dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Damascus”

Syrian Literary Festivals

This October My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution will be featured in three literary festivals:  Cheltenham, Henley and Wimbledon. Full details below with booking via their websites.

First, on Saturday 4 October 2014 at Cheltenham:

In association with Waterstones

diana darke cover - Copy.jpg

PRESENT TENSE: SYRIA

QUICKFIND L066

SAT 4 OCT 2014 9:00PM – 10:00PM

THE STUDIO, IMPERIAL SQUARE

£8 – MEMBERS 10% OFF

If you are a member then login to book your tickets, if you’re not a member then find out how to become a member and get access to priority booking.
Public booking opens on Mon 01 Sep at 12:00pm

The-Times-Logo-March-2011.jpg

DETAILS

Anthony Loyd, The Times war correspondent who was recently injured reporting from Syria, evaluates the Syrian crisis with Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus, and questions what might happen next.

All Literature events

MEDIA GALLERY

Syrian ‘World of Interiors’

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

In peaceful times World of Interiors might easily have been the sub-title for My House in Damascus. The Arabic concept of the baatin meaning the internal aspect that can only be sensed, as opposed to the zaahir  signifying the outward visible surface, is one of the leitmotivs of the book, re-awakened from my distant undergraduate days studying medieval Arabic literature at Oxford. From the outside the historic house I bought nine years ago in Old Damascus presented nothing but a plain facade, but on the inside it was a secret world. Even after a lifetime’s specialisation as an Arabist, I had never dreamt of buying property in the Arab world. But a chance encounter with an antiquities architect whilst researching a guidebook to Syria led me in an unexpected direction and together we spent four unforgettable years of restoration and discovery.

Inside that sanctuary I have experienced, more than anywhere else, a powerful sense of unity with nature and with my surroundings. The way the light stroked the ancient stones, the way the vibrant bougainvillea fell in a magenta trail, the way the palm doves swooped from their nests in the heavy foliage to peck at invisible delicacies, the way the tortoise meandered silently in and out of the shadows. The music of the call to prayer from the myriad mosques echoed round the walls and on Sundays the church bells chimed in melodiously.  Overwhelmed by the palimpsest of Syria’s complex past and present embodied in the multi-layered heritage of the house, I felt embraced as if by some archetypal womb.

To reach that point was hard. The path was strewn with near-impassable obstacles, blocked with bureaucratic nightmares beyond imagining.  But Syrian friends patiently helped me through the labyrinth. Only after painstaking deconstruction did I get there, a process which came to be symbolic of Syria’s own years of deconstruction, still alas ongoing.

First the breezeblock wall dividing the courtyard two-thirds one-third had to be pulled down to reunite the space as one, a move I identified as the reunification of Syria’s population, broadly two-thirds Sunni Muslim, and one third minorities like Kurds, Alawis, Christians and Druze. Next the uniform white-painted cladding had to be stripped off the walls revealing the centuries-old stonework of contrasting soft limestone and black basalt. This was a particularly lengthy stage, as we chipped away carefully with hand tools, struggling not to damage what lay beneath. The uniform cladding of the Ba’ath Party system and the tentacles of its omnipresent security system have been suffocating Syria’s identity for the last 50 years. Concrete is tough stuff.

Even so, the day will surely come when Syria too has its rotten infrastructure, its faulty wiring and its dodgy plumbing ripped out. Like the house, it will gradually emerge from the wreckage, as kaleidoscope colours begins to blend subtly with mellow shades from across the ages. The human quest for the perfect space – what I found in my magical courtyard – will never die.  Once ‘tasted’, as Islam’s greatest philosopher Al-Ghazali  wrote, the memory cannot be taken away. Today’s tragedy inside Syria leaves many wondering  how and when it will all end. How can a nation and its people endure such suffering?

Yet what I have learnt from my Damascus courtyard, is that despite the extremism and corruption currently ravaging the country, Syria’s core identity, firmly-rooted in centuries of moderation and tolerance, will survive. Its  zaahir looks hideously damaged, but its  baatin, its ‘World of Interior’ will remain intact.

The 'secret ceiling', an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

The ‘secret ceiling’, an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

As published in World of Interiors, August 2014, under Journal of an Arabist:

In renovating the house she bought in Damascus in 2005, Diana Darke has chipped away at the modern layers to find the harmonious structure beneath. A similar deconstruction is needed to recover the tolerant, pluralistic  Syria hidden by war.

‘My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution’ is published by Haus, Amazon price match paperback and ebook£10.49:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=727

My House in Damascus

 

 

Saving #Syria’s Cultural Heritage – how to help

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Bricking up the 13th century prayer niche of the Halawiye Madrasa, Aleppo

Little known and little recognised, groups of Syrians inside Syria are working together to try to save the destruction of their country’s cultural identity. Confronted with the inertia of the international community, the occasional statement and handwringing from UNESCO and the Syrian government’s own narrative presenting itself as the custodian of the country’s rich treasures, these groups are taking matters into their own hands. A mix of academics, archaeologists, students and ordinary citizens with a deep love for their country, they have almost no funding and most are volunteers.

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the tomb of the Prophet Zachariah, inside the Aleppo Great Mosque

A recent study (by Heritage for Peace see link below) has shown that 38 organisations are involved worldwide in efforts to highlight the damage to Syria’s cultural heritage, including the big names like UNESCO, Blue Shield, the Global Heritage Fund, the World Monument Fund, ICCROM and ICOMOS. The overwhelming majority are talking shops, gathering data and posting it online. They are largely based outside Syria and function only through the official channel of the Syrian Directorate-General of Museums and Antiquities (DGAM) which in turn only functions in the regime-held areas of the country. Of these 38 organisations, 14 have been formed since 2011 specifically in response to the Syrian crisis, mainly from volunteer groups. Only six of the organisations are Syrian, working on the ground inside the country, and of these only three that we are aware of are taking pro-active, pre-emptive measures to protect ancient buildings. It is a chronic state of affairs, but such is their commitment to doing whatever they can that they are prepared sometimes even to risk their lives in order to protect and save their cultural identity.

Bricking up Zachariah's Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Bricking up Zachariah’s Tomb, Aleppo Great Mosque

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest and richest city, is where such actions have been most prevalent. The Division of Antiquities of the Free Council of Aleppo was founded in 2013 and has sandbagged and walled up the precious sundial in the Aleppo Great Umayyad Mosque, and bricked up its shrine of the Prophet Zachariah. With the help of the Tawhid Brigade from the Free Syrian Army, they have dismantled its 12th century wooden mihrab for safe-keeping away from the front line.

The Syrian Association for Preserving Heritage and Ancient Landmarks was founded in Aleppo in 2013. Its members, many of them archaeology students from Aleppo University, at considerable risk to themselves, saved the stones from the fallen minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque and have put them safely elsewhere awaiting reconstruction after the war. They also helped the Free Council of Aleppo with protecting the sundial and removing the mihrab.

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

Protecting the sundial in the courtyard of the Aleppo Great Mosque

The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) was founded in 2012 in Strasbourg by a group of Syrian archaeologists and journalists. Together with collaborators on the ground they have compiled an extensive website cataloguing the damage (www.apsa2011.com) and have also held short workshops in Turkey’s Gaziantep to train Syrians in techniques of how to record damage and how to carry out simple protection measures.

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge rebels from the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, Idlib Province

Syrian aircraft dropping barrel bombs to dislodge refugees sheltering in the Byzantine Dead City of Shanshara, near Al-Bara, Idlib Province

A team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, Idlib Province

An APSA team goes to document the damage at the Dead City of Shanshara, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed in June 2011, near Al-Bara and Kafaranbel, Idlib Province

All of this work goes unrewarded financially and unrecognised internationally. Syria’s concentration and range of cultural heritage sites far exceed that of neighbouring Iraq. Yet while Iraq benefited from a UN resolution in 2003 after the US invasion banning trade in its antiquities, the Syrian case has been largely ignored, complicated by politics. Stepping up to the challenge, the Global Heritage Fund UK has recently agreed to help by acting as a channel for funds for anyone who would like to help support this work. The sums involved are small by the standards of international organisations. But international organisations like UNESCO cannot operate inside Syria without the permission of the Syrian government – a permission which has not been forthcoming.

APSA is looking to raise £32,000. So far they have raised £6,400. If each of the 624,000 people who clicked to view the recent BBC feature highlighting the problem (see below) had been able to contribute just £1, the target could have been met 20 times over.

Anyone who would like to do something tangible to help can contact cgiangrande@globalheritage fund.org, or use the donation form below. Even small amounts will make a huge difference. Handwringing and nostalgia, alas, do not.

Global Heritage Fund – 2014DonationFormV2

Related links:

http://www.heritageforpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Towards-a-protection-of-the-Syrian-cultural-heritage.pdf

http://www.apsa2011.com/index.php/en/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28191181

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria's Cultural Heritage

Presentation given on 30 June by Diana Darke and Zahed Tajeddin to the Global Heritage Fund UK on saving Syria’s Cultural Heritage

 

Syria – a book to help you understand it differently

http://www.timeoutistanbul.com/en/books/189/My-House-in-Damascus-An-Inside-View-of-the-Syrian-Revolution

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.

Three years of increasingly savage fighting. More than 150,000 dead. Many thousands more injured. Nearly three million people turned into refugees. Another 6.5 million displaced inside their own country.

 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

Damascus June 2011 061

Living in the eye of Syria’s storm

Book Review of My House in Damascus, An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution

by Mary Russell, The Irish Times, 28 June 2014

Diana Darke’s account of her life in the ancient city glows with an understanding of and affection for its people.

While so many commentators and journalists write about Syria the victim, and zoom in on the death and destruction of that great country, Darke affords the Syrians she meets the dignity of being individuals.

Click here for the full review:

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/living-in-the-eye-of-syria-s-storm-my-house-in-damascus-1.1846142

My House in Damascus

To vote or not to vote – Syria’s elections

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ s Hijaz Railway Station with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

As published in The Guardian on 2 June 2014:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/02/syria-election-vote-for-assad-or-else

What an irony. Fear of the Syrian government and its many-tentacled security apparatus is greater now even than it was before the revolution began.  Why should that be? The government is generously offering ‘reconciliation’ deals across the country, with gracious amnesties like the one that enabled several hundred rebel fighters to leave the exhausted city of Homs with light weapons in early May. Yet anyone who knows Syria from the inside knows full well that the Assad regime’s generosity and grace is to be feared above all else.

When peaceful calls for dignity and reform were met in March 2011 by crushing violence from the outset, the protesters knew what awaited them if they were arrested. Their bravery in breaching the fear barrier even to take part in such demonstrations is beyond admirable. Tens of thousands have gone missing over the last three years, detained in prison, never seen again, or sometimes simply returned to their families in a body-bag as a warning, like the mutilated body of the 13-year old Hamza Al-Khatib, early icon of the revolution. Like so many, Hamza was not even demonstrating – he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the presidential election is held on 3 June all over the country in regime-held areas only, Syrians know full well what it means. It is not so much an election – everyone knows the result after all – it is more like a census, a head count of government supporters. To vote anything other than for Bashar Al-Assad is to sign your own death warrant and that of your family, and not to vote at all means you are forfeiting your chance of any kind of future in Syria. Of Syria’s 23 million population some 4 million are estimated to have left and some 9 million are thought to be internally displaced. At least a further million have lost their identity papers in the fighting and are thereby disqualified. Only refugees outside the country who fled ‘legally’ – just 200,000 out of 3 million according to the Syrian Ministry of Interior’s own figures  –  are eligible to vote, thereby ensuring a situation cannot arise where one of Bashar’s two opponents might actually win abroad.  These ‘legal’ expatriate Syrians can vote in Syrian embassies in certain selected countries like Russia and Romania, and those living in a country where the embassy is closed, like the UK, have been cordially invited back  to Syria ‘to exercise their civil right’. Some have taken up the offer knowing that they must, if they ever wish to return to their country while the Assad regime still holds sway. In Paris I was reliably informed of one Syrian who went, not to vote since France has banned the embassy from participating, but to renew his passport. Known to be anti-regime, he had his passport torn up in front of him and was told: ‘There – now go and get yourself a new passport from your Friends of Syria.’

In this country we face no repercussions for not voting – in Syria it is very different. ‘If you are not for us, you are against us.’ We in the West may dismiss the Syrian election as an absurd process, a mockery of democracy. We have that luxury. But if you are Syrian it is a matter of life and death.

Fear is forcing thousands to vote for Assad, whose tender mercies are well known. Stories are circulating about the ways in which the regime seeks to take revenge on those whom it considers have betrayed it. Even those who have done nothing and never taken sides are at risk. All it takes is one report written by one security official who takes a dislike to you. It has already happened to several of my neutral Syrian friends.

Whilst western democracies will scoff at Syria’s election process, Russia and Iran will use it to their advantage. It plays beautifully into their narrative of supporting ‘whoever is elected by the Syrian people’ and legitimises their unwavering support of Assad.

Syria has lost c40% of its GDP since 2011 according to the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research in conjunction with the UN and the IMF.  Eleven million have lost their livelihood. Fear of losing their right ever to live in their country again is driving them to vote. Hard as it may be for us to grasp, for them it is a vote for life or death.

#Syria – Sidon and Damascus, Theatre of the Absurd in a Tale of Two Cities

Sidon's Crusader Sea Castle guards what was once the port of Damascus [DD, 2014]

Sidon’s Crusader Sea Castle guards what was once the port for Damascus [DD, 2014]

Marwan, my chain-smoking Syrian lawyer, has left his war-torn country for the day to meet me in the Lebanese port of Sidon. He wants to complete some paperwork and tell me news from Damascus.

The Syrian accents at the tables all around us suggest he is not the only visitor. We sit with a view of Sidon’s Crusader Sea Castle and try hard to strike a holiday mood. He has brought magnificent gifts of Damascene produce – dried apricots, almonds and seed-covered biscuits.

 

Sidon's souks are just like Damascus's - even the doves are the same. [DD 2014]

Sidon’s souks are just like Damascus’s – even the doves are the same. [DD 2014]

He refuses a meal, even though the journey has just taken him six hours thanks to overcrowding on the border. His only appetite is for tea and cigarettes.

“What news of Abu Khalil?” I ask. Last time it was he, my elderly caretaker, who came out to meet me, so proudly braving the checkpoints from his village east of Damascus. But that was where the massive chemical attack took place last summer.

“He’s been blockaded in his village since October,” says Marwan. “It’s easy to get money to him. We give it to someone going in on the special buses. But food is impossible. The soldiers search the buses and throw away whatever they find.”

We almost laugh at the absurdity, but more absurdity follows.

Marwan asks me to sign the rental contracts for the refugees living in my Damascus house. They pay no rent, but this is vital documentation they must show when regime soldiers call round unannounced. Without it, arrest and imprisonment will follow. Each street is cordoned off in turn, each person’s papers checked, each room searched for weapons.

I ask about the checkpoints inside the Old City. “Are the lijaan sha’bia (peoples’ committees) still guarding the neighbourhood?”

“Yes,” he replies, “but now they are all either very old or very young. The young ones are easily recruited because of the salary. Their families are desperate for the income, so they agree to it, thinking their sons will be just round the corner. But sometimes the boys are transferred with no warning to the frontline, lambs to the slaughter. They come back to their families in a body-bag labelled ‘shaheed’ (martyr) with a pittance as compensation, but no one dares say anything.”

We cannot laugh, but both of us sense more absurdity, not least because of where we’re sitting. Sidon is in some ways a mini Damascus-on-Sea, a tinderbox just 40 minutes’ drive south from Beirut. There are photos all over town of one of Sidon’s most famous sons, the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, who was blown up on Valentine’s Day 2005. Sidon’s buildings bear the scars of Lebanon’s own 15-year-long civil war.

Banner of Rafiq al-Hariri adorns the Khan al-Franj, caravanserai of the Franks, restored by Rafiq al-Hariri to be a craft centre and tourist office, now empty [DD, 2014]

Banner of Rafiq al-Hariri adorns the 17th C Khan al-Franj, Caravanserai of the Franks, restored by the Hariri Foundation to be a craft centre and tourist office, now empty [DD, 2014]

Sidon's Khan al-Franj, once seat of bustling commerce, sits empty [DD, 2014]

Sidon’s Khan al-Franj, once seat of bustling commerce, now languishes unused [DD, 2014]

 Like Damascus it has a Sunni Muslim majority, a sizeable Christian minority and Palestinian refugee camps incorporated in its suburbs. The same blend of church towers and minarets rises from its bustling bazaars. But it also shares the increasing sectarian flare-ups, like the arson attack on a Sidon mosque that happened the very next day. The highly combustible city is surrounded on all sides by Hizbullah, the well-disciplined Lebanese  Shi’ite militia led by the cleric Hassan Nasrallah. We joke grimly about how in Damascus Hizbullah is considered not the enemy but the ally, openly fighting alongside President Bashar Al-Assad to keep him in power.

Marwan flicks his ash compulsively.

“God knows,” he says, “how Syria will ever get out of this swamp. Now the regime is preparing us for the June elections, being gentler with us at the checkpoints, announcing a policy of ‘musaalaha’ (reconciliation), freeing prisoners and doing deals to let people back into their homes in the suburbs. Their slogan is everywhere, ‘Bashar al-Assad ila al-Abad’ It’s a rhyme which means ‘Bashar al-Assad forever’.”

You realise,” Marwan continues, “that if he gets voted in a third time, like his father, the constitution says it is for life. Hafez Al-Assad was born in 1930 and ruled for 30 years; Qaddafi was born in 1942 and ruled for 42 years; Bashar was born in 1965 – so maybe he will rule for 65 years!”

We laugh uncontrollably.

“How do you feel about going back?” I ask, when I have recovered.

His laughter erupts again.

“I have the female Russian teachers to look forward to, now that Russian will become our first language. Farsi will soon become our second, there are so many Iranians on the streets. And Hassan Nasrallah is billed as our saviour, side by side with Bashar on the posters.

Damascus feels safer to me than Sidon!” Marwan insists. And he explains, “The regime’s control is so tight, nothing can happen there. Sidon might explode. Damascus cannot. The regime has taken out the fuse!”

First broadcast on Friday 28 March 2014:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01vzjqj/From_Our_Own_Correspondent_Cyprus_and_Lebanon/

Starts 4.12 mins in. Full text above. Identities changed.

Sidon's old souks are indistinguishable from the souks of Old Damascus [DD, 2014]

Sidon’s old souks are indistinguishable from the souks of Old Damascus [DD, 2014]

Interior of Sidon's Great Mosque, formerly Church of St John of the Hospitallers - Damascus's Great Mosque was formerly the Cathedral of Jhn the Baptist. [DD, 2014]

Interior of Sidon’s Great Mosque, formerly Church of St John of the Hospitallers. Damascus’s Great Mosque was formerly the Cathedral of John the Baptist. [DD, 2014]

Debbane Palace in Old Sidon, now restored as a museum. 200 refugees sheltered here for five years duing the Lebanese Civil War [DD, 2014]

18th C Debbane Palace in Old Sidon, now restored as a museum. Hundreds of refugees sheltered here for five years during the Lebanese Civil War [DD, 2014]

Entrance to Sidon's Great Mosque, once the Church of St John of the Knights Hospitaller, restored by Rafiq al-Hariri and winner of the 1989 Aga Khan Award for Architecture [DD, 2014]

Entrance to Sidon’s Great Mosque, once the Church of St John of the Knights Hospitaller, restored by the Hariri Foundation and winner of the 1989 Aga Khan Award for Architecture [DD, 2014]

Crusader vaulting in Sidon's Great Mosque [DD, 2014]

Crusader vaulting in Sidon’s Great Mosque [DD, 2014]

As the #Syrian uprising enters its 4th year, some reflections

Damascus' Great Umayyad Mosque with its Jesus Minaret

Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque with its Jesus Minaret [DD]

In a recent clear-out of my study I came across a Syria Today magazine with the cover feature “Unlocking Civil Society”, 15 pages of in-depth coverage of how civil society inside Syria could move forward. It was dated March 2010. Re-reading the feature now, after three years of devastating conflict, is especially poignant.

I was in Damascus during March 2011 when the first peaceful demonstrations took place. On 15 March I even tried to find them, but they were over so quickly I could not get there in time. The atmosphere inside the city was tense and the regime was very edgy, all too aware of what had just happened in Tunisia and in Egypt. Police and security officials were under instruction be to nicer to members of the public, not to do anything that might provoke a reaction. For a brief and wonderful interlude, drivers were waved on at red traffic lights, and government offices became places of politeness,  joviality even.

Three days later, the instruction was broken. The over-zealous governor of Dera’a ordered troops to fire on a crowd of protesters whose children had been arrested for drawing graffiti, resulting in the first deaths of the revolution. The die was cast, and as protests quickly escalated all over the country in the following weeks, the government response switched to its default setting – violence.

The scale of what has happened since defies credulity – at least 140,000 dead, untold thousands injured, missing or imprisoned, 6.5 million internally displaced and 2.5 million forced to flee as refugees to neighbouring countries. Where is it all heading?

Every Syrian I have ever spoken to about what they want for the future of the country has always said the same thing, namely, that top levels in government, the police, the armed forces and the security services should leave the country, that the rest should stay, and that a transitional temporary government should be put in place till new elections. Thereafter the priority would have to be reconciliation. Those without blood on their hands would have to be forgiven and re-assimilated. Most Syrian people are proud of the diversity of their society and want to preserve it. Its loss makes them value it all the more and they want it restored as soon as possible. Syrians have a very distinctive character, even the poorest ones. They have a natural sense of dignity and identity, a strong sense of self. It must somehow be the legacy of their deep and rich Syrian history, absorbing  the complexities of many cultures that have ruled the region over the centuries.

The timing of the country’s descent into war was particularly ironic in Damascus: the new EU-funded Modernisation of Administration Management (MAM) project had just come to fruition with a series of themed walks round historic Damascus; the new basalt paving in all the neighbourhoods of the Old City around Straight Street had just been completed; and Al-Jaza’iri’s famous 19th century house on the Barada River just north of the Old City had just been restored and was serving as a museum and regional centre for sustainable development.

The last time I was inside Syria in April 2012, Christian and Muslim friends alike agreed that the Ba’ath Party had destroyed the country. For over 40 years they destroyed the education system, with a kind of brainwashing of the young in state schools, a Bashar cult, making all children worship, obey and love him.  Both Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar settled their fellow Alawis in the mountainous parts of Damascus like Mezzeh 86 close to the Presidential Palace. After the 2006 war in Lebanon between Israel and Hizbullah, Bashar was very influenced by and impressed by Hassan Nasrallah because of their success in bloodying Israel’s nose. He became closer to Iran and the Shi’a at that time. Lots of Sunnis were actually paid to become Shi’a, given salaries.

The last voting farce inside Syria was the February 2012 ‘referendum on the constitution’. Syrian friends living in the city told me no one went out to vote except those who had their IDs taken away at checkpoints and were therefore forced to go and vote in order to get them back again. Government employees were obliged to vote of course, but most ordinary people stayed at home and were very angry at the way the Syrian state TV then showed people queuing at voting booths, presenting it so misleadingly, as if 86% of people really went out. It made even the doubters realise what this regime would do to stay in power. In Damascus the streets in the Old City and elsewhere were full of banners for candidates, men in their 30s, 40s and 50s, with slogans below reading  something like: ‘Your independent candidate for Damascus’. It was ridiculous and fooled no one. Not one of the men was ‘independent’ All were regime-sanctioned.

A similar farce awaits the country with the upcoming presidential elections in June. On 13 March 2014 the Syrian parliament unanimously approved a new election law permitting other candidates to run against Bashar al-Assad for the first time. Theoretically this is wonderful – in practice it will be the same as the constitution vote, entirely controlled from behind the scenes, with approved candidates notionally standing against the president. The constitution states that:

  1.  A candidate must be Muslim
  2. A candidate must have the support of 35 members of the parliament
  3. A candidate must be 40 years old or more
  4. A candidate must have lived in Syria for 10 years before the election
  5. A candidate must be Syrian by birth, of parents who are Syrians by birth
  6. A candidate must not be married to a non-Syrian spouse

By these rules all external opposition figures are rendered  ineligible.

Given that the ‘international community’  cannot agree on anything about Syria except that the statistics are terrible, Syrians are on their own. No one is coming to their rescue. The rich have mainly left to start new lives abroad. Those that are left behind will need to work overtime if Syrian civil society is ever to free itself from the 43-year stranglehold of Assad rule. Syria deserves to be rescued and needs all the help it can get. It will be a long struggle but I am certain it will eventually succeed.

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Cultural curiosities in #Syria

Images of Paradise in the mosaics of Damascus' Great Umayyad Mosque [DD]

Images of Paradise in the mosaics of Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque [DD]

1. Restoration of mosaic panel in the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus completed following damage from a “terrorist” shell, according to the official Syrian news agency. Damascus residents say it was so small, no one noticed:

http://sana.sy/eng/33/2014/02/03/526027.htm

2. Curious ironies of the Olympics-timed ceasefire in Homs:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/19e29742-8f60-11e3-be85-00144feab7de.html?siteedition=uk#axzz2tCBcBUxZ

Ancient Phoenician stadium at Amrit, south of Tartous [DD]

Ancient Phoenician stadium at Amrit, south of Tartous [DD]

3. New tree-planting “forestation” campaign along Beirut-Damascus highway:

http://sana.sy/eng/27/2014/01/19/523248.htm

 

Roman road in Syria [DD]

Roman road in Syria [DD]

PR battle intensifies as Geneva II dates approaches

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

The BBC’s Chief International correspondent Lyse Doucet has posted a heart-rending news item this morning about Syria’s battle for bread:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25397140

Reporting from a government bakery in Damascus the footage shows queues of men (food shopping is traditionally the domain of men, not women across the Arab world) waiting to be issued with their packs of  round flat thin bread, far thinner than what is sold in the UK as pitta bread. The price, because this is heavily subsidised by the government, is the same as it has been for 20 years, 2 Syrian pounds per piece (1p in the current exchange rate,  2.5p in the exchange rate of before the revolution). In private bakeries, she is told, the price is ten times higher, and in war-torn parts of the country, there is no bread at all.

The sub-text here, though of course Lyse Doucet is far too professional to say so because she has been allowed into Damascus on a government-sponsored visa, is that in rebel-held areas there is no bread because the rebels cannot organise the production and because distribution networks have been disrupted. Cereal production is down by 40% and what wheat there is is mainly controlled and distributed by the government. She phrases her words very carefully to avoid any suggestion of attributing blame to either side.

Next the footage moves to a distribution centre where UN aid,  food parcels and blankets are being handed out to women and families queuing in the freezing cold. The snow has melted in central Damascus but the temperature range is still 1-7 degrees Celsius, quite normal for the winter months as Damascus lies at an altitude of 700m. She interviews a lady  who assures her that all aid channeled in via the UN agencies goes direct to the Syrian people who need it – a reassuring message to all who have generously donated to the UN Syria appeals.

Again the sub-text  is complex. UN aid has to proceed through government-approved channels and the process is tightly controlled. By definition rebel-held areas will not receive any such food parcels or blankets. Such areas  have to rely instead on aid channeled in ‘illegally’ across the borders, raised by Syrian charities funded by individuals. The British surgeon David Nott, who worked for 6 weeks in and around Aleppo conducting operations on victims of aerial bombardments and sniper attacks, and teaching Syrian doctors how to conduct them in his absence, was escorted into the country by exactly such a charity, Syria Relief http://www.syriarelief.org.uk/syriarelief/.

The Syrian government agenda here is clear, in allowing a senior BBC reporter into Damascus now, in the run-up to Christmas, and more significantly, in the run-up to 22 January, the date just 5 weeks away set for the crucial conference dubbed ‘Geneva II’, aimed at reaching a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis.  It wants to present its caring face to the world, to the international community who will be watching it at Geneva II. This government has learnt well the lessons taught it by the US and British PR firms it used to employ before the revolution to project its softer image across the world. Mindful of how this image has been damaged by the horrors of the country’s raging civil war, it is working hard on re-building it. As the date for Geneva II approaches, the government will almost certainly be intensifying its efforts to present itself as the only force in the country that can save Syria. And the biggest tragedy of all is that thanks to the vaccum left by western inertia, now increasingly filled by extremist Islamists funded by wealthy Gulf individuals, this assertion has probably become true.

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