sweet ones!" When prickly pears were most succulent, the vendor would cry "Food for the aristocracy!" and "Every one is a loss to me!" or "Don't search elsewhere—the lovely one is here!"

The cries for broad beans were the most numerous among the vegetables, but garlic from Yabroud and eggplants from Kafr Suss provided the most pithy expressions. Small fat cucumbers were sold to the cry "Fingers of the baby!" and pumpkins, "Eating them is a cure!" When broad beans were boiled in water and sold at night from barrows lit by kerosene lamps, they were "O you who light up the night!" Chick peas, also boiled in water, and served with salt and onion, were sold to the cry "O you on the boil, seven servants have prepared you!"

The vendors of ice cream cooled by the snow of Mount Hermon begged children to "Cry (for ice cream) and don't be hushed!" and halowee pastry was offered particularly to pregnant ladies, for whom "Sweetness is desirable!" to lessen the hardships of confinement. The toffee apple man cried, "To sweeten your teeth, boys!" and the lemonade man, "Come to me, O you warm ones!"

On feast days, when parents are especially indulgent to young children, hawkers carried trays of little gifts which they sold to the cry, "Everything for your feast, you favorite child!" Heard more frequently, however, were the "Who has broken glass?" of the junk man, and "Make white, make white!" of the pot cleaner. Lottery tickets were sold to the cry, "O fortune, O chance!" and the fortune teller and the palm reader called "Man on a turret!", indicating that from his vantage point he could see further into the future than his clients.

The tradition of street crying dies hard. The tinsmith, the wool comber, the melon seller, the fishmonger, the shoe polish boy, the man with the lottery ticket can still be heard in the street. But for the most part, the poetry has gone from their cries. In this era of busy cities and curt, prosaic speech, where is there a street hawker who will still invite you to buy prickly pears to the cry "Comfort yourself—that old woman makes the house full of strife!"

George Taylor, who teaches English at the American University of Beirut, is the author of The Roman Temples of Lebanon, a book on little-known ancient sites.

This article appeared on pages 12-15 of the September/October 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1971 images.