The ‘power play’ of Syrian relations

The National recently ran an analysis of improving Saudi-Syrian relations within longer talk of Damascus’s (shrewd?) handling of its various opponents and allies. There’s very little talk of Lebanon, strangely enough, and much more attention paid to Bashar and how he might mimic his father:

To survive the pressure and isolation, the younger Assad studied his father’s statecraft. Hafez Assad, wrote the British journalist Patrick Seale, “had always been a patient man, able to take the long view in conflicts with Arab rivals and in the contest with Israel. Believing that time was on the Arabs’ side, he counselled other leaders not to hurry, not to negotiate impulsively, not to make concessions from weakness.”

In the 1970s and 80s, Hafez Assad used Syria’s regional influence and its confrontation with Israel as levers to generate economic aid. Syria received billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment from the Soviet Union and hundreds of millions in grants from the Gulf Arab states. But Arab governments cut off aid in 1980, when Assad supported Iran at the start of its eight-year war with Iraq. Assad argued that Saddam Hussein was wasting valuable Arab resources by fighting Iran, instead of Israel. But the Gulf states were more concerned with their regional security, and they viewed Iran as a greater threat than Israel.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Assad deftly joined the US-led coalition that drove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait – and Arab aid once again flowed to Damascus. The foreign aid allowed the regime to avert economic collapse, but it was not enough to generate self-sustained growth in the Syrian economy. From Washington, Assad extracted an even more important concession: he was granted control over Lebanon as it emerged from a 15-year civil war.

Bashar Assad’s main goal today is to preserve the rule of his Alawite regime in a Sunni-dominated country. (The Alawites are a minority sect within Shiite Islam.) That may explain the regime’s history of tortured alliances and constant hedging. But the ultimate goal for Assad – as it was for his father before him – is to regain control of the Golan Heights, a strategic promontory that Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East war. Some western and Arab analysts have long argued that it is in Assad’s interest to remain in a perpetual state of war with Israel – this enables Syria to fall back on its rhetoric as “the beating heart of Arab nationalism” and last bastion of Arab resistance to the West. As a result, this line of thinking goes, Assad will be reluctant to make a deal with Israel.

Mohamed Atta, preservationist


Slate this week published a very intelligent three-part story on Mohamed Atta, the architect. No reporter had really read his Masters thesis, written in university in Germany, to see how urbanism and preservation, the fly-over highways of Cairo and the courtyard houses of Aleppo, Syria, shaped his view of the part of the world where he was born and the part of the world he moved to and attacked. The story’s main argument is that Atta interpreted Aleppo as the same “Oriental-Islamic city” as European Orientalists and modern-day neocons: as a city defined by its formal and primordial disagreements with the West, and with Western architecture and urbanism, which encroached or destroyed traditionally Islamic space and functions. That ideology, it is argued, shaped Atta’s world view as a a defender of traditional society, an anti-modernist. By supposedly equating courtyard houses with the “abaya” or “burka” (an awkared metaphor by the author, since privacy and the traditional Arabic courtyard house was never exclusively Muslim), Atta became more than a formal preservationist and protector of Old Aleppo. He interpreted the formal assaults to Aleppo’s heritage as a reflection of the threats of the West on his interpretation of the ideal Islamic society, manifested in an old conservative neighborhood in Aleppo. Bab an-Nasr. Conveniently, Atta ignored the fact that Bab an-Nasr was historically diverse, never only Muslim, but rather also home to many Christians and Jews, the very picture of diversity and religious mixing that defined the Ottoman Middle East and still describes Syria and especially Aleppo today.

“While it may not be surprising that Atta’s interpretation of Aleppo’s history is deeply colored by ideology, the way in which he misinterprets the neighborhood’s history gives us insight into how Atta saw the world,” Daniel Brook writes. “Islamist ideology is based on restoring a supposed Middle Eastern golden age that existed before Western encroachment and secularization. Atta has written this arcadia into his thesis.”

The contrast of shoddy modernist government offices, each adorned with flairs of Ba’ath propaganda, against alleyways, monuments and most of all houses, hundreds-year old courtyard houses, mostly of limestone, that are Aleppo. The history is not just the concrete and the stone, but the human diversity of these historic neighborhoods and its shape on the city. Large stone houses that housed wealthy merchants ownd their existence to cosmopolitanism, to trade routes and movement across regions, for a range of Christians, for Jews, for Muslims that made Aleppo the busy commercial link between Ottoman Anatolia and Europe to points east, from Persia to China. It’s an accurate portrait of Aleppo and Syria’s history, one defined by diversity and an inherent and necessary mixing, which makes it a welcome change to the usual reporting of Syria today.

As Daniel Brook writes,

Thanks to its central location, however, the Middle East has never been cut off from outside influence. Over the millenniums, Aleppo was conquered by the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, and Arabian Muslims, to name just a few. While in the Orientalist conception the Middle Eastern city is shaped exclusively by Islam, in reality, both the pre-Islamic history of Aleppo and the significant non-Muslim communities of its more recent past shape the cityscape to this day. Walking through the souq Atta so loved, it seems a tangle of passageways. But viewed from above, it is revealed as perfectly rectangular. The souq was built into the Hellenistic Via Recta (Straight Street) leading from the city’s western gate to its center. Rather than a pure expression of Islamic civilization, the souq is evidence of a larger conversation between cultures. In a secular reading of history, the Arabian Muslims who conquered Syria in the sixth century are no more or less foreign than the Greeks who had conquered it in the third century BC. Even Aleppo’s courtyard houses, which Atta sees as a physical expression of Islamic doctrine, have roots in ancient Rome.

Rather than being a manifestation of Aleppo’s distinctive “Oriental” style, they are evidence of the city’s enduring connection to the West.

Read the rest here. The photo is Aleppo from its Citadel, from my Flickr page.

No peace with Totten journalism

Worse than leaving a year in Syria is reading the crackpot analysis and apparent journalism that is published about Syria and based on the tired theses and a neo-conservative view of the Middle East that’s unfortunately durable. Why else would someone like Michael Totten be read, let alone published, let alone funded by his readers? His recent piece for Commentary shows he knows nothing about Syria, and his editors couldn’t care less.

Most of Syria’s Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast, away from the Sunni heartland. They could, at least theoretically, be separated from Syria into their own Alawite nation. The Middle East would probably be a safer place if they were. They did have their own semiautonomous government under the French Mandate between 1930 and 1937, and again from 1939 to 1944, but their Latakia region has been a part of Syria ever since.

Such a nation almost certainly would make peace with Israel, at least eventually, if it wasn’t ruled by Assad and his thuggish clan. Arab nationalism would lose its appeal among a people that would no longer need to demonstrate belonging to an ethnic majority to make up for its status as a religious minority. The strident anti-Zionism of the Sunni “street” could likewise ease. A free Alawite state might even be a natural ally of Israel for the same reasons the Middle East’s Christians and Kurds tend to be.

Theoretically Mr. Totten, how would that happen? American genius or money will convince the political elite to give up their power and move back to the mountains? Except most Alawites, like the rest of diverse Syria, live in the cities — they moved to Aleppo or Damascus for school and work, are just as mixed up and a part of contemporary Syrian space and society as the Sunni Muslims, the Shia, the Christians — every sect, there are a dozen sects in Aleppo alone — and the Kurds, the Druze. The Arabist wrote very rightly that this is the silly “mosaic of the Middle East.. lets break it up” theory gone wrong, again, with the only real point to Totten’s dribble is that this imaginary Alawite nation would make quick peace with Israel.

Totten writes that Bashar al-Assad simply would not make peace with Israel because he doesn’t want to and couldn’t, anyway, since he’s Alawite and much of his country is Sunni. Why is analysis of Arab leaders who refuse negotiations with Israel always limited to, “well they don’t, because they don’t want to, they want to drive Jews into the sea, or either way, their people wouldn’t allow it.” Politics is more complex, and interesting than that, even dictatorships. To point: Bidoun last year published their excellent “Objects” issue. One of those objects was Hafez al-Assad’s Iron Bladder and its place in “bladder diplomacy.” Infinitely better analysis of Syria’s presidents. As Rasha Salti wrote:

The sport of bladder diplomacy consists of hosting diplomats, negotiators, and state officials for meetings that can last up to nine hours, regularly serving them beverages — hot to cold — until, beside themselves, they are forced to bring the meeting to a conclusion, capitulating to some or most of their host’s demand, just to get to the loo. When Henry Kissinger, then the American secretary of state, met Assad for the first time, their encounter took six hours and thirty minutes. Kissinger was equal to the task… Decades later, another secretary of state, James Baker, was treated to nine hours and forty-six minutes without a break…

… The magic of Assad’s negotiating style was not only his iron bladder. It was that he was always prepared to take no for an answer. In March 2000, when President Clinton presented Assad with Ehud Barak’s peace proposal in Geneva, the Syrian leader deemed it unacceptable. The round ended abruptly. All parties walked away empty-handed, the Americans furious.

In Syria, delicate preservation work is pushing against profit-driven speed.


DAMASCUS, SYRIA – It claims to be the world’s oldest capital city, outlived only by Aleppo, Syria; and Jericho, on the West Bank. The proof is there, in Mesopotamian texts that mention Damascus and in a deep urban foundation of streets, houses, and sewers from every civilization, piled on top of one another.

The fairly straight street that cuts across Damascus’s Old City was once a colonnaded Roman road: the Via Recta or “Street Called Straight” from the Bible. After the Muslims conquered Syria, then ruled by the Byzantines, Damascus became the capital of the first great Islamic empire. At its peak in the 8th century, the Umayyad dynasty spread from North Africa across Asia, its center at the sparkling Great (Umayyad) Mosque, a former pagan temple, then a church, that claims to house the head of John the Baptist.

But it is the city’s more recent history that is reshaping contemporary Damascus. As Syria slowly opens its socialist economy to tourism and development, scores of traditional Arab houses from the 17th to 19th centuries have been restored and reopened as boutique hotels and restaurants in the capital’s UNESCO-protected Old City.

Three late-Ottoman era houses south of Straight Street – Beit Nizam, Beit Sibai, and Beit Kuwatli – that were once the residences of Damascene notables and later, European consuls, are at the center of an increasingly frenetic pace of development often motivated more by profit than good preservation practice. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which promotes historic preservation and development projects throughout the Muslim world, has invested $20 million to restore and reopen the three houses as a boutique hotel.

Read the rest of my recent story for the Christian Science Monitor (which grew mostly out of my Fulbright research in fair Sham) here. Photo courtesy of the Aga Khan Development Network office in Damascus.

Syria: Where war hides history


DURA-EUROPOS, SYRIA – Syria is Damascus to the growing number of Western tourists here. A short trip to the Greek desert city of Palmyra, about halfway to the Euphrates from the capital, is often as far east as visitors go.

Down the highway, however, where the Euphrates greens a strip of the rocky landscape, is a corner of the country less known for historical sights than for its proximity to war-torn Iraq. It is from here that militants have entered Iraq since the American invasion in 2003. The conflict has left Dura-Europos largely unseen by tourists.

But on a cliff overlooking the Euphrates less than 30 miles from Iraq, where Roman soldiers once watched for invading Persians, it’s possible to imagine life in the fortified desert city of Dura-Europos 2,000 years ago. Founded in 300 BC by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, it was a cosmopolitan outpost; first Hellenistic, then Roman – home to Greeks, Syrians, Christians, and Jews.

Read the rest of my most recent story for the Christian Science Monitor.

‘The road for Damascus’, GlobalPost


My recent piece on the problems of architectural preservation and development in Damascus for

DAMASCUS, Syria — Like Cairo’s Pyramids and Shiraz’s roses, to paraphrase travel writer Colin Thubron, the oasis of Damascus conjures running water. But that was 40 years ago.

These days the Barada River runs dry through one of the world’s oldest cities. Meanwhile tourists, long a rarity in the socialist Syria of Hafez al-Assad, are now flocking to the historic center of Damascus.

But a boon for the country’s economy and image is also a threat to the capital’s heritage, as a spate of often-hasty building restorations and conversions in the UNESCO-protected Old City has turned the area into a kind of historicist fantasyland of nostalgic architecture driven less by preservation than development.

Along with Aleppo, Damascus boasts the highest concentration of preserved, traditional Arab residential architecture in the Middle East. For decades the Ottoman-era courtyard houses and merchant palaces in the half-square-mile Old City crumbled as wealthier residents left for Western-style apartments in garden suburbs outside the city center. The flight began under the French Mandate in the 1930s and continued after Syrian independence in 1946 and throughout the end of the 20th century as the city’s suburbs expanded along the dry hills that edge the city.

Read the rest here.

Syria: Iraqi artists, now refugees, struggle to pursue art in exile


My recent story for the Christian Science Monitor (with more coming):

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA – To support his art in Baghdad, Alaa Ismael opened an interior-design office in a commercial area near his house. But after the American invasion, customers dwindled as checkpoints choked the city.

In 2004, his office was burned and robbed by extremists. “They killed everyone, not only artists,” he said. “Jihadis would threaten us, calling us ‘kafirs’ [unbelievers] because of our art, because of the style or subject of our work.” While he was never threatened personally, “threats were all around.”

So Mr. Ismael left with his wife, sister, and nephews for Syria, where he has been for the past five years. He quickly shakes his head when asked about going back. His oldest daughter was an infant when they left Iraq; his second daughter was born here this year.

They all share the same apartment in a ramshackle hillside neighborhood overlooking Damascus. One of its rooms is his studio, where large finished canvases and rolled-up paintings are stacked, unsold.

Ismael is one of dozens of Iraqi refugee artists here, struggling to paint and sell his work to support himself and his family and maintain a semblance of his former life in Baghdad.

“Before the war, Baghdad was the cultural and artistic center,” Ismael said. “There were galleries, art schools, universities. There was movement.”

For him, more opportunities in art exist abroad now – through friends and fellow artists in the Gulf and Europe – than in exile here in Syria.

Omar and Alaa are but two of the dozens of Iraqi artists in Damascus right now. Skilled painters, some abstract, some based in Islamic calligraphy and stylized Arabic text, they were a vital part of culture and society of pre-invasion Iraq and now have an equal place among the millions of Iraqi refugees in the region and across the globe. Read the rest here.

Out of Syria, onto Mahal


I leave Syria soon, and in leaving I only hope I come back. While the stories have slowed down recently — I’ll blame the heat — they will continue in the fall from Cairo, on this blog and elsewhere. One of those elsewheres will be a new web publication, Mahal Magazine, a traveling source of Middle Eastern politics and culture, currently under construction.

When I get to Egypt it should be up and running, collecting stories from across the region: a long and personal view of the election fallout and protests in Tehran; lessons of Syrian bus travel, including a love of forgotten American actions films; a report on one monastery’s fight to keep its centuries old land in southern Turkey; and others.

Mahal in Arabic is “place, location ” but it often means a store, any store. Mahal will be filled with foreign and local goods — stories, research, images, reviews — with a base in the region and material from a variety of locales. It seeks perspectives of foreignness and the feeling of possession and its lack from any traveler and writer. Why? Because when Marco Polo meets Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s imagination, they talk about travel, the Venetian describing city after city, each a fantasy with a fantastic name. It doesn’t matter that they are all, in fact, descriptions of Venice. The wonder of foreign places looms large when Polo talks about travel.

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his the he did not know,” Polo tells Kublai Khan in Invisibles Cities. “The foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

As for the lone donkey perched on the crop of Qalaat Salahuddin in my photo above, well, I think the old castle was his home, so he had plenty.

Votes cast abroad favor Moussavi

Press TV has obtained the Interior Ministry’s detailed list of the votes cast abroad in the country’s 10th presidential election held on Friday, June 12.

A total of 234,812 votes were cast outside Iran, out of which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won 78,300; Mehdi Karroubi won 4,647; Mohsen Rezaei won 3,635 and Mir-Hossein Moussavi won 111,792 votes.

Get all the numbers here.  Interesting the note the breakdown in Damascus:


Total votes: 10,378
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: 7,184
Mehdi Karroubi: 60
Mohsen Rezaei: 153
Mir-Hossein Moussavi: 2,866

‘Bill Clinton is Syrian’ and other tales of Obama’s speech from Damascus

The traffic flowed through Damascus last Thursday, peaking as always in the early afternoon. There was little buzz about President Obama in Cairo, and given all the packed taxis and microbuses clogging the street, it was a typical day in Damascus – and no special arrangements to watch the speech.

“Of course I know,” taxi driver Adnan replied when asked about Obama’s visit to Cairo University. “He was in Saudi yesterday.”

The oil-rich kingdom is hardly popular here, owing to its mass accumulation of crude cash, its support for Sunni fundamentalism, and its closeness with America.

“Obama goes to Saudi, he goes to Egypt. He goes to Turkey and soon enough he’ll go to Israel,” Adnan complained. “But he doesn’t come here.”

Before an American ambassador returns to Damascus, before US sanctions are lifted, average Syrians will likely continue to ignore gestures of American oratory and reconciliation.

More of my recent HuffPost.


Clocking 2KM around Syria

Barreling near the Jebel Ansariyya that separate Syria’s coast from its rich interior, we stopped to ask for directions.

“Peace be upon you! Sir, is this the road to al-Ghab, to Apamea?” The man on the motorcycle stopped, shook his head, but said to follow him. “Up this mountain, my friends, is the shrine of Job.”

Being lost in a rental car in Syria has its benefits. Hours earlier, we were driving beside olive and almond groves that grew over beds of magenta wild flowers. Days before that we pulled into the Sumerian ruins of Mari, the site of a vast and preserved mud-brick pleasure palace of a ruler named Zimri-Lim, circa 1700 BC. Just upstream on the Euphrates is the Greek-Roman garrison town of Dura Europos, whose high ramparts look down on the river as it flows south to Iraq.

Such a miscellany of sights, among them pushing into a carnival Palm Sunday service at a Syriac church in the Kurdish northeast, is the gift of car travel – and of an odometer clocking two thousand kilometers over four days.

In a counterclockwise loop mimicking the shape of Syria, our Kia began by speeding to and from the Euphrates and the desert that creeps around it. From the Kurdish northeast we drove west to the yawning cisterns below Rasafa, a walled, mud-brick desert community where they worshipped St. Sergius, with enough time to see the sun set on the artificial lake of Hafez al-Assad. The watery mass was made in the 1970s by damming the fabled Furat.

The next day, after visits to the abandoned Byzantine towns of Serjilla and al-Bara, we stumbled upon Job’s shrine thanks to our motorcycle guide. He introduced himself at the top of Jebel Zawiyya as the local imam, though we could have guessed from his faultless fusha. Job’s shrine was a simple stone structure topped with tilting dome painted green. An olive tree grew behind it and next door was an unfortunate military building, large antennas shooting into the sky and casting shadows over the sanctum.

We descended into the Ghab, a rich valley that was a swamp before IMF money restored irrigation canals from the Orontes River and produced a lake.

We stopped to buy olive oil, hoping to find a man who would sell us anything less than a barrel. Lingering for tea with two plastic bottles of zeit zeitun, we drew a crowd of fifteen – mostly bright-eyed kids – as we talked with the local imam, Mohammed Ali. We asked him the name of his village.

“Qalat ad-Deen,” he smiled to us. Fortress of Faith.

“What benefit do you get from visiting ancient ruins?” he asked in return. Two of us cited our university studies in Middle Eastern history and classical Arabic literature and their connection to Syria’s richness of archaeological sites. Mohammed Ali nodded, and insisted we stay for the night.

More and more tourists are coming to Syria to see a country beyond the headlines and a camp Axis of Evil tag. Its richness of history, food and hospitality are quickly apparent on the limited visitors’ route: a few days in Damascus’ Old City; time in Aleppo’s covered Suq; the sunset and sunrise over the colonnades and temples at the ancient desert city of Palmyra.

A rental car is more promising. It allows you to speed to corners of the country that see less visitors and to talk to people along the way, even if those conversations involve flat tires and a stream of police questions at the hostel desk about where you’re coming from and where you’re going next.

In Hassakeh in the Kurdish northeast, the interrogation at the Ugarit Hotel went like this:

“Where are you coming from? Damascus? Deir az-Zur? When did you leave? But it’s a three hours drive here. You drove south first? To ruins? But there are ruins in Tadmur, you know? So what time did you leave Deir again? And you live in Damascus? How many days do you have the car for? When are you going back? What time are you leaving tomorrow? Going where? Aleppo? And then where? Welcome. How are you?”

An old white Peugot 504 followed us out of Hassakeh after our visit to the town’s Syriac church – a sign of the government’s tight monitoring of Kurds, a majority of whom cannot vote in Syria, and of foreigners who decide to visit their corner of the country.

The police did a bad job of hiding surveillance, but they pulled away when we took the turn for Aleppo and not for Qamishle, a Kurdish town on the Turkish border. Sure enough down the highway, at the only checkpoint we passed through in all of Syria, a man with a Kalashnikov was smiling knowingly, waiting to check our passports.

On the desert road to Deir az-Zur beyond Palymra the Kia got a flat tire that wouldn’t bulge from the wheel. A packed motorcycle approached, putting down the highway. We flagged it and when it stopped, a man in a red headscarf hopped off, walked past us without a word and started off into the desert. The bike’s driver responded to our greetings and deftly detached the wheel, screwed on the spare, and left without saying much. We saw him a hundred meters down off the highway after picking up his friend walking in the hard sand.

A party of Iraqis from Mosul helped us next. Their stone house on the side of the highway was not a proper garage stocking new tires, as hoped. They suggested we rotate the tires, putting the spare at the rear. The oldest man among them, Ghazzi, with fair skin, a thick moustache and a worn jalabiyya, said we shouldn’t pay more than a 1000 Syrian pounds (about 21 dollars) for a new one in Deir az-Zur. We had tea, as usual, and they asked what we doing out in the desert.

Disaster Tourism at the Edge of the Golan Heights

A few weeks ago at a popular haunt for old men, writers and boozers in Damascus, I was talking with one well-traveled old man about the Golan Heights. Some weeks earlier I had visited Quneitra, the Golan’s capital, which fell to Israel in 1967.

The town was reportedly dynamited and dismantled by Israeli soldiers before their withdrawal following the October or Yom Kippur War. Removable fixtures down to light bulbs and any salvageable building materials were allegedly stripped from abandoned homes and sold to Israeli contractors. Bulldozers knocked down houses. The United Nations condemned in successive resolutions the “deliberate destruction and devastation” of Quneitra. Israel insisted the damage was caused by two wars and shelling from both sides; Syria downplayed any role of its own guns in the ruined shape of Quneitra.

“The whole thing was Henry Kissinger’s idea,” the old man said as he nibbled on a lettuce leaf between big glasses of whiskey. “Why else would the place be as it is today, 30 years later? He arranged for the Israelis to give it back to us, but they had to blow it up first, and the Syrians couldn’t ever rebuild it.”

Read the rest of my recent piece on visiting Quneitra on the Huffington Post.

Refugee Chess

A recent story of mine that ran on the newly launched Wunderkammer Magazine in New York.

They lived well in Baghdad; their eldest daughter had two cars. Six years later, the Iraqi couple moves their mattresses out of the bedroom each night to sleep on the living room floor. The only bedroom is left for their daughters while they live in this concrete refugee suburb of Damascus.

It was Friday and quiet on the balcony above the street. The fried fish lunch was over and the mother was reading fortunes in the bottom of coffee cups. The father skulked past the couch and flashed his pack of cigarettes. He didn’t smoke before the war. He was a chain-smoker by the time he arrived in Damascus. He shrugged when his wife explained his new habit—“he’s always with a cigarette, always, but he never smoked before.” She brought her index and middle finger to her mouth and mimed puff after puff.

Read the rest here.

2000 kilometers around Syria

I recently clocked 2000 kilometers around Syria, in a counterclockwise loop to Deir az-Zur and south to the Seleucid and Sumerian ruins, respectively, of Dura Europos and Mari on Euphrates hugging the border with Iraq; to the Kurdish north of the town of al-Hassakeh where we pushed our way into a Palm Sunday service at the local Syriac Orthodox church; west to Rasafa, an ancient desert city where they once worshipped St. Sergius, and the north of that Lake Assad, made from a massive dam on the Euphrates; to the so-called Dead Cities (abandoned Byzantine towns, sunbleached well-preserved rural architecture) that spread south and west of Aleppo; to an accidental visit to the shrine of Job on a nearby mountain near Serjilla and al-Bara; through the fertile Ghab valley, where we bought olive oil and were invited by the local Imam to stay for the night; to Apamea, a metropolis of antiquity that is today lots of columns in a green field; to the unturning waterwheels and stagnant water in Hama; and finally Crac de Chevaliers, lionized by TE Lawrence, which we remembered more for the brusk man at the cafe nearby whose greeting — “what do you want?” — told us we were nearing Damascus.

More stories to come, expanded, and pictures too.

Syria e-mailing, etc.

That Syrian nuclear plant bombed by Israel last year was probably built with American money. Seymour Hersh quoted emails from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the New Yorker. It was a strange news week. On the latter, much of Hersh’s piece was full of the usual quotes from connected sources, though there wasn’t a huge amount of revelation. The best part, in my mind, combined substance with discrete Syrian charms:

Farouk al-Shara, the Vice-President of Syria, was, as Foreign Minister, his nation’s chief negotiator at Shepherdstown. When he was asked whether Syria’s relationship with Iran would change if the Golan Heights issue was resolved, he said, “Do you think a man only goes to bed with a woman he deeply loves?” Shara laughed, and added, “That’s my answer to your question about Iran.”

Iraqi artists in Syria get a rare chance to exhibit their work


I filed this web story for the UNHCR on the opening of an exhibition in Damascus of 20 Iraqi refugee painters. The photo is by Gabriela Brust.

Calling themselves the “Babylon Artists,” the group of painters – including four women – reflect the stories and livelihoods of Iraqi refugees in Syria and the wider region. Some works are rooted in traditional Arabic calligraphy. Others are purely abstract: from the heavy brushstrokes of red, yellow and green that meet in the centre of Wadhah Mahdi’s paintings, to the clouds of colour that characterize Majid Hashim’s work.

“I took my ideas from my country’s art history,” art teacher Hashim said, while adding: “There is a long history of the visual arts from ancient Iraqi culture, from the legacy of Babylon.” A native of the ancient city, he fled to Syria with his wife and two children in 2006 after they were threatened by militias.

Omar Odeh’s large abstract work, “Love Story,” reflects his optimism about the situation in Iraq. He and his family fled to Damascus three years ago to escape a wave of sectarianism that was sweeping Iraq. He recently returned to Baghdad to visit family and friends and described the security situation as “much improved.”

Unlike his artistic colleagues, Waleed Hassan was persecuted for his work by a group that objected to his representation of the human form in his art. In exile for seven months with his wife and two of his four children, Hassan uses colours and landscapes to remind him of a more peaceful Iraq.

He points to one painting of yellow-brown, red and blue and explains that it “is a memory of the marshes of southern Iraq, where people live above the water on small boats and simple houses.” Another of his works depicts the countryside south of Baghdad where he and his family sought shelter at the start of the Gulf War of 2003.

A third painting shows the historic central quarter of Baghdad. Two figures make their way through the market, but their form is elongated, making them look as though they are swaying in the wind. “Baghdad’s Old City does not exist as it once did,” Hassan said. “But with many of these paintings, we try to capture the memories.”


Guernica is memorialized but who remembers Hariqa?

In 1925 the French bombed Damascus from the air for 48 hours, killing nearly 1,500 people and leveling whole historic neighborhoods. It was twelve years before the Luftwaffe destroyed a town in northern Spain for Franco. Fifteenth century architecture was reduced to rubble – one contemporary photograph shows the ornate wall of a courtyard house teetering around ruins, its doorways opening up to a pile of stones.



Druze farmers in the Jebel Hauran south of Damascus had taken down a French surveillance plan in July and by the fall their rebellion ballooned to a widespread Syrian-Arab nationalist revolt against the French. The Druze had been “transferred” there from their home in Lebanon by French and Ottoman troops, following hostilities with Maronites in the 1860s.

For Michael Provence, who wrote an authoritative book on the subject with subtle references to the insurgency in Iraq, the 1925 revolt opened the Middle East to its first forceful articulations of Arab nationalism following the collapse of the Caliphate and the imposition of colonial order. Predating the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39, which Timothy Mitchell called “the first sustained anti-colonial rebellion in the Arab world,” (quoted from Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity) the Syrian uprising and the subsequent French devastation of Damascus translates the struggles of Syrian sovereignty and their primacy in the history of self-determination in Bilad ash-Sham.

The bombs landed hardest on the commercial hub south of the Damascus Citadel between the late-Ottoman-era markets of Hamidiyyeh and Madhat Pasha. When it was rebuilt, Damascenes called the area al-Hariqa, “the fire,” lit by French bombs. The name holds today, listed plainly on maps, an outlier of urban regularity hanging on the edge of the UNESCO-protected Old City.

Around an axis of a pedestrian plaza with a large central fountain extends a neat grid of commercial streets. On a map the box of Hariqa looks like its own walled area – a bit of European urban planning amid the jumble of lanes and alleyways otherwise obstructed only by Straight Street, the Via Recta, which St. Paul walked down.


Via MidEast Image: “Original photograph by Luigi Stironi, Damascus, of the aftermath of the French bombardment Sunday October 18th 1925.”

In targeting Damascus the French ensured they killed more than people, wiping out a piece of the city’s unique record of eastern Mediterranean residential architecture, An Ottoman yearbook in 1900 recorded nearly 17,000 houses in the province of Damascus, of which it’s estimated half still stand today (see Jakob Skovgard-Petersen and Stefan Weber, “Modernizing Private Spaces: The ‘Aqqad Family and Houses in the Late 19th and the 20th Centuries” pdf).

“In all the eastern Mediterranean – from Egypt to Greece – the Syrian towns of Damascus and Aleppo are the only large cities which preserve domestic architecture on such a scale,” Skovgard-Petersen and Weber wrote in a book on the restoration of one Damascene mansion, the Bait al-‘Aqqad, now the Danish Institute. “Other important cities, such as Cairo and Istanbul, have lost practically most of their residential architecture and preserved only those buildings considered historical monuments (mosques, schools etc., and some major residences).”

That the French destroyed a part of Damascus is not unknown history – it’s the subject of books, and a detail in general histories of the mandated Middle East. And yet in light of recent growing attention to the architectural preservation of the Old City, which more often these days means renovating a neglected Ottoman merchant house and turning it into another restaurant or boutique hotel that fabricates a memory-product of “Old Damascus,” the destructive remodeling of Hariqa eighty years ago assumes new meaning.

Look beyond the irony that the French blew it up and later became key players in UNESCO, which designated the Old City a World Heritage Site in the 1979. The Roman-era sewers of the Street Called Straight have been dug up and replaced in the last few years, prompting articles on the shoddy beautification – little more than new wooden doors – of the shops that line the cobblestones.

laffayetteVia MidEast Image: “Photograph by Luigi Stironi 1925, of the Sidi al-Amud area of the old city of Damascus/Syria, bombarded by the French Mandate authorities in Oct. 1925… A Sign of the French Laffayette Gallery still standing in the middle of the road. On the left is the Quwatli House,one of the most spectacular of the old mansions of the old City. The Quwatli’s Mansion served as the residence for Ibrahim Pasha during the Egyptian period 1832-40,and later as the German Consulate.

Dedicated voices call for preservation of Damascene architecture, for the lifting of stones one by one from a courtyard, cleaned, and placed painstakingly back in place, as they were in the last decade at Beit Jabri, among the most popular places for tea and shisha by a fountain in the Old City. (Ignoring the Shish Tawouk, which is pliable and comes with a side of spaghetti).

Out of the charms for Old Damascus a desire comes to preserve formal architecture and develop new historic space. An imagination for an Ottoman or pre-Ottoman past emerges, tied essentially to the realization of the courtyard dream – even if cement or poured concrete has been used between the old stones (as in a number of these hotel and restaurant conversions), even if the fountain has been lit and made into a swimming pool (as in the 200 Euro-a-night and up Hotel Talisman).

Pleasure capital shapes architecture. Like the saving of traditional houses in Marrakesh and Fez by ex-pat Europeans and astute Moroccan hoteliers, the preservation/restoration of the Old City of Damascus is central to the country’s arrival on the profitable travel pages of New York and London print. But keeping Hariqa in mind, minding that French bombs flattened a section of the city so hard that one word – Guernica – spurs a host of terrible associations, how does history fit into this grand development scheme?

Damascus burning in October, 1925, via MidEast Image

al-Hariqa and Destructive Renovation


Al-Hariqa after French bombardment in 1925 [Via]

The neighborhood of al-Hariqa at the west end of town is the newest neighborhood in the Old City. A large square is lined with department stores and tailors, and a grid of streets create a neat box of a shopping neighborhood bordered by the late Ottoman-era markets of Souq al-Hamidiyyeh to the north and Souq Madhat Pasha to the south. Need curtains, foam pads, or bubble wrap cut from outsized rolls that stand on the sidewalk? Hariqa is the place. It remains a busy commercial area in Damascus today, and indeed it used to be the busiest of souqs in the city a hundred years ago.

damas_en_flammeDamascus in flames, 1925 [From The Great Syrian Revolt, via Google Books]

The change to the neighborhood’s built space was not the result of overzealous government renovation, whether contemporary or late Ottoman. The change came, instead, out of the rubble of French bombs. Following the outbreak of riots in the Jebel Druze south of Damascus that quickly spread to the capital in 1925, the French High Commissioner General Maurice Sarrail responded with an order to bomb the city for 48 hours. Some 1,500 people were killed; houses and other historic buildings, some dating from as far back as the 15th century, were flattened, and the entire commercial heart of the Old City south of Hamidiyya was destroyed. The “garden neighborhoods” of Salihiya and Abou Rumaneh at the foot of Mt. Qassioun were young Damascus suburbs then; Merjeh Square was the recently built, Ottoman administrative center of the city; the Old City was still the heart of Damascus.

When it was rebuilt, with its grid and modern block buildings, the commercial hub took a new name: al-Hariqa, “the Great Fire,” lit by French bombs. It keeps its name today, plainly written on maps.

snapshot-2009-03-15-16-04-21A 15th-century house in Hariqa after the French bombs (Photo: IFPO Archives, Damascus) [Via]

In light of architectural preservation worries and a clamor to save the cultural and spatial integrity of the Old City, the destructive remaking of Hariqa confuses things. It sits between the two greatest late Ottoman remodelings of the Old City — Souq al-Hamidiyeh and Souq Medhat Pasha, at the western end of Straight Street. The covered souqs (Mandate-era bullet holes from strafing French airplanes are still visible in Hamidiyeh, pockmarked into arcade’s barrel-vaulted metal roof) replaced the medieval western gates of the Old City, and underline the Ottoman renovations that transformed Damascus in the 19th century. The city was not a backwater then, as some write, and the proof exists in the richness of Ottoman architecture: souqs, schools, palaces, hammams, and residences, all the product of a cadre of Damascene notables and Ottoman governors (a string of ‘Azems in the late 18th century) who wanted Damascus to resemble Istanbul, at least in its public buildings.

But the French obliterated parts of this Ottoman city, resulting in the European style of Hariqa today (a large public square, the axis of a grid of commercial streets). And there was international outrage. Time magazine reported on the “Syrian Scandal” of a League of Nations Mandate authority bombing the oldest continually inhabited city in the world:

“There has never been such a scandal in the history of France!” Premier Painleve, soundly harassed, tried to soothe his public: “Despatches have been greatly exaggerated. . . . Annoying events have taken place in our Syrian Mandate, but the Government is taking necessary steps to remedy the situation.” The “annoying” or “scandalous” events marked the bombing and shelling of Damascus, “oldest inhabited city in the world,” by order of General Maurice Sarrail, French High Commissioner in Syria. Impartial witnesses placed the human loss at 1,000 lives, the property damage at over $10,000,000. L’Echo de Paris cried, last week: “General Sarrail is a senile, stupid, brutal sadist … a criminal … a bloody tyrant!”

… for 48 hours French shot and shell poured into the city; French tanks dashed at full speed through the streets, firing point blank into bazars and houses; and French airplanes dropped bombs.

386088152_b0a104a106Al-Hariqa today [Via Flickr]

Remaking out of rubble is hardly unique. But in the case of Damascus and Hariqa it could have certain meaning. The intact but threatened Old City is an ever-growing tourist and elite attraction, a hub of restaurants and hotels that preserve the traditional Arab house while manufacturing an ideal of the Damascene past for consumption. The entire architectural integrity of the place is protected by Syrian and growing international initiatives — from its UNESCO World Heritage designation, most prominently — so one might be able to say that the country that destroyed part of it in the last century now champions its protection. This is not unique in the post-colonial world either.

The battle to preserve an ancient Syriac monastery (featuring the sacred digits of a 7th century abbot)


Christians have lived in these parts since the dawn of their faith. But they have had a rough couple of millennia, preyed on by Persian, Arab, Mongol, Kurdish and Turkish armies. Each group tramped through the rocky highlands that now comprise Turkey’s southeastern border with Iraq and Syria.

The current menace is less bellicose but is deemed a threat nonetheless. A group of state land surveyors and Muslim villagers are intent on shrinking the boundaries of an ancient monastery by more than half. The monastery, called Mor Gabriel, is revered by the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Battling to hang on to the monastic lands, Bishop Timotheus Samuel Aktas is fortifying his defenses. He’s hired two Turkish lawyers — one Muslim, one Christian — and mobilized support from foreign diplomats, clergy and politicians.

Also giving a helping hand, says the bishop, is Saint Gabriel, a predecessor as abbot who died in the seventh century: “We still have four of his fingers.” Locked away for safekeeping, the sacred digits are treasured as relics from the past — and a hex on enemies in the present.

A friend who visited Mor Gabriel in December recently forwarded the following on this recent story in the Wall Street Journal:

It is important that people know what’s happening and understand the history, and hopefully, we can contribute to the protection of an ancient site whose heritage, like so much in the Middle East, belongs
to the entire world.
South of the Euphrates, in upper Mesopotamia, on the border with Syria and Iraq, lies a region which Syriac Christians or the Suriani people call Tur Abdin, the Mountain of God’s Servants. This is the ancestral homeland of the Suriani, living descendants of the ancient Assyrians and Aramaeans, who embraced Christianity in the first centuries of the Common Era. Their liturgical language is Suryoyo or Syriac, a version of Eastern Aramaic, and their vernacular is Turoyo, or “the language of the mountains.” Traditionally farmers and traders, they have a rich history of artistic and literary production in the Syriac language, which holds a special place in Christian tradition since, of all the Semitic languages, it is the closest to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus of Nazareth and the first disciples. Those of you who know some Hebrew or Arabic will hear a familiar sound: hello is “shlomo aleicho,” and thank you is “taudi,” and in their liturgy you’ll frequently hear the blessing “amin baruch mor,” “amen blessed is the lord.”

They’ve suffered a great deal throughout their history. First, their church was declared heretical after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which led to persecutions by the Byzantines; in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Persians swept through Mesopotamia and eastern Anatolia and massacred many Assyrians. With the advent of Islam, their situation improved, since the Muslims were more tolerant of minority Christian churches than the Byzantines. Then, the Crusaders came, and they suffered persecutions because they were considered heretics. The Mongols were perhaps the worst, and Timur also distinguished himself
by massacring many Assyrian Christians in order to avoid being associated with the “infidel” ways of his Mongol ancestors. The Ottomans improved their lot, but in the 20th century they suffered the greatest blow in their history: during the Armenian genocide, local Kurds branded them together with the Armenians and, with the help of the Ottoman army, killed up to 200,000 Suriani Christians as well as
Assyrians belonging to other churches. Few know about the Assyrian genocide, but the fate which they suffered was as bad as that of the Armenians, and 1915 was the beginning of the dispersions and exile
that have marked their history in the 20th and now the 21st century.
They refer to 1915 as Shato d’Sayfo, the year of the sword. Up to then, they had made up a substantial part of the local population, and both the towns of Mardin and Midyat had strong Christian communities.
Many Suriani fled to Syria, and Ataturk expelled their Patriarch from Mardin; the patriarchate is currently located in Damascus, and throughout Syria, the surname Mardini and Midyati is a testament to
the historical origins of the Suriani living here.

During the civil war with the PKK in eastern Turkey that raged in the eighties and nineties, many Suriani were killed or fled. They were caught in the crossfire and viewed with suspicion both by the Turkish
government and the local Kurds. It goes without saying that they suffered severely during this period. But the state too was hostile towards them. Not recognized as an official minority, unlike the Jews,
Armenians and Greeks, in the darkest days of Kemalism, monks were even jailed for teaching Syriac.

In a land that once had several hundred thousand Suriani, there are now only five thousand left, and yet, the indignities continue. I visited the monastery of Mor Gabriel last December when the abbot, Bishop Shmuel Aktas, told me of a land dispute with neighboring Kurdish villages, They want to take a large swath of land from this ancient monastery, which was founded in 397 C.E. by two Syriac monks,
Shmuel and Shemun, making it one of the oldest monastic communities in the world. But this doesn’t mean much to their neighbors, who would like to take a good portion of their land and allocate it to their
villages for development purposes. This is an indignity directed against minorities in Turkey and a crime against an ancient people and their culture. Things seemed to be getting better after the cessation
of hostilities with the PKK in 2000, and many Suriani returned from abroad. But now, one of their holiest sanctuaries is being threatened, and the signal from their neighbors is clear: that they aren’t welcome in Turkey, or, if they want to live in their land, they should be satisfied with the status of second class citizens whose culture isn’t respected. The case is currently before a local court in Midyat, and the judge’s final decision has been postponed until next month.

Please inform your friends and relatives; if you can, write to your congressmen and senators. Let the Turkish government know how important this case is and that the world cares about the rights of
minorities in Turkey. It would be a great loss for the world to see this ancient community suffer another blow in its long history of defeat and persecution, and the consequences could endanger their very
presence in their ancestral homeland.

Azem / Hijaz

damascusazem-palace2The Azem Palace in the 1880s. Built in 1749-51 by Assad Pasha al-Azem, one in a line of Ottoman governors of Syria tapped from the various Azem families. “At the end of this Suq [Bezouria], is one of the most splendid houses in Damascus,with seven courts and saloons,gorgeously decorated; it still belongs to his descendant,” gushed Isabel Burton, wife of Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer who was made consul in Damascus in 1869. [MidEastImage]

And today:


Meanwhile the Hijaz Station (1908-1913), which today functions as a temporary bookstore and the eventual facade to a large commercial development (rumors of a large shopping mall/transit terminal), was in its heyday the grand traveler’s entrance to Sham. It was also designed by a Spaniard. A photo circa 1914-1918:


The architect Fernando de Aranda (1878-1969) also built the trade building al-‘Abid in Merjeh Square and anticipated, in Stefan Weber‘s estimatation, “the orientalizing colonial-style.” Which reminds me of Cairo: the al-Rifai mosque across the street from the 14th century madrassa of Sultan Hassan. Al-Rifai was built between 1869 and 1912, its design supervised by an Austrian, Max Herz, head of the Khedive-appointed, foreign-dominated Committee for the Conservation of Arab Monuments in Cairo. For more about all that, check out Paula Sanders book.

The Hijaz station in 2007, on my first trip to Syria: