On Damascus: My Agitated and Restless City

Damascus the Passion

It was the year 1989 or 1990. I was nine or ten years old when I visited Souk al-Souf in the Shaghur neighborhood next to the Jewish quarter in Damascus.(1) This was my birthplace as it says on my id. That is, I come from this place in the city. My grandfather, whom I never met, died some years before I was born, and we did not own an old Damascene home in the neighborhood. I think that this visit unleashed a strong desire in me to discover Damascus later on. I lived in one of the new residential suburbs of the city, in one of its new buildings that resembled matchboxes. Perhaps the mysterious passion that haunted me was a way to compensate for the loss of living in the heart of Damascus, to own it in my own way, by mapping it through my private travails and trips that connect its mountain with its old city. I looked for hidden places, bringing with me friends, whom I happily entertained every time with half invented tales and information. Of course I did not discover any new monument in the city. I was defying the neglect of its details by its people who were preoccupied with their cumbersome lives.

Damascus was increasingly strained under a cover of fear and misery that increasingly weighed down on the city with the rising tempo of more pallid, gray and deaf cement. My journeys were an adolescent insistence to rediscover a sense of amazement for the rich history of the succession of nations on the city. In every place there is a shrine, in every corner the grave of a master, and in every street a memorial for a king or prince. From the neglected grave of little Muawiyah, who is the grandchild of Muawiyah, the founder of the Ummayad dynasty. (2) To the forgotten grave in the middle of a side road of Ibn Asakir (1105 – 1175) the great historian who also wrote the biography of Damascus, to the grave of Khawlah bint al-Azwarr (3) in a small garden outside the old city, to the grave of Al-Farabi (872 – 951), in a neglected place in the Bab Saghir cemetery.(4) Frankly, all those graves and tombs were no more than signposts or short places for breaks during my journeys as an adolescent. I used them to boast in front of my companions and to anticipate their amazement. I discovered after a while that neglected tombs, schools and ancient hospitals, or (5), were not the best way to attract girls, so the escape was the small and hidden Shattah bridge, in the Muhajirin neighborhood sprawled on the slopes of the Qasyun mountain. That bridge had a magic effect on the girls that I liked. All of them used to live in Damascus, but they did not know that on the slopes of its mountain there was a small bridge. Dirty perhaps, and surrounded by residential buildings from every side, but nevertheless it was a stone bridge. Here we could stand and imagine we were in Paris, Rome or Prague. Perhaps I would steal a moment to hold the hand of my shy girl as we passed underneath the bridge walking our way towards the Mastabah road. This road acquired its name from the Ottoman Wali of Damascus who ordered a mastabah, a stone bench, be built surrounded by a small garden to become a place that the great emperor of Germany, Wilhelm II, could rest and contemplate Damascus from an elevated place during his historic visit to the city in 1898. The garden is still there, and its name today is the Imperial garden, but it carries nothing of its name. It has become a depressing, deserted garden suffocated by residential buildings. But from the Mastabah, we could still view some of Damascus and its surrounding Ghoutas, or gardens, (6) which are almost extinct. In contrast to Damascus that Wilhelm II enjoyed a century and a half ago, our Damascus was pale, gray, and covered by a cloud of black soot. This was not so important if the girl was looking at me and not at Damascus.

In a later period, two people would share with me my passion for Damascene wandering, and of drawing our own special maps of the city. A.K. and Omar Aziz. Few are the things the two men share. I met A.K. during high school and we shared our repeated getaways from school to loiter for many hours until the school day was over. He was the son of a conservative Damascene family, with some Islamic airs, but in the known Damascene way, which means with a mixture of openness and diplomacy. He used to invite me to prayer, but without any nagging. One day he presented me with Ma’alim fi’l Tariq (Signposts on the Road) by Sayyid Qutb (1906 – 1966). I was petrified and did not take the book. A.K. was not a Muslim brother, that’s for sure, but he was trying to straighten me at every opportunity. He constantly failed, which kept our loitering in the forgotten alleys of Damascus our shared and memorable activity. Omar Aziz on the other hand was thirty years older. We met through a group of friends at the theater institute. He was an anarchist Marxist, but in his dress and demeanor he preserved the Damascene bourgeois conventions, which were becoming almost extinct. Omar uselessly seduced me to read Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. I used to tell him “Ya Omar, I am a man of theater and literature.” He was a great friend in his love for loitering about in the city, and we shared long hours of banter about the city’s cinemas that disappeared, and its cultural life that has diminished since the seventies.

Theater is our City inside the City

When I graduated from the Faculty of English Literature in Damascus in 2002, I enrolled in the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts. The institute became almost my entire life. The institute had a distinguished building and a beautiful garden. For us the institute was an isolated island in the middle of a city dominated by a complex web of censorship that measured the smallest breaths of its inhabitants. This island was our refuge, in spite of everything around us that was prepared to remind us that we too were within reach of this censorship. In the garden of the institute there was a strange sculpture of Hafez Al-Assad looking like an alert matador. (7) The sculpture was placed mid distance between our institute and the Opera House, which would of course be called the Assad House! Facing the institute was an overwhelming building for the Ministry of Defense. And of course there were security personnel on the outer gate of the institute. Yet, the hallways of the institute kept us busy from all this, and it made us forget that a city the size of Damascus on the brink of the second millennium had no more than two active cinemas and theaters, while tens of other cinemas were marginalized, and the theaters remained dysfunctional or frozen and devoid of any activity. This did not affect our ambition greatly, as young theater, cinema, or plastic arts people. We also knew that Damascus was evasive and that we were capable in upholding its spirit that defied the republic of fear. We had examples to follow, men of the theater like Nuhad Qali, Fawwaz al-Sajir, and SaadallahWannus, film directors like Omar Amiralay and Ossama Mohammad and painters like Louay Kayali, Nazir Nabaa, Fatihal-Mudarris, and Yousef Abadalaki, and poets like Muhammad al-Maghut, Mamduh Adwan and others.

In 2008 we identified an opportunity. Damascus was about to host its biggest cultural event in its modern history: it will be the Arab Capital of Culture that year. A jury of independent intellectuals was chosen to administer the festival, and this was unprecedented in Syria. We were told that much resources will be put in this event, and that the authorities, contrary to established habit, would not interfere in the work of the administrative committee at all. I accepted the invitation of the committee to be a member of the team in charge of the Theater and Performing Arts program. We had big dreams and ambitious plans. We would invite Peter Brook and Phillip Genty and Joseph Nadj and Handspring Puppet Company, Árpád Schillingand Fadel al-Jaayibi’ and others. But most importantly we would rehabilitate old theaters and transform houses and old building sites to cultural spaces and galleries. We really had big dreams and ambitious plans. But in the end we did not accomplish any of it. Damascus Arab Capital of Culture came and went as a big public relations festival that lasted an entire year. The regime wanted from it the pretense that it was overcoming the isolation that was forced upon it after the assassination of Rafic al-Hariri that forced its pull-out from Lebanon. Back then, we were naïve when we believed that they would allow us to leave any lasting trace in the city, or to establish in it places and independent initiatives for culture and art. This is intolerable and not permitted for tyrannical regimes; for they prefer transient things that vanish quickly. This fits its taste that is built firstly by erasing memory. Yes Peter Brook and others came, they performed their shows and left. Fairuz also came, and Carlos Saura´s Carmen, Ziad Rahbani, Marcel Khalife, Anwar Brahem, and a visiting exhibition from the Victoria and Albert, and others. But we failed to rehabilitate a single place, or to create sustainable mechanisms for artistic work and independent culture. We dispersed after the year ended. Each of us went back to his individual battles to make an art that resisted the silencing cement that ate away the face of Damascus, and the fear and oppression that was trying to swallow from its soul.

In the last years before the revolution, one felt that Damascus was indeed drying out, and the drying up of its river, Barada, was but a symbolic case. Damascus was waning more and more, poverty was obviously invading its extremities, and the economic differences between its central streets and its outskirts were widening immensely. Its impoverished margins were inflated; Damascus was almost suffocated. There was a general ambivalent feeling that something must happen – an explosion that can create a fissure in the wall of repression that was cast down on the country. The need to scream was enormous, and its repression left a painful gulp.

Damascus the Revolution

On March 15, 2011, a group of young men and women demonstrated next to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus demanding liberty and the lifting of emergency laws. Damascus held its breath that day. Three days later, demonstrations in the Southern city of Daraa came out with similar slogans, and from then on the peaceful demonstrations kept expanding across the entire country demanding the fall of the regime.

Damascus remained hesitant about following the rest of the resisting cities. It closely observed its marginalized provinces that were completely ablaze. The city is literally under security occupation, but it is also under the calculations of its elite, who have been known through out the ages for their pragmatic expertise in balancing between power and capital. Despite this, it was impossible for Damascus to refrain from the revolution. Demonstrations came out in the streets of Midan, Barzah, Rukn al-Din, al-Qabun and others. (8) They were cruelly crushed as in other places in the country. But young men and women chanted for the first time in their lives slogans that are different from the slogans that glorified the eternal leader. It was difficult for them to retreat after they had liberated their suffocated voices. When it became difficult to demonstrate and to occupy the public squares and places because of the ferocity of repression, the response came in new ways. Protesting became also an art in Damascus.

The inhabitants of the city wake up one day to witness all the fountains in the main squares pumping red blood water. The security men went crazy trying to stop the pumps and heavily guard the place. Another day many balloons were let out to fly over the city skies with the slogans of liberty and the fall of the regime. Another day, in the Muhajirin street, and close to the palace of the tyrant, thousands of ping pong balls were rolled out with slogans that call for his downfall. I still carry this bizarre scene of the fierce security men in their dark suits as they run around after the ping pong balls and try to catch all of them. In the Afif street and next to the grave of Muhyiddin ibn Arabi (9), in a decrepit house, three young men, an architect, a musician and a film editor are recording in a small room that they isolated with sponge mattresses, a song that made fun of Bashar al-Assad and his shabiha(10), This song launched the wide use of irony among the protestors as a tool to dismantle the hegemony of the totalitarian regime and it leader, the demi-god. The guys identified themselves as The Strong Heroes of Moscow, and they gave people hope and laughter from that house without anyone knowing who they were.

Damascus then breathed freedom, if only a whiff of it, but this was enough for it to discover, and we to discover with it, that beauty does not die.

The repression of peaceful civilians became more ruthless. The security forces used live ammunition and committed massacres. This caused counter-violence. The revolution that remained peaceful throughout 2011 began to be militarized in 2012, in a reaction that was not possible to avoid given the systematic brutality of the regime and the neglect of the world that merely observed the Syrian massacre. Today violence is destroying Syria. Syria is no longer on the international news except as a theater for the violent operations of ISIS, or as a human tragedy without context or history. The world failed the Syrians when it left them alone in the face of the horrible death machine of one of the world´s most imperious totalitarian regimes. And it fails them today when it does not recount their full story. It disregards that in Syria the facts are deeper than a feeble preference between a religious fascism represented by ISIS and a military fascism represented by the Assad regime, and when it disregards that the world must help the Syrians to be delivered from both of them.

Damascus today is a city that is disconnected with checkpoints and the army. Electricity and water are cut for hours on end, the prices of commodities have increased dramatically, and people’s destitution has generally increased. Damascus looks at its sister town Aleppo with dread and fears that it will also undergo a similar mass destruction.

Damascus that Remains

In the beginning of 2012 was my last meeting with A.K. and Omar Aziz. We were together with other friends gathered after we failed to demonstrate in Midan neighborhood that day because of the concentration of security men and shabiha. We were nervous, anxious, but we were not in despair. Our group was diverse up to the level of contradiction, but the dream of freedom gathered us in a Damascus house.

On 12 March 2012, the security forces arrested A.K., who remains in detention until today. On 20 November 2012, the security forces arrested Omar Aziz as well, who died in prison three months after his arrest. As for me, I escaped from Damascus, and since then I am moving from one exile to the next. As for Damascus, it will stay the oldest and most magical capital. It will remain after all of us, and it will fold us into a slight part of its great memory.

(translated by Rana Issa)

(1) Damascus is known for its old and specialized souks. Souk al-Souf means the woolmarket.

(2) Muʿāwiyahibnʾ Abī Sufyān (602 – 680) was the founder of the Ummayad Dynasty that had its seat in Damascus until they were toppled by the Abbasids around 746. One of its branches remained at the helm of the Caliphate in Cordoba, Andalusia until 1031.

(3) Khawla bint al-Azwar is one of the most important women from the time of the Prophet Muhammad. She is known to have been a fierce warrior who had a prominent position in the famous battle of Yarmuk against the Byzantines in 636.

(4) The great philosopher al-Farabi is a foundational Islamic thinker who is known for his erudition and knowledge of the Greek philosophers. He left many texts of argumentations in logic, mathematics, ethics, medicine, politics, and theology.

(5) Bimaristan is an ancient hospital. The word is Persian and has been loaned into Arabic at the time of the Ummayads and remains an important landmark in medical history.

(6) Ghouta has become the name of the neighborhoods by the Barada river. Originally the word means oasis. Historically the Ghouta has been agricultural landscape known for its fertile gardens and farms.

(7) Sculptures of the regime founder, Hafez al-Assad, became customary after the man came to power in 1971. Together with his portraits, and with naming important institutions after him, the practice literally surrounded most of Syria´s corners and alleyways with pictures of the dictator. Bashar, his second son succeeded him upon his death in 2000, after a constitutional amendment was made to legitimitze the 34 year old son’s political inheritance of Syria and its people.

(8) These are all streets and areas within the city.

(9) Muhyiddin ibn Arabi is a great mystic, poet, spiritual leader and philosopher. He was born in Murcia, al-Andalus in 1165. His universalist wisdom and trans-religious ethic remains especially relevant in the realm of ethics and philosophy today. He immigrated to Damascus with the fall of the Ummayad Dynasty in Andalusia, and was buried in the city in 1240.

(10) Shabiha is a term used by anti-regime groups to denote the para-military bands that the Assad regime has put together to terrorize the population. The word has acquired sinister connotations of barbaric violence perpertrated by strongmen who do not represent any lawful institution and whose effect is precisely in their capacity for lawless behavior. Before the revolution, these strongmen comprised smuggler networks and bands of criminals that were notoriusly kept under regime protection.