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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:


My House in Damascus



Echoes of Syria in Lebanon’s Beiteddine Palace

Mir Amin Palace Hotel, in Lebanon's Chouf Mountains

Mir Amin Palace Hotel, in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains

Swimming pool terrace of the Mir Amin Palace Hotel, Beiteddine, Lebanon

Swimming pool terrace of the Mir Amin Palace Hotel, Beiteddine, Lebanon

High in the Druze mountains of the Lebanese Chouf sits the magnificent palace of Beiteddine, where the Beiteddine Festival 2013 is currently in full swing. It is just a 40 minute drive south from Beirut, and people will be flocking out to see the Chinese National Acrobatic Circus performing over the next few days. Later fixtures include ‘Echoes from Syria’ with clarinette virtuoso.

Echoes from Syria resonate here in more ways than one. For a start the palace itself is like Damascus’s superb Azem Palace, dating from the same period, and composed likewise of its three courtyards – the largest public one for receiving guests, the inner private one for the women, always the most lavishly decorated, and the smaller servants courtyard. Today they are both museums open to the public, and in their heydays they were both residences for the ruler.

Built between 1788 and 1818 with the help of Damascus craftsmen, the Emir Bashir ‘the Great’, lived here till his death in 1840. Born a Sunni Muslim, he later converted to Maronite Christianity, and his palace boasts both a mosque and a chapel.

Beiteddine is a peaceful spot with beautiful, immaculately kept gardens and distant views of the sea, a spot that encourages lingering. When I was here the other week in a quiet patch before the Festival, we were almost the only guests in the Mir Amin Palace, a mini-version of Beiteddine built by Emir Bashir for one of his sons.

Admiring the quality of the restoration work, a subject dear to my heart after my experiences with my own Damascus ‘mini-palace’, my eye was caught by a series of plaques on the wall. The first announced that the President of the Republic Charles Helou undertook the restoration in 1969, and the second that the hotel was opened 21 July 1974 by Suleyman Franjieh – just months before the start of Lebanon’s civil war. What terrible timing.

The last plaque announced the re-restoration and re-opening of the palace in July 1987 under the auspices of the Minister of Tourism, one Walid Junblat. Bad timing again, as the war did not end till 1990.

When I asked the hotel manager if he was worried war might come once more to Lebanon, he laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “If it does, we have space for more plaques on the wall!”

The Lebanese are nothing if not resilient – more echoes of Syria, I hope.

English: Courtyward at the Beiteddine Palace i...

English: Courtyward at the Beiteddine Palace in Lebanon. Français : Une cour intérieure dans le Palais de Beiteddine au Liban. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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