By Rana Kabbani
THE CITY OF Old Damascus is presently threatened by an obtuse and cynical plan that would destroy great chunks of it. The Syrian regime is trying to push through a “modernization” and “re-development” scheme, which would raze areas dating back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, including Syria’s second oldest mosque, Jami’ al-Tawba, of great beauty and historical significance. The company that aims to do this is a regime protégé. The boorish mayor of Damascus, Bishr Sabban, recently described the buildings to be razed as “garbage”, not heritage. Like most regime officials, he has been ordered to say (and may, to his shame, actually believe) that the ripping out of the world’s oldest city’s heart, to replace it with banal and vulgar multi-story hotels, tower blocks, American-style shopping malls and motorways, is a laudable thing.
As a Damascene, with a passionate love for this gem of a city, and with family links to two of the quarters that are presently threatened with demolition, I read this plan as indicative of all that has gone wrong with Syria. The regime’s desire to deface or obliterate major aspects of the Damascus past – which it may have little sympathy for, for complicated historical, political and social reasons – is reflective of the impulses of dictatorships everywhere, which deplore anything with patina, with complexity or depth, that harks back to a more sophisticated time than their own. Kitsch is their preferred vernacular.
Syria has been a dictatorship for forty years now. In that time, the country has seen a colossal brain drain of its educated elites and productive middle classes. A growing number of its people are living below the poverty line, as economic surveys sadly confirm. At the same time, there never was so much wealth in the country. It is concentrated, however, in the hands of people with strong links to the regime, some of whom are relatives of the President. These abuse their unchecked power to profiteer from monopolies, inflated commissions on government imports and construction projects, and appropriation of state land and assets. With sinister security services to act as their “business” enforcers, with a compromised judiciary and a corrupt bureaucracy, this new parasitical class has decimated private industry. By forging links to the readily-corruptible remnants of the old mercantile class, they have created a network of front men, middle men and yes-men, who help do their bidding, getting rich on the gravy train as well.
Anyone who challenges these sharks ends up in the regime’s dungeons. Riad Seif, a rigorous self-made industrialist turned parliamentarian, was imprisoned for four years on trumped-up charges, for his lone and highly-courageous denunciation in Parliament of brazen corruption at the top.
Ever since the Syrian army withdrew – under duress-from Lebanon two years ago, a huge source of illegal enrichment for the regime dried up. New sources needed to be found quickly. Construction projects – often in joint-ventures with Gulf money or Iranian money – are now in vogue, setting their sights on “tourist” areas all over the country.
The projects presently being planned for Old Damascus are an example of this trend, but they may have far graver implications than the already grave ones of destroying Mameluk and Ayyubid heritage sites, which belong to the world and to future generations. One part consists of a political and financial “joint-venture” with Iran, to clear an ancient residential area around the tomb of Ruqiyya, Ali’s granddaughter and the daughter of Hussein, to further expand the mosque there, to create a parking-lot, as well as an intrusive motorway for bus-loads of Iranian pilgrims to come directly from the airport to the site by car.
At present, one can reach the tomb only by foot, as one reaches everything in old Damascus – thank goodness including the Umayyad Mosque itself. The area consists of charming warrens of alleyways, courtyard houses, khans and mosques. These are apparently being bought up by Iran, in order to go under the bulldozer. This would change the ethnicity of the place, which is Arab Sunni Muslim and Christian.
Syrians are beginning to be concerned that the “strategic relationship” with the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Assads – père and fils – have worked so tirelessly to promote, is beginning to denature their country. Syria, and Damascus in particular, is a mosaic of cultures, religions, sects and ethnicities, which have managed to muddle along, more or less reasonably, for centuries.
The populist militarism of present-day Iran, and its aggressive, born-again proselytizing – religion on the march – leaves the majority Sunni population cold. The regime needs to be made aware of this, if it is to avoid future tensions and tragedies.
Historical factors come into play, too, especially in the ancient and neglected quarters of Old Damascus. The original and now largely-impoverished Damascene residents grumble that the plan to change the area around Ruqiyya’s tomb is a belated revenge against Umayyad Damascus – Mu’awiya’s court city. Although this can hardly be the case, it shows that passions are running high, especially with the influx of close to a million Shi’a refugees from South Lebanon and Iraq, escaping war, into a city already struggling with poverty, escalating inflation and housing shortages.
The plans would destroy areas which are living embodiments of Syria’s history. Souk Saruja (where my maternal family came from) used to be called “little Istanbul”, because that is where the city’s Ottoman-serving aristocracy had their houses. It was home to important judges and law-makers. Fawzi Ghazzi penned Syria’s first Constitution there – a far more enlightened document than anything to be had in today’s Arab world – which the ruling Ba’ath has since traduced and travestied.
Qaimariyya (home to my father’s family) was traditionally the quarter of the city’s scholars and theologians, being a small distance from both the Umayyad Mosque and the Zahiriyya library. It played a significant role in the fight against the French, organizing strikes, demonstrations and civil disobethence, hosting in its leafy courtyard houses the impassioned meetings of the Syrian movement for independence, and helping its members hide from or escape the wrath of the French army. Shukri al-Quwatli, the country’s first democratically-elected President, was a son of the area, from neighbouring Shaghur.
Al-Manakhliyya, which dates back to the eleventh century, takes its name from a souk for sieves in its midst, which has been trading as a market since Ayyubid times, and is a fascinating example of a traditional Islamic quarter, where work and worship go hand in hand.
Old Damascus was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO more than thirty years ago, and ranks alongside places such as Venice, Fez, and Cordoba as a vital example of layered civilization. A museum city, it has diverse and dazzling relics, buildings and artworks. The Aramaens, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks, Ayyubids, Mameluks, Franks, Ottomans and French all left their mark here. It continues to have a rare and poignant charm, despite the many indignities and aggressions it has suffered. The Mongol Hulegu destroyed its citadel and butchered many of its citizens. Tamurlaine sacked it. The Abbasids desecrated its Bab al-Saghir cemetery, revenging themselves on the skeletons they unearthed and scattered. French colonialists burned its entire Western residential section to the ground, leaving thousands of women and children in homeless penury, in punishment for an uprising against their Mandatory presence.
Now the Syrian regime is gearing up to fail it bitterly too, if these foolhardy plans are not torn up at once. Indicative of little educated taste, no specialist expertise, historical or cultural sensitivity, and with an eye on profit and political expethency only, such plans would produce inappropriate monstrosities, replacing what is unique and timeless with what is merely debased. They would create even more pressure on an old city that is already choking from pollution and parched from lack of water, which has been unloved and uncared for far too long. Each street, each alleyway, each house, each courtyard needs thoughtful and tasteful preservation and repair – not demolition!
The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have chosen not to visit Damascus, as he said a man had no hope of entering Paradise twice. This tradition has particular resonance for me now, as the city he spoke of – my city – faces one of its hardest hours.