Amid the squat concrete towers and traffic bridges of the new and expanding Damascus, a few mud-brick houses endure like Palaeolithic mammals resisting the inevitability of extinction. Massive apartment blocks modelled on those of the Soviet Union and hotels straight from the American Midwest are transforming the Syrian capital into an Occidental artefact. Oriental structures, struggling under the weight of satellite receivers large enough for families to sleep in, survive on sufferance. Most stand in a state of near destruction, a wall down here, doors falling from hinges there, prisoners shaved for execution. Posterity can lay the blame on Syria's modern rulers: the French, who between 1920 and 1946 cleared acres of labyrinthine quarters to make room for cannon and tanks to control the natives; the few elected and many military regimes who succeeded them; and, latterly, the Baath Party/Army/ Intelligence Service junta that has been in place since 1970. Only in a small corner of today's Damascus, demarcated by the broad stone walls of the Old City, are ancient houses being restored and gentrified after generations of neglect. Syrians who for years avoided the dilapidated bazaars are revisiting the charm of mud and wood, stone and marble, running fountains and cobbled paths too narrow for cars. A few landlords are turning their empty palaces into hotels, restaurants and bars where the young stay late into the night in jasmine-scented courtyards to savour water pipes as their ancestors did in Ottoman times.
LRB 24 July 2003 | PDF Download