Friday, August 1, 2014

Galleries and Hotels

 The next couple of entries are in honor of Reem Tarjouman, a friend I barely got to know before cancer took her from the world far too early. She was at once a modern woman, an educated woman and also a religious woman who loved her country from top to bottom. She showed me a side of my own hometown that made me want to stay forever. There’s a vibrancy to Old Damascus that defies time and politics, yet until this trip the intimacy of the area was lost on me. Thank you, Reem, for inviting me to see that world again.

On a tour through old Damascus, Reem showed me the workshop of sculptor Mustafa Ali. It is in an old Jewish home in the Jewish district of Damascus. People are still calling it the Jewish district although the last of our Jewish community left years ago. The Zionist equation had simply made travel to other communities in Israel and Palestine too difficult, so the Jews in Damascus had become isolated and had dwindling numbers over the last decade or so. Even with the wars over the last several decades, it wasn't until more recently that travel and communication became insurmountably problematic for them. With fewer than ninety families as early as the mid-1990’s, they believed that they could no longer marry or sustain their culture in Damascus. Even so, most of the Jews leaving supposedly chose to go to the US or other countries outside the Middle East rather than move to Israel. No doubt, they were tired of being forced to live such a politically charged life. It's very sad. The Jewish community in Damascus was probably one of the oldest in the world and the Middle East. It has been a cornerstone of the Damascene identity to have all three “religions of the book” (a.k.a. Judaism, Christianity, & Islam) living side by side in peace ever since the Muslims arrived in the 7th century.

When the Jewish community left Damascus, they sold their homes in the Jewish quarter, inside the walls of the old city. Some of those homes were very old. When I say old, I mean OLD. The ancient and revered Church of St. Ananias (Hanania in Arabic) is built on the two thousand year old foundation of the home of the saint himself, with the original chapel cut out of the bedrock beneath. So, even if a home in that district is only a few hundred years old, the property on which it was built has been a part of Damascene life for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

There is one upside to the situation. The departing families sold their properties. It was the first time so much real estate was available inside the old city walls, near Straight Street and the Eastern Gate. The area is full of locally crafted goods, from all three of the “religions of the book,” but buying into the neighborhood had been next to impossible for most of the last century. Artists bought some of the Jewish homes and made them workshop/galleries with private spaces attached. So, now, the Jewish quarter lives on as a cultural renaissance.

Mustafa Ali’s gallery is one such place. Reem and I browsed his catalog of work, saw scale models of some pieces, and looked at some of the work from local artists he was featuring in his gallery. Meanwhile, he was busy working in a building nearby while a team was renovating an upstairs wing into an apartment for an artist residency program he was anxious to get started.

His sculptures are intimate, lyrical, modern, and yet hold echoes of the ancient and prehistoric sites that are all over Syria. Just when you think you know his style, he introduces a new facet. He’s one of my all time favorites, and least of all because of being Syrian. Really, I just love his work. Please visit his facebook page to see some photos, there are many and they demonstrate how versatile yet unique Ali’s work is.

Here’s a link to a wonderful article about Mustafa Ali, written by Lara Dunston:

 After our visit to Mustafa Ali’s gallery complex, Reem and I peeked into the Talisman Hotel. WOW!! It’s a modern restoration of an old Damascene house with each room decorated using Arab handicrafts like inlaid furniture, brocade and embroidered table cloths. I had been to another old Arab house come hotel, Beit Wakil, in Aleppo with my father in 1998. That antique (possibly ancient) bed and breakfast was exotic but not particularly luxurious at the time. The rooms were all sparse little singles opening onto the courtyard (from its days as a hostel of sorts for trade caravans). What Beit Wakil lacked in amenities, it made up for in uniqueness. The reception area featured what looked like an Islamic dome that once sheltered a Muslim prayer area but also held a fountain hinting that the space may have been a Turkish hamam in a previous generation. In it’s second courtyard, where the restaurant was housed, Beit Wakil boasted five levels of cellars ending in a passage that may once have connected to a secret network that had served the Aleppo Citadel. So, when I tell you that the Talisman will blow your mind all over again, take my full meaning. Talisman begins where Beit Wakil left off! The intricate embroidery and mosaic, brass work and other local handicrafts is exquisite. At the Talisman, expect to experience luxury living at the level of princes in antiquity, even while sleeping in western style beds. Both Beit Wakil in Aleppo and the Talisman Hotel in Damascus are highly recommended. I don’t have photos of the Talisman, and my photos of Beit Wakil are not digital, so I defer to google image searches for the cream of this blog entry.

Here is a link to a google image search for Beit Wakil, Aleppo. Not every photo is from Beith Wakil, but most of them are. They have a facebook page but it currently features pictures of the damage inflicted by the war. I would rather you saw it’s splendor first.

Use this link for pictures of the Talisman Hotel. As you scroll down, beyond the 5th row or so, some are not from the Talisman but other hotels in Damascus or even elsewhere. If you search hard enough you might even see a picture of Brangelina standing in the main courtyard of the Talisman.  


Monday, January 13, 2014

Yousef al-Azmeh, Hero

Some of this is a repeat of Early 20th Century Syrian History, but I wanted to set up the Yousef al-Azmeh story as a stand alone post not contained in the history post.

Amidst the colonial turmoil of post World War I, Emir Faisal – that guy who went across the desert with Lawrence of Arabia – joined General Allenby in Damascus in October of 1918. The Emir began establishing a government. At the same time, the French, demanding that the English honor the Sykes-Picot agreement, arrived in what was becoming known as Lebanon and took over. In November of 1919 the British left Damascus to avoid conflict with the French, ending Syria’s hopes that the west would honor their sovereignty.

In March of 1920, after negotiations with the French collapsed under Arab pressure for independence, the Syrian Congress declared Faisal King of a new state: the Arab Kingdom of Syria. The Europeans responded by holding the San Remo Conference, and allocating governance of former Ottoman territories as they saw fit.

In July of 1920, according to the French, tired of King Faisal trying to convince the League of Nations that he had a better right to rule Arabs than the French and British did, the French sent King Faisal the ultimatum “surrender or fight.” According to Syrians (who have photographic evidence) the French bombed Damascus from the air, and threatened to reduce it to rubble if King Faisal did not surrender immediately. Syria had barely begun to form its military, and had no airplanes nor any anti-aircraft defenses, so King Faisal surrendered to save his people and the antiquities of his country, including the Umayyad Mosque and Straight Street, along with other sites sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews in Syria.

The French say Yousef al-Azmeh, King Faisal’s Chief of Staff and Minister of War, willfully disregarded his King’s surrender and led his men into battle against the French ignoring the fact they had no hope of winning against superior numbers, artillery, and training.

The Syrians remember Yousef al-Azmeh very differently. The young idealist knew what a blow surrendering to the French would be to the pride and hope of the Syrian people as well as their future bids for sovereignty. If they surrendered without a fight, it would be as if the Kingdom of Syria had never existed. Azmeh decided to recruit and lead a group of men in a fight against the French so history would reflect that the Syrians had not given up without a fight. In one respect the Syrians agreed with the French: they didn’t have the weapons, numbers, or training to prevail against the French invaders. No man who followed Yousef al-Azmeh into the Battle of Maysaloun Pass on 23 July 1920 expected to live. Azmeh died, as did most of his men, and the next day, King Faisal’s forces in Damascus surrendered to the French.

Today, Yousef al-Azmeh is remembered in Syria as a martyr who died for the cause of Syrian Independence. A statue of him is located at the center of a circle named after him in downtown Damascus, near the Cham Palace Hotel and less than 600 metres (roughly 2000 ft.) from Marjeh Square (a.k.a. Martyrs' Square) where the execution of Arab nationalists originally prompted the start of the Arab Revolt.

You may use these links to access the bibliographies on wikipedia and track down primary source materials if you wish to learn more.

Battle of Maysalun

Arab Revolt

Marjeh Square

Early 20th Century Syrian History in Brief - with heavy use of wiki!

Remember George Santayana? No? That’s ironic, since he reportedly coined the phrase, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, apparently, the US enjoys repetition. But, as events unfold in Syria today, foreign intervention looming on the horizon, it’s hard for Arabs not to remember how things went almost a century ago, and dread that history may be repeated.

Even before World War I started, Arabs were trying to break free from the Ottoman Empire and form their own nations. In 1908, Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca declared himself King of the new Kingdom of Hejaz. Throughout WWI the Hashemite royal family continued to correspond with the British (first with Lord Kitchener in 1915, then Sir Henry McMahon 1915 – 1916). On May 6, 1916 the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule was finally triggered when the sultan had Arab nationalists executed in Marjeh Square, Damascus. In the remaining years of World War I, Arabs helped England and France prevail against the Ottoman Empire believing it was their best chance at independence. Emir Faisal and a contingent of supporters attended western peace talks after World War I in an effort to secure a future for the Arab people as independent nations rather than colonial assets to foreign powers.

November 1917 was a particularly disappointing year for the Arabs. On November 9, a paper publicized the Balfour Declaration of November second, essentially giving Zionists official British support for establishing a home in Palestine. On November 23 the new Bolshevik government in Russia made the Sykes-Picot Agreement public, revealing the French and English had been secretly negotiating throughout WWI to rule over the Arabs while at the same time promising them self-determination.

Later an American report (King-Crane Commission 1919) showed that Syrians opposed both the Balfour declaration and the French and British mandates. The report was ignored as were Arab demands for an independent and unified Syria.

Here’s the part you might be familiar with. Emir Faisal – that guy who went across the desert with Lawrence of Arabia – son of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, joined British General Allenby in Damascus in October of 1918, and began establishing a local government. At the same time, the French, demanding that the English honor the Sykes-Picot agreement, arrived in what was becoming known as Lebanon and took over.

At the Paris Peace Talks of 1919 – which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles – the US Secretary of State Robert Lansing identified the mandate system as a thinly veiled division of the spoils of war. In July the newly formed Syrian Congress passed resolutions demanding a constitutional monarchy with Faisal as King, and asking the US for assistance. In November, the British left Damascus to avoid conflict with the French, ending Syria’s hopes that the west would honor their requests.

In March of 1920, after negotiations with the French collapsed under Arab pressure for independence, the Syrian Congress declared Faisal King of a new state: the Arab Kingdom of Syria. The Europeans responded by holding the San Remo Conference, and allocating governance of former Ottoman territories as they saw fit.

Syria had no trained army to speak of and no air force at all, so when the French bombed antiquities and threatened to raze Old Damascus to the ground, the Syrians eventually surrendered (see my Yousef Azmeh blog for an important footnote).

“Henri Gouraud on horseback inspecting his French troops at Maysalun” This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. It was reportedly taken on 24th July, 1920 in Maysalun. The photographer is unknown. The file is from Wikimedia Commons.

The French ran Syria for well over the official 20 years of the mandate. The French Mandate of Syria was not formally approved by the League of Nations until 29 September 1923, when they had already been running Syria and Lebanon for three years and they did not leave Damascus until 1946. The French disdain for Arabs is exemplified by the story that after putting down a revolt in northern Syria, General Gouraud kicked Saladin’s tomb and said, “Awake, Saladin. We have returned. My presence here consecrates victory of the Cross over the Crescent.”

In 1946 when the French withdrew, they left a final mark in the memories of Syrians: they bombed parliament. One of my ancestors, a parliamentary guard, died in the attack. I don't know how many others died.  

Though remnants of French influence, good and bad, can be found throughout Syria, and French culture is respected, Syrians have not forgotten the bad taste of imperial rule. So, you see, perhaps the one thing that a Syrian fears more than a dictatorship is a foreign dictatorship. Ironically the best hope for Syria to stay intact both physically and as a government –we do have a parliament and a constitution - is the United Nations, the entity that succeeded The League of Nations, who created the mess in the Middle East in the first place.

The following links will help you find the bibliographies on wikipedia so you can get to primary sources, if you wish to learn more.


partitioning of Ottoman Empire

French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon

Battle of Maysalun

Marjeh Square

Arab Revolt

Dumpsters and Death Notices


 While I was studying International Relations in college, one of my professors had the opportunity to spend a year in Syria. He came back brimming with enthusiasm and a new depth of understanding for Middle Eastern Politics, one of his passions. As it happened we went through lecture material for his class at a fast clip the term after his return, so he excitedly put together an informative slide show of his time in Syria to spark class discussion.

He had a particular sequence of slides where he shared a dilemma he’d encountered. He showed a dumpster on an Aleppo street. In the picture, the dumpster appeared relatively empty but it was surrounded by bags of trash. The professor then showed another slide depicting postings pasted onto the entryway of a building. He told us the postings informed the public that the dumpsters were for trash collection and only worked properly if people put their trash inside the dumpsters. My professor seemed to feel the government had a very hard job making the people of Syria understand how to use a dumpster.

I did a very selfish thing that day. I kept my mouth shut. Inside, I was laughing, though I should have been crying. At the time I didn’t think of the long range indications my professor’s lack of understanding and its spread would mean for my people. I was close to graduating and wasn’t about to rain of a professor’s parade.

Here’s the information my professor, an expert in Middle Eastern Politics was lacking:

In Syria, whenever something momentous happens, a notice gets pasted up, EVERYWHERE. This is mostly used for death notices, since Muslims must bury their dead by the sun down after a death takes place. A death notice is basically an obituary with a brief history of the deceased, information about the time and location the funeral, and who will host the condolences. Death notices are plastered everywhere they might be seen. I’m not kidding when I say, if a bus stays still long enough, it will get pasted with a death notice! I saw it happen, when Damascus had buses.

The boys – yes, child labor - who were hired to do the pasting up were not educated and were paid to get the job done quickly. Once the government put up signs saying “no posting here” and within the day, the signs were covered in postings, prompting my father to comment that he doubted the boys doing the posting could read enough to understand the signs.

Damascenes once had kiosks where death notices were posted, but the government got rid of them because they were ragged eye sores. No one ever removed a posting, they just added layer after layer of pasty, papery mess. Now that the kiosks were gone every other surface had become fair game or not so fair game: front doors, walls, steps, banisters, trash cans, dumpsters, park benches, guard rails. Though everyone relied on the death notices, they also hated the postings being everywhere. The postings were viewed as litter. Imagine your front door being pasted all over with newspapers, a new layer almost everyday. Thankfully doors and windows seemed to be exempt, but shutters were not.

My father once spent an afternoon using a pressure washer to get all the postings off of our front porch. He proudly hollered into the house for us to come see how beautiful the porch was. We’d never seen it without any postings littering it up before, and we’d lived in that house for six or seven years by then. We went outside and admired the clean porch with father, then returned to making dinner. A few minutes later my father entered the kitchen red faced and grumbling. He’d gone back out to dry off the porch, only to find a crew already pasting notices on the walls! The porch had been clean for less than ten minutes. So, when you say, “litter,” postings encrusting the walls of your building is one of the top five things urban Syrians will think of.

A shop in 2010 with the remnants of notices surrounding the entry. This is miraculously clean compared to some buildings.

As for dumpsters, Syrians have a heavy duty cultural imperative against them: charity. For reasons of sanitation trash is put out after dark but before ten pm. After dark, street sweepers come by. I don’t mean one of those gigantic machines, I mean men in tattered clothing, with brooms made from twigs pushing little trash cans and dust pans on a makeshift cart. These are some of the poorest men in Syrian society. There are probably beggars who are paid better. Many don’t even have proper shoes. I’m not exaggerating about this. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. These men, will slit open trash bags as they go, and scavenge for anything they can use or sell. Even if you leave useful items to one side of the trash bag (shoes), they will still open the bag to investigate for themselves. Later in the night, the trash collectors come by and scoop what is left up into the garbage truck (a real one).

The dumpsters rarely have a lot in them, so they often get skipped, especially since most of them are damaged and won’t fit on the garbage truck’s lift anyway. In fact, I seem to recall that the dumpsters and trucks were purchased from separate companies and some were not even compatible with one another. So if a home owner was so ungenerous as to skip the road side charity, placing their trash in a dumpster, their garbage might be left to stink up the neighborhood for days. Even if that were not the case, the idea of forcing a street sweeper to dumpster dive was considered repulsive.

So, my professor had been given a euphemistic version of the situation. In the minds of government officials and foreigners, the populace were being backward and uncooperative. In the minds of the populace, the government had replaced one problem with another. They had taken away kiosks and given the city trash littered walls, they had then not only added smelly dumpsters, but posted more litter on people’s walls in an effort to persuade them to use the smelly dumpsters, all while ignoring the basic needs of their poorest citizens: street sweepers.

As the events in Syria unfold, now, it is tempting for westerners to believe that the west holds answers that Syrians haven’t thought of on their own. Please keep in mind that people from the west really don’t know all about Syria or it’s people. Syrians have to find their own solutions or they won’t work.