The audience is enraptured as soon as the man on stage begins to describe the lovely Alia. It's as if they're taken just with the way he pronounces her name.
"Is she beautiful?" someone shouts from the back of the smoke-filled coffee house.
"Yes, she is very beautiful," the man on stage, known as Abu Shadi, responds with a conspiratorial grin. After 15 years of telling the same stories on the same stage, the man who is likely to be the last in Syria's long line of hakawati, or professional storytellers, knows well what his crowd wants to hear.
To their delight, he goes on to describe the fictional Alia in a way one might describe a love briefly found and long ago lost.
"She had a round face, and a small mouth," he says, to sighs of contentment and a shout of "Oh my God!" from his listeners. "She had beautiful eyes, like a deer."
Abu Shadi takes a long drink of tea, letting the image set in before continuing. It's the kind of moment -- the audience hanging on his every word -- that a hakawati lives for. "And her legs were like marble," he adds, sparking whistles and stomps of approval from the predominantly male crowd.
Abu Shadi, whose full name is Rashid al-Hallak, has been holding nightly court since 1990 at an-Nafura, a lively café in the shadow of Damascus's signature Umayyad Mosque. Seeing him perform is like stepping back at least 100 years in time. The hakawati once ruled the coffee houses of the Middle East, but have faded away in numbers with the advent first of radio and then television.
Though there are others in the country who do storytelling as a sideline, performing at feasts and festivals, Abu Shadi is the last in the capital with a regular gig. At 60, he worries that when he's done, there won't be another.
He's been encouraging his son to follow in his footsteps, but is realistic about the chances the young man will be able to make a living telling stories in the age of satellite TV and the Internet. "No one is going to do it after me. The income is too poor," Abu Shadi says.
Mindful of the lost tradition he represents, every night he dons a waistcoat and fez, the same uniform worn by storytellers during what he says was the profession's heyday, during the Ottoman Empire.
He says he fell in love with storytelling as a boy when his father took him to the same café to listen to the hakawati. When the storytellers were finished, they often left their texts on the stage. Abu Shadi used to grab the manuscripts and memorize every word.
Tonight, perched above the customers on a wooden throne painted green and gold, he's telling one of the stories he first heard as a child: The epic tale of Abu Zeid al-Hilali, the Arab warrior king who led his tribe on a march from Egypt to Tunisia. Alia is a love interest.
To the first-time listener, the tales appear to have no beginning and no end. At 8 p.m., the televisions are flipped off and Abu Shadi takes the stage, pulling a sheaf of papers out from under the cushion of his seat. Sliding his gold-rimmed glasses down his nose, he opens the manuscript to a seemingly random page and begins to read.
His large audience of regulars knows exactly what's happening. Abu Shadi is picking up where he left off the night before, telling the latest episode in a story that could take a year or more to read. He finishes for the evening an hour later, leaving the audience hanging as to whether Abu Zeid will survive the latest battle, or what becomes of the beautiful Alia. To find out what happens next, you have to return tomorrow.
Though the stories he's telling are nearly as old as Damascus itself, he holds the crowd spellbound with exaggerated inflections, outrageous acting and the spontaneous non sequiturs that are the hakawati's bread and butter. He throws in a few words of English and German for the handful of tourists who come by to watch, but otherwise it's all in classical Arabic.
The battle scenes are his specialty. He punctuates the text with shouts and slightly dangerous slashes of a short sword.
"Each story can take a year and a half to tell, and there are new things inside it each time," he says. "This is why I never get bored. The stories have love and courting, battles, poetry and a moral voice for society."
The sword helps him maintain the attention of the audience in more direct ways as well. Anyone caught not listening or talking too loudly is apt to find the blade smashing down on his table as a pointed reminder that this hour is Abu Shadi's alone.
It's a stunt that makes the tourists jump, but his regulars have seen it all before. Some of them know the tales -- he rotates Abu Zeid with a couple of other year-long epics, including the classic Arabian Nights -- almost as well as he does.
"It's like a series. You come every day for the next episode," said Abu Ahmed, a 54-year-old restaurateur who says he's been coming almost every night since Abu Shadi began 15 years ago. Puffing on a water pipe, he says he forgoes television each night for the live performance because "it's about remembering the way it was in the past, and the ways of the old generation."
The normal café buzz returns as soon as Abu Shadi's done for the evening. The TV is flicked back on, and conversations are picked up where they were left off an hour before.
Abu Shadi hardly notices. He's got another gig tonight, and is already out the door with a spring in his step, to tell the same old tales again to another audience eager to hear him tell them for the umpteenth time.