At times, Damascus evokes so many stereotypes as to feel devoid of real inhabitants. Outsiders often imagine a city in ruins—yet another wasteland amid the images of wartime destruction. Others picture Damascus as an object of nostalgia, a portrait of narrow alleys and jasmine-draped courtyards nestled amid elegant old houses. Another group holds up the city’s luxury restaurants and vibrant nightlife as proof that Syria, implausibly, is back to normal. Most residents like myself, however, have little use for such caricatures: We are struggling to navigate the shocks transforming our city from one day to the next.
Damascus, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, has passed through more than its share of upheavals throughout the centuries. Yet for Damascenes, the scale and pace of today’s changes feel unprecedented and irreversible, forcing us to adapt constantly even as we cling to whatever aspects of our city provide an element of continuity. For those of us who insist on calling Damascus home, what does it mean to feel so attached to a place we no longer recognize?
A city of migrants
For centuries, Damascus was defined by its ability to absorb newcomers. The city first took shape more than four thousand years ago as an oasis wedged between imposing natural boundaries: To its west rise the parched mountains that separate modern Syria and Lebanon; to its east, the barren Badia desert stretches all the way to Iraq. The settlement thus fanned out from Mount Qassioun in a lush semi-circle of fertile land known as the Ghouta. This geography made Damascus a hub for trade between East Asia and the Mediterranean. It retained this role throughout history, enduring as a center of civilization while changing hands from the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and Arabs to the Seljuks, Mamluks, Ottomans, and French.
Across the centuries, the city’s layout was shaped by the arrival of new inhabitants and the visions of successive rulers. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Palestinians fleeing the crusades arrived at Damascus’ northeastern edge, giving birth to the Salehieh neighborhood. Under Mamluk rule, Damascus grew southward as traders of grain and livestock migrated from the Hawran plain, in what became the Midan neighborhood. Beginning in the 16th century, Ottoman rulers established their bureaucratic headquarters in Saroujah, to the old city’s northwest, adding yet another layer to an already diverse metropolis. With the French mandate following the First World War, the upscale western quarter of Shaalan took shape to house the era’s colonial elite. More multi-storied buildings and rounded balconies emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, forming the upscale neighbourhoods of Abu Rummaneh and Malky.
Mobility and migration became integral to the city’s identity. This was captured literally in the neighborhood of Muhajireen, whose name means “migrants.” Settled by Balkan refugees fleeing the Russo-Turkish wars of the late 19th century, it is associated today with a profoundly Damascene upper middle class. Some of the city’s most quintessential neighborhoods hold names that came from afar: Saroujah refers to a Mamluk prince, Madhat Basha an Ottoman ruler, and Shamdeen Square a Kurdish notable.
Mobility and migration became integral to the city’s identity
Similarly, prominent families often carry alien patronyms: Just as the late Ahmad Kuftaro—once Syria’s top religious official—came from a venerable Kurdish lineage, the illustrious al-Azm family has Turkish roots. Even groups that retain a distinct identity have been deeply influenced by the city’s cosmopolitanism. Armenians who moved to Damascus in the 19th century have integrated both geographically and linguistically—far more so than their counterparts in Beirut or Aleppo, who live in their own neighborhoods and continue to speak their language. Circassians, who migrated around the same time to Damascus, have abandoned their ancestral tongue altogether.
This gradual, largely organic process of expansion accelerated dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, as successive Baathist regimes launched ambitious campaigns of state building and land reform. Damascus’ new rulers expropriated tracts of farmland in the Ghouta and swathes of the Ottoman city center to make way for a growing array of military bases, administrative buildings, and housing units for a rapidly growing civil service. Portions of the city’s distinctive Ottoman architecture were razed, replaced by Soviet-style government offices and a broad thoroughfare christened Revolution Street. As if to highlight the city center’s increasingly hostile urban landscape, the Thieves’ Market—a flea-market known for selling stolen goods—would soon nestle in its midst.
State-led development coincided with an upsurge in chaotic, largely unlicensed construction carried out by newcomers. Palestinians fleeing war with Israel started to form shantytowns on the city’s outskirts, followed in 1967 by the arrival of so-called Nazihin—those literally “displaced” as a result of Israel’s occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights. Meanwhile, the burgeoning state apparatus drew into the capital throngs of civil servants and security officials, many of whom built homes in sprawling, informal suburbs. All told, Damascus’ population is said to have tripled between the 1960s and the 1980s—in a process that pushed some residents out of their land even as it pulled in many more.
Where did the orchards go?
In the 1990s and 2000s, successive privatization drives further accelerated the city’s sprawl. As private businessmen began to import mini buses, transportation improved between the city and its periphery—leading, in turn, to a real estate boom in the Ghouta orchards. Poor and lower middle-class Damascenes started abandoning their old, central neighborhoods for these new suburbs with their relatively cheap flats. What was left of Damascus as an oasis gradually turned into a maze of drab concrete structures.
The result was a dissonant urban environment, whose constituent parts were ever more disintegrated, overcrowded, and unfamiliar to each other. A stark example is the neighborhood of Mazzeh—an area on the capital’s southwestern edge, which the state partly expropriated to construct administrative buildings and housing for civil servants. As Mazzeh proper evolved into an upper-class enclave for Damascus’ bureaucratic elite, the abutting neighborhood of Mazzeh 86—named after a military base—evolved into a slum hosting low-ranking Alawi security forces.
Increasingly, Damascus became a city of subgroups separated by markers of class, sect, and geographic origins. Sunni families whose ancestors had for centuries dwelled in the city continued to pride themselves on their status as “original” Damascenes. In the city center, they mixed with a political elite of largely rural origins, which they tended to view with suspicion if not disdain. In the periphery, ever-expanding informal areas—colloquially known as “infractions” (mukhalafat) or “spontaneous zones” (ashwaiyat)—housed a mixture of original inhabitants of the Ghouta farmland, rural migrants, and lower-class transplants from the city proper. Its hilly edges were dotted with pockets of migrants associated with the military and security apparatus. Out of resentment, some Damascenes came to call these strongholds “colonies” (mustawtanat).
This failure to fully assimilate the capital’s diverse components became explosive in 2011. Peripheral neighborhoods—whose residents had endured decades of governmental neglect and land expropriations—emerged as a flashpoint in a growing protest movement, as in the case of Barzeh. Next door, the area of Esh al-Warwar—home to the families of Alawi security officers—assumed the opposite role: As uprising turned to street fighting and shelling, both sides came to call for the enemy’s extermination.
As violence escalated, the city and its inhabitants would be reshaped by multiple, overlapping forms of dislocation. Devastation was visited upon the rebellious suburbs, starved by siege and pounded by shelling. As regime bombardment reduced to rubble the gray concrete houses that had once replaced the capital’s green orchards, neighborhoods like Darayya on the city’s southwestern edge and Jobar to the east became hardly recognizable to their inhabitants.
Comparatively stable areas also transformed, albeit less spectacularly. As social tensions rose and economic conditions deteriorated, much of the city’s upper and middle class left the country. The underclass was hollowed out too: Those who could muster the resources fled to escape encroaching violence and the mortal danger of forced conscription by one side or the other.
But for all those who left, many more arrived, swelling the capital’s population and straining its housing and public infrastructure. Residents from nearby towns that had themselves been destroyed poured into comparatively stable suburbs like Jaramana and Sehnaya (to the city’s southeast and southwest). Such was the demand for shelter that even partially besieged, opposition-controlled areas like Qudsaya and Barzeh began to absorb displaced people, simply because they were hit less heavily than others.
Damascus was thus thrown into a state of near constant change
As Damascus and its suburbs churned, growing numbers of Syrians trickled in from faraway corners of the country—particularly the northeast, where US-led battles against the Islamic State rendered the cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor increasingly uninhabitable. While a majority of newcomers hailed from an impoverished underclass, the city also absorbed displaced business owners and professionals who would partly replace the capital’s own dwindling bourgeoisie.
Damascus was thus thrown into a state of near constant change: roiling with new arrivals, departures, and all the ensuing socioeconomic disruption. Overcrowding became the norm, pushing out those who could still afford to emigrate. As landlords profited from a saturated real estate market, those seeking refuge faced extortionary rental costs. A flat in a working-class neighborhood of central Damascus could fetch $250 per month—roughly three times the salary of a typical civil servant—even when it had no kitchen or windows. Owners sometimes demand a year’s rent in advance, in hard currency. Real estate brokers likewise cash in on the situation: They raise the price further when people don’t decide on the spot.
A resurgent regime
As Syrians struggle to cope with destruction, the authorities have assumed a paradoxical role in keeping citizens unsettled: Even as the regime publicly trumpets the capital’s return to normalcy, it has prevented some residents form returning home and uprooted others who stayed put throughout the conflict.
Displaced Syrians often point to the sheer scale of looting by loyalist forces as a primary obstacle to return. In a ruined area like Yarmouk Camp, on Damascus’ southern edge, the rubble from destroyed buildings is interspersed with residential structures that survived the bombing only to be rendered uninhabitable by pillaging. For months after the neighborhood’s recapture in May 2018, residents of Damascus watched plumes of smoke rise from the camp as loyalist forces burned the rubber casing off copper wires to sell as scrap metal. Much of the area remains blocked off to its original inhabitants, who speculate that such scavengers are still busy picking its bones.
The regime has also inflicted new rounds of destruction under the guise of urban redevelopment. A particularly stark example is the northeastern neighborhood of Qaboun. After recapturing the area from opposition forces in May 2017, the regime launched an “organizational plan” that entailed demolishing large swathes of residential infrastructure. While ostensibly designed to redress the prevalence of unlicensed and unsafe structures, the project also bulldozed buildings that were formally registered and wholly intact. Dispossessed residents concluded that the plan’s real purpose was to punish their recalcitrant suburb while rewarding cronies with contracts—an impression reinforced by a stream of social media posts in which loyalists gloated over the ruins of freshly-razed buildings.
An even more iconic example of large-scale evictions is Marota City: This cluster of high rises in the city’s southwest has been heavily marketed as the most luxurious real estate development in Damascus’ history. Beginning in 2014, Syrian authorities began to make space for the project by expropriating and demolishing residential housing in the neighborhood of Mazzeh Basateen. While the regime cast this effort as a post-destruction overhaul, the area was in fact undamaged, still inhabited by its original residents when the bulldozers came to level their homes.
While some expropriations appear geared toward profiteering, others seem designed to redress strategic vulnerabilities exposed by the war. In 2016, for example, rebels imperiled Damascus’ water supply by seizing the spring of Ein al-Fijeh in the mountains above the capital. In 2018 the authorities, having reconquered the area, confiscated residential and commercial property to create a so-called “green belt” around the spring—forbidding ordinary citizens access within a fixed radius from the riverbanks, thereby buffering against future threats.
The same year, Damascus governorate razed strips of real estate (including, controversially, a mosque) along either side of the highway that cuts laterally across the capital’s south, separating central neighborhoods from the suburbs. The area is of paramount sensitivity: At the conflict’s height, the highway became the line of fire between regime and opposition forces. It also connects the capital to Damascus airport and links up with the strategically vital M5 international highway.
In addition to commandeering districts wholesale, the authorities have employed more targeted forms of confiscation against real or perceived enemies. In particular, the regime has made an increasingly liberal use of Syria’s 2012 counterterrorism law to seize the assets of dissidents and their immediate relatives. Importantly, this method of political control is far from new: Hafiz al-Assad deployed the same tactics to punish suspected Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in the 1980s.
The only option runs through a labyrinthine industry of corruption
Today, individuals seeking to reclaim their land or residence face bleak prospects. Formal petitions for the release of frozen assets almost always go unanswered, not least because they must pass through opaque military institutions ungoverned by formal legal strictures. Deprived of institutional avenues for redress, the only workable option runs through a labyrinthine industry of corruption. In the most frequent scenario, security officials (or their affiliates) purchase confiscated property from its original owner at a fraction of its value; use connections and bribes to unfreeze the corresponding deed; and sell it for its true price, benefiting various brokers who facilitate the transactions. For the original owners, it is the only way of recovering any part of their property’s value.
A final mechanism for purging the capital of distrusted constituencies hinges on “security approvals”: official permissions required for everything from buying property to undertaking basic repairs. Anecdotal evidence abounds of the regime withholding approvals as a way of pushing select groups out of the city. In one example, natives of the rebellious suburb of Darayya complained that they were systematically denied rental approvals inside Damascus proper, which in turn forces them farther into the capital’s outskirts—if not out of Syria entirely. Displaced people from Deir Ezzor alleged a similar wave of rejections in 2018, perceiving an attempt to force them back to their ravaged hometown.
Citizens chasing citizens
While the regime assumes a systematic role in uprooting the city, even ordinary Syrians cope with hardship in ways that prevent one another from settling. Indeed, the scale of desperation pushes many of them into bitter competition for Syria’s most valuable commodity: housing. For example, in heavily depopulated areas of the Eastern Ghouta, a mix of security officials, loyalist militiamen, and civilians whose dwellings were destroyed occupy the homes of Syrians who fled—sometimes their former neighbors. As original residents trickle back, squatters may either refuse to leave or else find themselves displaced anew.
Another form of predation involves a sophisticated industry in which Syrians forge deeds for abandoned houses, which they then sell in their own name. Oftentimes buyers are oblivious to the fraud, and think themselves engaged in a legitimate purchase. This system—which encompasses a constellation of security officers, lawyers, civil servants, and customers—is said to produce tens of thousands of scams, which an overwhelmed and increasingly corrupt judiciary is unable to prosecute. Indeed, such fraud has become so widespread that some enterprising crooks are known to sell multiple deeds for a single property that wasn’t theirs in the first place.
Adding yet another layer to this Kafkaesque market is the fact that many legitimate property owners lack adequate documentation—whether because their paperwork was lost in the conflict or because they bought property under opposition authorities deemed illegitimate by the central government. Proving ownership requires signing a new contract with the previous owner, who in many cases is dead or outside the country. If previous owners are still present, they often look to extract more money in exchange for confirming a transaction they already cashed in.
This cycle of extortion has pernicious effects within communities that are increasingly competitive, insecure, and mutually distrustful. Legal battles over property documents sometimes occur within families, pitting desperate relatives against one another as they seek to secure shelter. In the meantime, the system has empowered a cohort of brokers and lawyers who live off desperation. Women looking for homes often complain about harassment; dealers sometimes offer discounts to impoverished women in exchange for sex.
Ordinary Syrians cope in ways that prevent one another from settling
Overcrowding creates more diffuse forms of competition. In a reversal of the out-migration that saw residents move from the center to the periphery in the pre-war decades, people have poured from the suburbs back into comparatively stable neighborhoods in the heart of the capital. Indeed, some Damascenes have been returning to their ancestral homes in Old Damascus, which they had long abandoned for new houses in the suburbs. This repopulation of the city’s historic center has forced families to squeeze into cramped, sometimes unhygienic living quarters.
The resulting density has led to a palpable increase in tensions between relatives and neighbors who share tight spaces in difficult circumstances. Further adding to the crush is the piecemeal repatriation of Syrians from abroad. The largest group comprises expatriates returning from Arab Gulf states, where deteriorating conditions for migrant workers have pushed Syrians to head home. Understandably, some residents hoped for their family members not to return—and may even resent them for doing so.
Meanwhile, the packing together of displaced communities from across the country has given rise to an increasingly heterogeneous and segmented social fabric. Original residents blame lower-class newcomers for all manner of social ills, from weak services to dirty streets. An unspoken social hierarchy has emerged between new entrants: Natives of Damascus proper often view those displaced from neighboring suburbs more charitably than those who came, for example, from the Deir Ezzor countryside. Damascenes are often openly disdainful of the latter, whom they consider backward and unclean.
Life in suspension
Such unrelenting pressures trap the capital’s inhabitants in a state of flux. A city that for centuries received hopeful migrants eager to settle and build a future now feels ephemeral. Most residents are focused on daily survival, often wondering what new misery the next day will bring. Those seeking genuine stability typically set their sights on escaping the country.
This temporality takes various forms. It manifests, for example, in how people deal with their damaged properties: Many aim for a modicum of livability, fixing one room at a time, rather than attempt to restore their homes to what they once were. Residents most often equip their abodes with cheap, low-quality plumbing or houseware—typically imported from China and Iran or bought in the flea markets that sell goods looted from fellow Syrians. Such minimalism reflects not only Syrians’ limited means, but also their expectation that long-term thinking may merely invite more theft and extortion.
Even those who purchase property tend to do so based on immediate calculations. Among Damascus’ expanding underclass, buying a house or apartment is more often a way to escape the city’s cutthroat rental market than an investment in the future. Poor, displaced Syrians who see little hope of returning to their hometowns sometimes borrow money from relatives abroad to acquire small, run-down flats rather than continue renting.
Such temporary adaptations are leaving durable marks on the capital’s urban fabric. Owners respond to the vast demand by reconfiguring properties in response to overcrowding. Some convert large, high-ceilinged flats into multiple smaller ones, which in the past would have been unattractive to Syrian customers. Even some shop owners have converted their properties into small apartments—adapting to the reality that, even as Syria’s productive economy remains in tatters, the real estate business has never fared better.
City of the future
For Damascenes, the fight for survival is also a psychological struggle to come to terms with what our city has become. Core pillars of Damascus’ identity have been eroded beyond recognition, forcing residents—and even those who have fled the city—to cope with yet another factor of dislocation and alienation.
For one, a city whose very name connotes an elegant Levantine culture is increasingly divided between a destitute underclass and vulgar displays of wartime wealth. Luxury restaurants proliferate as the city decays; elites pull up in SUVs with tinted windows, and smugly spend the equivalent of a civil servant’s salary on a single meal. At the other end of the spectrum, a growing range of secondhand stores cater to a majority whose job prospects and purchasing power have been eviscerated. Traditional handicrafts such as woodworking struggle to survive, leaving upstart shops selling low-quality imports to colonize the city’s venerable souks.
Meanwhile, social ills that predate the war—such as decaying public services, crowding, and social stigma against the poor—have increased exponentially. New ones have arisen, too: from drugs, crime, and prostitution to child labour. The city’s underclass is pushed ever farther into improvised settlements on the city’s periphery, amplifying the very urban sprawl that the authorities claim to be combatting.
War has also supercharged a process of environmental degradation in a city whose sense of self is inextricably tied to its history as a verdant oasis. The orchards of the Ghouta—known colloquially as the city’s “lungs”—had already been eaten away by the urbanization of the 20th century. But since 2011, the remaining green spaces have faced a multi-pronged assault: As the regime and Russian forces bombarded the area from the sky, loyalist soldiers and militiamen looted its trees for firewood, before profiteers moved in to build new settlements. Alongside its grim symbolic significance, the Ghouta’s transformation has far-reaching practical implications: from noticeable changes in temperature and air quality to dwindling agricultural output, desertification, and drought—perhaps the greatest threat to Damascus’ future.
Faced with such momentous disruption, many Damascenes cope by retreating into memories of the past. While Facebook pages circulate nostalgic images from the pre-Baath era, a handful of civic initiatives organize visits to historic orchards or other landmarks. Others seek to reclaim the city by studying its history, observing its transformation, and telling its story. Some residents appear to cling to their identity in unconscious ways. Long famed for a strain of local pride so fierce as to border on chauvinism, Damascenes today seem to stress their exceptionalism just a bit more forcefully than before: I notice friends and relatives competing over the most authentic recipes for Damascene cuisine, sometimes speaking in a deeper-than-usual Damascene accent. In so doing, they seem determined to preserve the past as the basis for some better future.
10 February 2020
This essay was written by a Syrian fellow with Synaps.
Illustration credits: author's photographs / licensed by CC.