The air is heavy with the smoke of cigarettes and gurgling water pipes. Strong, dark tea is served by bored-looking waiters to attentive customers.

You might expect the crowded al-Nofara Cafe, one of Syria's oldest and most famous, to be filled with noisy chatter and music. But not a sound is heard as Abu Shadi takes his place on a tall chair to begin his story for the evening.And for an hour the "hakawati" - Arabic for storyteller - keeps an audience of about 100 people captivated with the tale of Antar, a legendary black slave snubbed for his color but renowned for his courage, strength and chivalry.

Wearing a red fez and a long tan robe over his suit, the mustachioed, 50-year-old storyteller occasionally strikes a nearby table with a long, shiny sword to stifle a noisy spectator or make a point in his narrative.

Abu Shadi, his strong, clear voice rising and falling with the story's pace, tells how Antar eventually wins the love of his long-cherished cousin Princess Abla through his audacity in battle.

He briefly looks up from the book he uses as a prompt and describes Abla's silky black hair, white skin and curvaceous figure, drawing applause from the largely male audience.

"I ask you, what man can resist such beauty?" he says.

The role of the hakawati has long been a symbol of Arabic heritage, passing on heroic tales from one generation to the next. Now it is becoming a victim of technology.

Abu Shadi, whose real name is Rashid Hallak, says he is the only hakawati regularly performing in Damascus, Syria's capital. A few other storytellers make occasional appearances.

"The profession of the hakawati is unfortunately on its way to extinction. I am proud to be one of the few people keen on keeping it alive," Abu Shadi says.

Hakawatis thrived early in the century when coffee houses were nightly hangouts for Arab poets, actors and intellectuals. The numbers have sharply dwindled over the years with the spread of radio and television.

The stories Abu Shadi recounts are mainly of pre-Islamic heroes and poets, including the famous "Thousand and One Nights," a series of anonymous tales from ancient Arabia, Persia and India.

And for that, al-Nofara Cafe could not be a more suitable setting.

It is more than 300 years old and sits in the heart of Damascus' bustling old market, behind the 1,200-year-old Omayyad Mosque. A water fountain - the "nofara" for which the cafe is named - marks its entrance.

Abu Shadi remembers going to the cafe with his father as a child and hearing the old stories. He became a peddler but felt his real talent was storytelling.

Eight years ago, Abu Shadi took on the job of hakawati, too, at a salary he won't specify but calls "satisfactory." He has been at it ever since, six days a week, and plans to stay until he can no longer tell his stories in classical Arabic.

"I love what I do. For me, it's not just another source of income. It's a profession, and I do it because I feel that through it I am contributing to keeping Arab heritage alive," he says.

Saleh Rabbat, al-Nofara's owner, says the hakawati is the cafe's prime attraction.

"We get old people, young people, men, women, locals and foreigners," he says. "For many, it's their home away from home."

Fawaz Ghazal, a Syrian journalist, says he does not come only for the stories.

"I come here for the ambiance and the cultural richness of the place, which reminds us of our ancestors' history. This is very important."