Filtered sunlight falls in diagonal steaks across the table before me. It doubles the number of hues I see in the mosaics, and isolates me in a little ring of sunlight – one of the few in the room. But I don’t feel alone. Fatima has just brought me tea in a scalding silver kettle, and Ali is on the way with puffy pillows of Flat bread straight from the wood-fired oven. There is soft chatter in all corners of the courtyard, but none is in English. It really is time I learned Arabic. Shisha smoke billows in apple and grape-scented clouds, making a slow journey to the heavens through the swathes of canvas that keep the harshest rays from intruding.The qanun player begins, then is joined by drummers. All are dressed in voluminous Persian robes and fez caps. The waitress swings her hips as she walks, subtle, but definitely in time. She wears black from neck to toe, but it’s not an abaya – it’s embroidered and tapered, with slits up the side and pants underneath. Her hair falls like an unravelling croissant over her shoulder, and her dark eyes are trained in that intriguing “come hither/go thither” manner. She could serve me rubbish and I would like it, spit in my face, and I would tip her. She is most certainly in charge.The bar reminds me of a cistern in a Turkish bath – ancient white marble columns stretch from the bench to a circular dome. Two olive-skinned youths wear loose keffiyeh on their heads, and make coffee with water taken from an enormous copper drum. The surfaces surrounding are covered with silver teapots and jewel-coloured tea glasses, pomegranates and tiny oranges. They rarely look up, and remain utterly silent, while working in unison as perfect as a dance.Food arrives on giant platters and is thrown in the centre of the table. Iranian lamb in yoghurt and pepper is tender and juicy. Fattoush is overdressed, but surprisingly has added herbs – mint, basil, and something I dont recognize but enjoy regardless. The crispy bread on top is perfect – the salad to have when you don’t want a salad. Meat pastries that look like spring rolls turn out to be spiced with cinnamon and even meet approval with the world’s fussiest eater who sits opposite me. Even the fries are not just fries, but super-crunchy slivers with the skin intact. It’s delicious.
I want to sit there all day. A waterwheel rotates behind me, buckets filling and emptying with no purpose but to sound relaxing. Everywhere I look I am met with beauty. Someone told me this place reminds them of Damascas, and I think it’s time I went.
I order baklava – nutty pastry treats dripping in honey and rosewater – and it is the best I have ever tasted. The coffee is perfect. I don’t want to go, but my children tug at my sleeves – Santa is upstairs waiting. We leave and meander through the dim and exotic stone souq, trying to convince the children that we are lost, and we think the exit is in the opposite direction. Finally we emerge into the great flourescentness of Wafi Mall. Who would ever believe the treasures of Khan Murjan reside beneath?
Khan murjan souq is named after a famous old Baghdad inn. The restaurant of the same name is in the centre of the souq. The waiter and waitress are not actually called Ali and Fatima – or at least they may be, but I don’t know. If they were my children I would have called them that because they are my favourite Middle Eastern names.