Syria – a book to help you understand it differently
Full text of review in Time Out Istanbul by Pat Yale below:
My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution
Diana Darke was one of the first foreigners to buy a house in Damascus, offering her a unique view into the Syrian conflict.
The bald statistics for the damage done to its citizens by the Syrian conflict are utterly shocking, but for most people the initial “Something Must Be Done” attitude has gradually been replaced by a grim acceptance that nothing probably can be done in a situation that lacks clear goodies and baddies. And so we tune out the horror of it all, unable to focus on so much human suffering day by day.
Into the void left by those who have turned away has stepped Syria guidebook writer Diana Darke, one of the first (if not the first) foreigners to buy a house in the country. Darke offers just the sort of first-person account of what has been going on that makes it possible for people to re-engage with the story. Her book ‘My House in Damascus’ describes how the chance sighting of an open door in the old city in 2005 brought her into contact with an architect engaged in the then-blossoming business of restoring the lovely old mansions.
“You realize that you can buy property here,” he tells her, thus triggering a search for the perfect bolthole. It turns out to be the lovely if dilapidated house of Bait Baroudi just round the corner from the great Umayyad Mosque.
This is no story of love lost and refound against a Middle Eastern background. Darke was no ingénue, stumbling uncertainly into a country about which she knew little. Instead, she was an old hand with form in this part of the world, a fluent Arabic speaker whose research for the Bradt Guide to Syria had taken her to every corner of the country. Read her description of exploring the great Byzantine “Dead Cities” north of Aleppo and weep for what has almost certainly been lost.
But the heart and soul of the book is always Bait Baroudi, a courtyard house that still retained its lovely original decorations, albeit partially obscured, when she bought it. Darke poured her savings into a gentle restoration aimed at preserving the building’s heritage; when the work was completed after three years “the house looked and felt as if the inhabitants of earlier centuries had only just left.” But as she skips over the bureaucracy she encountered and revels in every detail of the restoration process, always lurking in the background is the knowledge of what is to come: the day when she will no longer be able to live in the house and its courtyard will have to be turned into a mini-refugee camp for some of those with whom she had worked over the years.
Despite the book’s subtitle, ‘An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution’, Darke doesn’t bother with the finer details of which armed group is doing battle with which other one. Instead she introduces us to a roll call of colorful characters – Ramzi the Philosopher, her state-imposed guide in the early days, Maryam the Christian bank manager, Marwan the lawyer, and Bassim the architect – all of whose lives are irrevocably changed as the conflict intensifies.
All books eventually come to an end but of course the story of the Syrian civil war has yet to reach its conclusion. As you turn the last page of the book you know that you can go straight online to continue reading on Darke’s blog, dianadarke.com. Tragically Darke herself is no longer able to get a visa to enter Syria, but in her blog she recounts the ultimate absurdity of when she travels to Sidon in Lebanon and meets up with Marwan. He hands her some rental agreements that she must sign to ensure that the refugees now living rent-free in Bait Baroudi will not be booted out by the authorities.
War may ravage and destroy people’s lives, it seems, but the wheels of the bureaucracy will keep on turning until the end. Pat Yale