dianadarke

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Archive for the tag “Old City of Damascus”

Schizophrenia in Damascus

Nothing in Damascus was as expected. Convinced there would be food shortages, I had vowed to eat very little during my stay. Yet while the besieged suburbs are starving, the central food markets are overflowing.

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The fruit stalls of Sharia al-Amin boast bananas from Somalia, the Bzouriye spice markets are buoyant with top-quality saffron from Iran and walnuts from Afghanistan. Lebanese wine and beer are freely available. Prices are higher than before, but still largely affordable for most people.

Sandwiched between the heavily-armed checkpoints, street stands selling thick hot Aleppan sakhlab, a sweet white drink, are everywhere.

Cafes and pastry shops are bursting with sticky delicacies, the famous Bakdash ice-cream parlour is buzzing with people as ever.

Bakdash ice cream parlour, October 2014

To judge from the carpets of cigarette butts on the pavements, smoking rates, always high, are higher than ever. In the main thoroughfare of Souq al-Hamidiya all the usual clothes and flamboyant underwear outlets are still thronging with customers – not a single boarded shopfront – quite a contrast to the average British high street.

Sporadically, in the days as well as the nights, shelling is disturbingly loud, but strangely offstage.

President Bashar al-Assad’s artillery is fired from Mount Qassioun, directly above the city, towards the eastern Ghouta region – the scene of last year’s chemical attack, whose pockets of resistance are still a thorn in the side of the government. Villages there have suffered a food blockade for the last 18 months.

But by all accounts there is much less noise than there was a year ago.

Mount Qassioun, seen from DamascusMount Qassioun, seen across the rooftops of Damascus

From that point of view, very gradually, life in central Damascus is getting better. Yet from other points of view, just as gradually, it is getting worse.

Beyond the 3.5 million who have fled the country as refugees, a further 7.5 million have been internally displaced – added together that accounts for half of Syria’s entire population. Homes which are left empty, if they have not been flattened, are vulnerable to immediate seizure by others – usually the owners have no idea who has moved in and it is too dangerous to go back and find out.

Almost as often, but rarely reported, Syrian homes are taken by profiteers, exploiting the weak or the absent.

My own house in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Damascus, bought and restored in 2005, fell victim a few months ago.

It had been lived in for more than two years, from the summer of 2012 to the summer of 2014, with my consent by displaced friends whose homes had been destroyed in the suburbs. Now they had been evicted by my ex-lawyer and the previous owner conniving together to take it for themselves and split it 50:50.

Determined to get it back I recently returned to Damascus to throw them out and after 15 roller-coaster days, I succeeded. Things can happen surprisingly fast in Syria. You go to meet the judge one day, and he comes to inspect the house the next – without payment.

The old and the new doors to the houseA blacksmith made a new metal door to cover the smashed antique one.

Among the many moments of high drama were two break-ins, six changes of lock, the installation of two metal doors and the exposure of the bogus security reports which had led to my friends being evicted in the first place.

Bit parts were played by a fake general on a forged 25-year lease, and a Baathist single mother in the house with her newborn baby. It was with her that I felt most threatened by violence.

But in some ways life goes on almost as normal: dining with one friend in her 50s, whose car was lost in a random mortar attack, she explains how she now accompanies her 16-year-old nephew by taxi to play in the orchestra at the Opera House to make sure he is not picked up and enlisted into the army. At the checkpoints she clutches his cello between her legs so that the soldiers will not take it.

Checkpoints and road blocks in Yusuf al-Azma SquareCheckpoints and road blocks, such as this one in Yusuf al-Azma Square, are a common sight

Another friend works for the national electricity grid: his job is to repair electric cables damaged in the clashes. Over lunch at his home with his family, he tells me how one of his team stepped on a mine and was blasted to pieces in front of him – the man next to him had his eyes blown out.

He himself was lucky, escaping only with shrapnel in his intestine. He spent two weeks in hospital, two weeks at home recuperating, then went straight back to work. His attitude is simple: anyone who damages Syrian infrastructure is hurting the Syrian people.

The alleys of the Old City are full of children playing football. Many go to the school round the corner from my house.

Such is the overcrowding – some say Damascus’s population has risen from four to seven million because of internally displaced refugees – that their school-day is from 11:00 to 15:00, with one shift before them and another shift after them. They have 50 to 60 in their class but their enthusiasm to learn and to do their homework is undiminished.

The only other foreigners I saw on the streets were Iraqi Shia, men and women led round in groups to visit the shrines by a man wielding an orange lollipop sign.

When I met an old friend at the tourism ministry who still works at his office every day, he explained how this kind of religious tourism is now all they have left, some 200,000 pilgrims a year, after 8.2 million foreign visitors in 2010. He expresses no political views – he is just someone who has chosen to stay and do his job as best he can, like millions of others.

All over the country, even in ISIS-held Raqqa, I was reliably informed, government employees now draw their salaries direct from cash points on specific days, causing long queues outside the banks.

For the last two nights when I was finally able to sleep in my house in Old Damascus I experienced what everyone else has to suffer on a daily basis – scarcely four hours of electricity a day, no gas, no hot water, limited cold water.

It was tough, yet strangely invigorating, crossing the chilly courtyard to wash in a dribble of icy water, warmed by the knowledge I was surrounded by loyal neighbours who were looking out for me. Without them I could never have retaken my house: they protected me, helped me at every turn.

Bait Baroudi

A crisis brings out the worst and the best in people. What I found in Damascus was that a genuine kindness, a shared humanity and an extraordinary sense of humour are well and truly alive. Decent Syrian citizens are together doing their best to fight against immorality and corruption. Morale, in spite of everything, is high. Laughter keeps them sane.

Not once did anyone mention sectarianism. “DA’ESH” (the Arabic acronym for ISIS used across the Middle East) was universally condemned as beyond the pale.

How much longer, as the war approaches its fifth year and the number of greedy opportunists in society increases, such neighbourhood camaraderie can survive is an unanswerable question. But after this fortnight in Damascus I am more optimistic than before.

Diana Darke, Middle East cultural expert and Arabic speaker, is the author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, new 2015 edition now available as paperback and e-book from:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=11301

My House in Damascus

http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/190832399X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421401514&sr=8-1&keywords=9781908323996

Related post:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30494989

 

 

Dreams of a better #Syria

 

Refreshment for passers-by, Souk Al-Hamadiye, Damascus  [DD]

Refreshment for passers-by, Souk Al-Hamadiye, Damascus [DD]

Review as published in The Times Literary Supplement June 20, 2014 by Gerald Butt

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1423819.ece

“Diana Darke’s My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution is written with the pace of a novel and the colour of the best travel writing. The book hangs on the author’s purchase and refurbishment of a house with a courtyard in the Old City of Damascus in 2005 – and all the insights that the legal and bureaucratic battles gave her into Syrian society, echoing in this sense Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons. But the book offers much more than a personal memoir: it is an eclectic but learned encyclopedia of Syrian history, of the Arabs and their language and traditions, of Islamic art and architecture, and more.

Darke, fluent in Arabic and an authority on Syria, befriends Syrians who, well before 2011, are surviving as best they can in an atmosphere of fear, of “plainclothes policemen, the dreaded mukhabarat, looking grim and brutal in their black leather jackets”. A Syrian tells her: “You must understand. They can arrest me any time they want, throw me in prison. My family would never even know where I was or whether they would ever see me again.”

In the face of such repression, one can understand why the revolution against  Ba’athist rule erupted. But that does not make it easy to predict how it will end. Some of the most insightful passages of Darke’s book describe the dilemma faced by the silent majority of Syrians whose views are least represented in the foreign media. They feel unable or unwilling to choose between the two extremes on offer: the regime or the rebels. This partly explains why, she writes, so many Syrians felt compelled to flee the country: “Had there been a moderate alternative in the middle, a carrot so obviously juicier and bigger than the others, all parties would surely have chosen it long ago.” Instead, the distance between the two extremes is growing. The worsening violence and intimidation in Damascus eventually forced the author, too, to give up her beloved house and leave the country. Since September 2012 the building has served as a refuge for her displaced friends.

Darke muses finally on what must happen for Syria to emerge from the current nightmare. She imagines, for example, a second revolution to secure the middle ground. But for this to succeed, she says, everyone must forget that the first revolution began with peaceful protests, and they must forgive regime troops for gunning down unarmed protesters. “Maybe I am a hopeless dreamer”, she concludes. Hopeless or not, she is right in her assessment that a solution to the Syria crisis still resides only in the realm of dreams.”

Carefree child playing the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]

Carefree child playing the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, June 2010 [DD]

Damascus ‘neighbourhood militias’ being trained in Russia

Detail of an Ottoman painted ceiling in the Old City of Damascus

Detail of an Ottoman painted ceiling in the Old City of Damascus

Members of the ‘neighbourhood militias’ who now man the checkpoints in the Old City of Damascus have been receiving training in Russia, I am reliably informed. Training in what, you may ask? How to spy on your neighbours?

No, training in how to use weapons, how to fire guns, Many of the militia members are very young indeed, still teenagers. But if you are unemployed and your university/school education has been interrupted by war, the attractions of a stable job, paid for by the regime are obvious. The overwhelming majority are young men, but a few are women, some of whom – especially those stationed at the Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi checkpoints, are even wearing hijab headscarves, which is surprising.

The ordinary residents of the Old City have noticed the change, and the increase in armed patrols and checkpoints, but far from feeling safer, they are worried that these militias will increase the volatility of the Old City, hitherto a relatively safe bubble away from the fighting. What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but the residents feel highly manipulated by the presence of these militias whom they have had no say in choosing.

A rare insight into Damascus

The priceless mosaics with scenes of Paradise, Damascus Umayyad Mosque

The priceless mosaics with scenes of Paradise, Damascus Umayyad Mosque

It is rare in current reporting on Syria to find anything that goes beyond sensationalist headlines about Islamic extremists, massacres, battles won and lost. Horror stories about cannibals compete with more horror stories about rape as the international perception of Syria and its people spirals ever downwards.

But the New York Times’ recent reporting by Anne Barnard bucks the trend, showing the complexities of life in Damascus while at the same time exposing some of the regime’s ploys to control the Old City of Damascus. Barnard and her interpreter were taken by their government minder to attend one or two of the so-called ‘reconciliation’ committee meetings held in Maktab Anbar, the Ottoman palace which serves as the headquarters of the Old City’s municipal offices. But even though they were shown these meetings as examples of how the communities are cooperating to protect their neighbourhoods, they were able to see through the charade and identify many of the same attendees as members of the armed ‘neighbourhood militias’ and observe that ‘security’ was the main topic rather than ‘reconcilation’. If only more media reporting was as perceptive.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/world/middleeast/enlisting-damascus-residents-to-answer-assads-call.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/29/world/middleeast/a-link-straight-to-syrias-ancient-past-endures-as-war-creeps-closer.html?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2013/07/29/world/middleeast/29damascus.html#1

Who or what was the target of the Damascus Old City bomb?

The destroyed Christian quarter of Damascus, 1860.

The destroyed Christian quarter of Damascus, 1860. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Ancient Roman triumphal arch (Al Khar...

English: Ancient Roman triumphal arch (Al Kharab) on Street Called Straight, Damascus, Syria Français : Arc de triomphe romain (Al Kharab) sur la Rue Droite à Damas, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: A greek Orthodox Procession

English: A greek Orthodox Procession (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world’s media is distracted by the build-up to Egypt’s 30 June showdown, so an important event was given only scant and even misleading coverage. On 27 June the BBC website reported what it called a blast from a suicide bomber in the Christian Quarter of Damascus’ Old City:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23086213

The BBC commentary went on to assume that the target was the Christian community, specifically the Greek Orthodox church of the Virgin Mary which was close to the blast, and then talked about how Christians have been targeted before and are being drawn into the conflict.

But the Greek Orthodox church of Miriamiye as it is known, is not really in a Christian part of the Old City, but beside the Roman Arch on Straight Street which marks the rough boundary between the Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters. The church is directly opposite Naranj, a classy restaurant right beside the Roman Arch, known to be one of Bashar Al-Assad’s favourite dining places and often used by regime figures.

Closer examination of the facts reveals that the bomb in fact exploded not outside the church, but 50 yards away outside a Muslim charity where the suicide bomber was said to be queuing up for food with other residents. Four people were killed, many more injured and nearby shops damaged. But Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen newspaper put forward another theory – that the target was a nearby post of the National Defence Forces, a regime paramilitary force fighting the rebels.

About three hours after that blast, two mortar shells landed in nearby Al-Amin street, a mainly Shi’a area, wounding a number of people.

No one has claimed responsibility for these blasts, and local residents are confused. Was the target Christian, regime, rebel or Shi’a? No one knows except those who perpetrated the acts.

It tragically sums up what is happening increasingly now in Syria’s civil war – that very often no one knows anymore who is doing what to whom.

Roman arch, Straight Street, Damascus.

Roman arch, Straight Street, Damascus. (Photo credit: jemasmith)

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