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The Independent Culture
British Airways began flights to Syria again on Saturday after a gap of 12 years. Here's what every visitor to the Syrian capital should know.

Most ubiquitous item of clothing: any military uniform. Colours range from khaki to, er, green. When you're off-duty, the Syrian-produced equivalent of the Hawaiian shirt is the best way to blend in. If you're slightly older, say around 75, then the traditional kaffiyeh is the de rigueur headgear, worn in any number of styles from the collapsed pancake of the peasant to the starched and folded of the oil millionaire. For women: headscarf.

Shop-till-you-drop: the main market is the Souq al-Hamadiyyeh; it is also the only tourist trap in the city. Best to pass through and explore the other markets that branch off south of the citadel, ending with the Madhat Pasha souk. Similar shops and stalls are grouped into whole streets so it's easy to compare prices. Spices and silks are the genuine articles and if you walk on down the biblical "Street Called Straight" into the Christian quarter near the Bab Sarqi (East Gate), you can shop at Khalil Daye, who claim to have supplied the silk for the Queen's coronation gown.

Drink of the moment: fruit juice, freshly squeezed while you wait, is available every 20 paces from bars or barrows at about 25p a litre. Try combining banana or apple and milk and forget food hygiene. If you must drink alcohol in a predominantly Muslim country, then the home-produced beers Chark or Barada are available in some restaurants.

Compulsive viewing: the commercials on Syrian TV are the slickest productions, but there is also news in English and French in the evenings, complete with wobbly sets. You can also catch the latest kung-fu adventure at any of the city's cinemas; try the one just round the corner from the Orient Palace Hotel in S al-Jabri Avenue. If you are young and male you will fit in.

Compulsive eating: there is a plethora of restaurants around Martyrs' Square. For the broadest menu try the Arabi, just off the square in Sanjakdar. A fashionable thing to do is go out for breakfast - you will dine far better than in your hotel. After a hard trudge round the souqs, you can do no better than seek refreshment at Bakdach in the al-Hamadiyyeh souq: here they serve only two things - homemade ice-cream covered with pistachio nuts, or mahalabiyya (milk pudding). Try either and you will think you are in heaven. Unlike in the street cafs, women are welcome here.

Cool place to be: an oasis for the weary shopper suffering the midday sun is the 12th-century Nur ed-Din Hospital, now housing the Museum of Islamic Science. Unless you are a medical student, the displays are dull, but it is a delight to sit in the shady courtyard.

Place (not) to be: in any of the main streets or covered markets at around 8pm. At this hour huge tankers are sent by the city authority to spray Damascus with disinfectant to make it germ-free. Whether it works is debatable. The only sure thing is that you will be soaked through from head to toe and left smelling of Domestos if you don't move fast enough.

Publication of note: the Syria Times, published daily in English, is the best way to find out the President's engagements and to see who has been honoured with one of his congratulatory telegrams. Otherwise the newstands carry 10-year-old copies of Reader's Digest and three-month- old editions of Newsweek.

Latest (government-imposed) fad: photographs or, better still, posters of the President (right) or his late son Basil, prominently displayed in the window of your taxi, house, shop, office or restaurant. Bumper- stickers are also popular.

Hottest ticket in town: return to Palmyra by "air-conditioned" bus, to see the ancient city ruins; only 200 Syrian pounds (about £2.50). Forget Petra and the Parthenon. After 200km of sand and rock, Palmyra rises out of the desert, a city of great arches, amphitheatres, temples and colonnaded streets. As the last oasis on the caravan trade routes to the east, its merchants became immensely wealthy, and the evidence is still standing. Stay over and get up at dawn to see the sun rise over the desert.

Customary habit: chain-smoking. Syrians smoke at all times, in all places, possibly even in their sleep. If you see a coach trip advertised as "no smoking", it simply means "slightly less smoking than usual".

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