Nasser in Damascus

234-724  February 1958 and the declaration of the United Arab Republic. Looks like Merjeh thereabouts from the view to Mt. Qassioun. From this invaluable web archive of Nasser that includes a glut of photos, speeches, recordings, etc. Fully searchable collection run by the Biblioteca Alexandria. In many ways the site is the very opposite of going to the library in Egypt (with AUC’s brand-new, USAID-made library one exception) — a bureaucratic affair that is often, like the “Greater Cairo Library” in a palace in Zamalek, never open.

Beware the cost of war, and representation, and…

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Hanna is in Gaza and has a blog. It’s not always about what she does in the world’s largest open air prison — there are other topics: architecture, photography, women, the museum. But here she writes about a current exhibition of Israeli and Palestinian photographers in London, “Beware the Cost of War,” that removes credits and captions from images of Israel and Palestine (for many of the photos, its Gaza and southern Israel last winter, specifically) as a way of looking, hopefully, at conflict devoid of identity, ideology, politics. It’s interesting, gruesome, and mostly it works. The New York Times photo blog covered the show and quotes organizer, Israeli photographer Yoav Galai: “People want to see the world as they see it: there’s good guys and bad guys.. I wanted to give the pictures back to the photographers. Away from the headlines. Away from pro- or anti-something. So you can see the reality of the conflict.”

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The images represent the conflict, and they’d come to represent “one side” if printed in a newspaper and given a caption, we are supposed to believe. Like Hanna, I looked for the first sign of Israeli or Palestinian in every photograph — the Star of David on the medic’s vest, for one. (Actually it’s quite easy to pick out the Palestinians, by the quality of clothes and the extent of wounds and destruction). This proves the curator’s point, in a way, that we need to connect suffering with its subject, presumably to lay blame and understand its context. Galai said he was inspired by this bit of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others:

To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordnance. To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.

But what about moral equivalency in a conflict, in this case last year’s assault on Gaza, that doesn’t demand a balance of both sides, given the shear imbalance of dead and casualties (13 Israelis, 3 of them civilians, to 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians; crude rockets falling on Israeli towns, to guided bombs destroying Gaza’s only flour mill, bulldozers flattening chicken farms, and white phosphorus falling on children and a UN school). From scopophobia:

…I came across a picture of a dead dog (the “victim” of a Hamas rocket attack in southern Israel) next to images of dead Gazan children buried in piles of rubble that used to be their homes. I understand they were short of images of Israeli suffering (so they had to include some war criminal soldiers with minor cuts to rouse outr empathy), but really? Rather than open my eyes to the suffering of the Other, this collection of photographs showed me that the suffering is not the same. That saying “individual suffering is immeasurable, let’s not play the numbers game” is really closing your eyes to reality.


By creating a moral equivalency between the victims of both sides, this project is not taking a neutral stance ‘reaching across the lines’ as it fashions itself as doing. If you say to me “Israelis are suffering just as much as Palestinians,” you are actually saying this: one Israeli home damaged in Sderot is worth 25,000 homes in Gaza, one Israeli soldier captured is worth 11,000 Palestinian prisoners is Israeli jails, 13 Israelis killed (3 of them civilians) is worth 1,400 Palestinians (most of them civilians), 60 people in Ashqelon with PTSD is the equivalent of 40 years of occupation. And those kids who live upstairs from you, who sometimes come home from school singing an unbearable number of repetitions of “Biladi,” their lives are worth as much as that of a well-bred Israeli dog.

al-Hariqa and Destructive Renovation

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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.

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:

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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:

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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:

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It’s been raining but not enough for the Barada to flow like this again

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No, Damascus no longer conjures running water. The garden districts along Mt. Qassioun now line a narrower and dirtier version of the LA river. “The Barada” today conjures a watery brand of Syrian beer and the green flowing stench of a former lifeline. A photo of the now-extinct Victoria Bridge in the 1870s, over the once-flowing river. Today Sharia Shukri al-Quwatli, a “broad avenue,” runs over what is left of this section of the Barada. From the website of the honorary consulate of Syria in Toronto.