8. Consuming Damascus
Public Culture and the Construction of Social Identity
If you enter the Old City of Damascus at the Eastern Gate, walk a few yards along A Street Called Straight, and turn down the first narrow alley on your right, you will find, jutting out from among the inward-looking Arab-style houses of this quiet residential quarter, a sign advertising “Le Piano Bar.” Enter through the carved wood door, walk along the tile-covered foyer, under the songbird’s cage, past a display case strung with chunky silver necklaces, and step up a stone platform to the raised dining room. Here well-heeled Syrians sit at closely spaced tables, drinking ‘araq and Black Label whiskey, and eating grilled chicken or spaghetti. Each of the walls around them is decorated in a different style. One features a collection of Dutch porcelain plates set into plaster. On another, strips of colored marble hold a series of mosaic-lined, glass-covered cases displaying wind instruments. Another features two floral wrought iron–gated windows draped in a locally produced striped fabric. Wrought iron musical notes dance on another wall. At the front of the long, arch-divided room is a huge mother-of-pearl–framed mirror. Set into the top of the mirror is a digital billboard across which the Piano Bar’s menu and opening hours float repeatedly. The proprietor sings “My Way” and other Frank Sinatra favorites to a karaoke backup tape. When he finishes, video screens tucked into corners feature Elton John sing-alongs. On some nights a pianist and clarinetist play Russian songs as patrons clank wooden castanets.
Fig. 5. The Piano Bar. Photograph by Christa Salamandra.
Fig. 6. The Piano Bar. Photograph by Christa Salamandra.
Public cultural forms such as the Piano Bar play a part in the construction of social identities in Damascus. In one sense the Piano Bar is merely in the Old City; in another sense, no matter how unlikely, it is of Old Damascus. The localization of transnational cultural forms such as restaurants and television programs involves an imagined idea of the city and its past. Some cultural forms, like television programs, are easily available to all. Others, like the Piano Bar, are accessible to a far more limited set of people. Selective consumption of this commoditized past has become a primary mode of class and social distinction.
Links to and representations of Old Damascus become increasingly significant in a context of rapid and profound social and demographic change. Like many Middle Eastern cities, Damascus has experienced a steady and significant population increase throughout the twentieth century. During the post–World War II, postindependence period the city’s population multiplied fourfold, rising to 1,347,000 in the early 1980s. Unofficial estimates now place the number at three million to four million. To house large numbers of mostly rural migrants, dormitory suburbs were rapidly and cheaply built or expanded and older two-story buildings replaced with high-rise apartment blocks. Some sections of the Old City have been cleared, and those remaining are threatened. Damascenes now find their city transformed, and themselves outnumbered by those distinct from them in social class, regional background, and religious sect.
Consuming the Old City
In Syrian usage the term “Old Damascus” refers to a number of closely related phenomena. Most concretely, it connotes the physical space of the Old City itself, past and present. Parts of Old Damascus have been torn down to make way for concrete high-rises and modern boulevards, but many quarters remain standing, including those inside the Old City walls. Old Damascus also refers to a lifestyle associated with the city as it was—or supposedly was—before the major social, political, and economic transformations that began in the early 1960s. Last, Old Damascus is an imagined idea of the past commodified in the form of restaurants, cafés, books, television programs, advertisements, social events, art and photography exhibits, and boutiques.
Old Damascus now features in state-sponsored art and photography exhibits, lectures, and folklore festivals designed more for Syrians than for foreign tourists. There appears to be a link between the tourist industry and the resurgence of interest in Old Damascus. During the 1980s the Ministry of Tourism’s primary interest shifted from ancient ruins to the more recent past, and the minister of tourism from 1981 to 1988, Nawris al-Daqar, prioritized the preservation and reconstruction of the Old City. Al-Daqar, from an Old Damascene family and proud of this affiliation, encouraged events that celebrate the city. In addition, the majority of Ministry of Tourism employees are said to be of Damascene origin. The minister of culture, Najah al-Attar, who has been in office since the late 1970s, is also from an Old Damascene family. Tourism links the local and the global in unmediated ways, presenting a commoditized and depthless Old Damascus, but those representations most resonant for Old Damascus advocates are found elsewhere, in the mediated forms of expressive culture, such as books.
A primary medium for the promotion of a sense of Damasceneness is a series of memoirs written by Damascenes, mostly from notable families, about social life in the Old Damascus of their youth. The first, Siham Turjuman’s Ya mal al-Sham (O Wealth of Damascus), was published in 1969. Others date from the middle 1980s onward. Part autobiography, part social history, these works represent a type not found in classical Arabic literature. Unlike the traditional biographical and autobiographical form, the tarjama, these books do not merely recount the details and events of an individual’s—usually a religious scholar’s—life and the connections that constitute learned tradition (Eickelman 1991). Rather, they construct fragmentary, imagistic, and highly emotive accounts of the past more broadly. These books of personal reminiscence, whether knowingly or otherwise, evoke shared experience. Most memoir authors are prominent professionals—doctors, lawyers, and journalists—who know each other well and form an amateur literary circle. For instance, the introduction to the third edition of Najat Qassab Hasan’s Hadith Dimashqi (Damascene Talk) includes acknowledgments to and letters of praise from many of the other memoir authors. Old Damascus reminiscences contain vivid, seemingly timeless descriptions of the Damascene-style house, methods of preparing and eating traditional foods, and customs and traditions related to holidays, weddings, births, and funerals. All lament the passing of what is seen as a wholesome, integrated way of life. In O Wealth of Damascus Turjuman recounts lovingly the sounds, smells, and tastes of her youth spent in various quarters of the Old City. Weddings, funerals, trips to the public bath, songs, tales, and proverbs are described in a glow of nostalgic yearning:
When I go back to the old quarters where our ancient house sleeps or to the suqs with their smell of old age, I find that my attachment to things that are old is stronger than to modern ones. I discover that the only pure reality in my soul is the reality of childhood, as if childhood is a being, aware of what goes on around it, clinging to what is most genuine in order to keep it from changing. This reverence for the past reassures me that my knowing, attentive, pure childhood will reject anything false that tomorrow has to offer. (1994, 9)
What distinguishes these recent publications from earlier literary expressions of pride in and love for Damascus, notably Ibn Kannan’s eighteenth-century Yawmiyyat Shamiyya (Levantine Diary) and Muhammad Kurd ‘Ali’s 1944 Dimashq: Madinat al-sihr wa-al-Shi‘r (Damascus: City of Enchantment and Poetry), is precisely this sense of loss. A particularly poignant example is Nadiya Khust’s al-Hijra min al-janna (Exodus from Paradise), a eulogy for an Old City quarter torn in half with the construction of Revolution Street:
In his Dimashq al-asrar (Damascus of Secrets) the Damascene journalist and former People’s Assembly member Nasr al-Din al-Bahra also bemoans this loss of authentic culture, as the concrete high-rises of the New City grow to engulf the Old:
Much of what I feel today is sorrow because my daughter does not know what it is like to wake up in an Arab house, opening her eyes to its decorations. She does not know the joy of looking out from the ornaments of the parapet and jasmine down to the courtyard, and she does not know the alternations of light on the Kabad tree. Generations of lovers of civilization will not know what fell under the rubble in Damascus. (1989, 10)
Your Damascus is becoming two. The first, the authentic, is shrinking and declining. The second, having come into being like a small child, has come to grow like cancer, a blind growth, base and without identity. (1992, 14)
Memoirs, as representations of national memory, are among the cultural forms most readily accessible to the world beyond Syria. They fit neatly into the glowing global interest in other worlds, past worlds, to which Khust alludes. Books recounting life in Old Damascus have begun to attract translators. In 1994 the University of Texas Press published an English translation of Turjuman’s Ya mal al-Sham, under the title Daughter of Damascus. Authors like Turjuman sell well in a burgeoning global market for Third World and women’s literature. Yet within Syria Turjuman is a highly controversial figure; large segments of Syrian society are hostile to what they perceive as the elitism and exclusivity of the experience she recounts. Taken out of context, Ya mal al-Sham loses its political force. Daughter of Damascus is far removed from the complex cultural conflicts within which Ya mal al-Sham was conceived, and which render it richly illustrative of its milieu. Western media market such elite representations of local culture as uncontested authenticity.
Old Damascenes like Turjuman, Khust, and al-Bahra now find themselves a minority in “their” own city. As David Lowenthal notes, minorities often “deploy heritage not to opt out of nation-states but to achieve gains within them” (1996, 81). These authors present Damascus and Damasceneness as a metonym for Syrian national culture. Once this was easier, as the more emotive term for Damascus, Sham, stood for both the city and the Ottoman province of Syria, in the way that Misr signified both Cairo and all of Egypt. As Richard Handler (1985, 207–8) argues, the construction of national identity involves the appropriation of detached cultural objects, which are then made to stand for national culture. In this case, Damascus itself and memories of it have become objects of Syrian nationhood. Turjuman writes, “Damascus is the Syrian people and my people” (1994, 6). Likewise, Khust maintains that the city’s unique architectural style is “not just the attraction of visitors, not just the earth which brings together generations, or the house which wants next to it the rest…rather, it is national memory” (1989, 11). Because the Old City represents generations of civilization, Khust argues, its preservation is “a matter of major cultural and national significance” (1993, 5). Addressing a second-person Syrian reader, she links her concern for Old Damascus to the loss of other authenticities:
The modernity around you leads you to believe the past is a disgrace, and that the historical Old City is an insult to you. Until you distinguish between the white and black thread in life, and the dryness and cement spreads around you. You see others in the world, having left their paradises for illusion and cold; they too gather fragments of memory and broken pieces of their abandoned gardens of the past. Before you, they understood the value of what was demolished, of what they left behind. (1989, 26)
The Old Damascus phenomenon is linked to transformations in Syrian society over the past thirty years. Until the Baath party takeover in the early 1960s, a number of elite “notable” families with long ties to the city dominated social, economic, and political life in Damascus (Hourani 1946, 1968; Khoury 1983, 1987; Hinnebusch 1991). The first blow to this monopoly came with the attempted unification with Egypt (1958–61). With the consolidation of the Baath party government in 1963, political power shifted to a largely non-Damascene and nonurban military elite that became even more powerful after the perceived successes of the 1973 war. Dominating this military elite are members of the ‘Alawi religious sect, Syria’s largest religious minority, considered heretical by the orthodox Sunni of Damascus. The nationalizations of the middle 1960s further undermined the dominance of the notables. Also, those non-Damascenes—often peasants—who made fortunes in the Gulf during the oil boom of the 1970s often returned not to their villages but to Damascus, forming a class of nouveaux riches whose fortunes often exceeded those of the old notable families. The Damascenes were forced to do business with and even obey the newly rich and powerful whom they considered social inferiors.
But which group actually dominates which sphere of life is far from clear. For certain Old Damascus supporters, it is the barbarians from the countryside, who destroyed the older, Damascene-controlled forms of commerce by applying socialist policies, yet have themselves made fortunes by licensing legal trade and controlling smuggling. They argue that the most high-ranking government positions are reserved for ‘Alawis. They see the twenty-eight-year-old Asad regime as having succeeded in obliterating Sunni economic, social, and religious life. “There used to be a lot more ceremonies like this one,” said a Damascene television director, after a Sufi ceremony held in an Old City house on the Night of Power, “but the government did away with them. They try to destroy everything Sunni.” I asked why people have become so interested in Old Damascus recently.
He proceeded to describe what he saw as a conspiracy on the part of the Baath party to destroy the Muslim sections of the Old City, pointing out that the quarters that have been spared are predominantly Christian and Jewish.
Not all the people, only the true Damascenes. Why, because they feel they are in a minority. Damascus is a town invaded by its own countryside. People are here because the social life in the countryside is awful. They run to Damascus to have a better way of life. More, as they think, civilized than in their own lands.…If you go to Beirut, you find New Jersey. Damascus resembles the first face of the Orient in front of Western civilization. You are in a town which turns its back on all aspects of Western civilization. [Then] suddenly events happen which break everything.
Yet for non-Damascenes, it is the “merchant princes of Damascus,” as an ‘Alawi professor put it, who still control commercial enterprise. According to an ‘Alawi writer from Latakia, members of his sect are not automatically preferred for government and other positions:
The most important jobs are for Damascenes and Christians. The high-salary positions in the international hotels go to Christians. Diplomats are mostly Damascene and Christian; the Christians are sent to the West, the Damascenes to Arab countries. Grants to study in the West go to Christians; the head of the office in charge of sending students abroad is a Christian. They say that this regime is ‘Alawi, but I don’t think so. Or, you can say that there is a coalition of ‘Alawis who are benefiting, but not the rest. There are ‘Alawi villages that still don’t have electricity. If you ask a Damascene, he will answer in a way that reflects his prejudices. He will say that they [the ‘Alawis] have come and dominated everything, stolen everything, and so on. But those who came in from other areas live in the suburbs, in illegal, substandard housing, while those in the center are Damascene and Christian.
The university too used to be a Damascene preserve; the ‘Alawi professor remembered a Damascene colleague complaining that all the outsiders had ruined the university. “Do you mean me?” the professor asked. “No, not you, but all the others,” the colleague replied. The professor’s wife asked me, “What do the Damascenes say when you talk to them, do they hate us?” I replied that there was some resentment. The ‘Alawi writer told a similar story:
I asked one [a Damascene], “Why are you so interested in restoring an old city, rather than building a city of the future?” I felt that there was something ideological in his answer. He said that before the many projects that changed the architectural character of Damascus, people lived calmer and more balanced lives. They think that what happened to people in Damascus is that they became dehumanized, lost openness, communication, and trust. Yet Damascenes are very closed, they don’t visit non-Damascenes, they don’t invite non-Damascenes to their houses. You can’t make friendships with the women, and with the men you can only make friendships that are not friendships at the same time. There is something sectarian that motivates those who show interest in Old Damascus. They isolate themselves as a special group from Damascene bourgeois families, and they consider people who come to Damascus invaders who corrupted or changed the majesty of the Old City.
But just what is a Damascene, and more specifically, who are the old elite families? How long a family’s roots in the city must be and how prominent a family must have been to be considered notable are unclear. The concept of notable, bint or ibn ‘ila (literally, daughter or son of a family), is difficult to pin down. Certainly, a series of well-known names are always included in this category, but it is sometimes more loosely applied. Even more problematic is the matter of where the old elite families are now, and what their relationship is to what I call the Old Damascus movement. Many old elites have married into the new moneyed classes. Many others left Syria decades ago with the advent of Baath party rule. Michael Herzfeld (1991, 66) points to a similar situation in Crete, where virtually all of the families who formed the commercial elite of Rethemnos at the turn of the century have since left the town. Those who remain bemoan the loss of “aristocratic values” even though they themselves can rarely claim aristocratic status.
Although the question of who can legitimately claim Old Damascene status seems an obvious one, it is ultimately unhelpful. What is sociologically significant is not so much the validity of status claims but how these claims are used in urban identity contests. Ties to an elite Old Damascus, genuine or spurious, have become cultural capital, in Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) sense, in a context of rapid social transformation and an increasing emphasis on public image and display. The Old City itself, twenty years ago a nether region associated with the backwardness of the past, is now a source of rich authenticity for Damascenes at home and abroad. In a global context that places an increasingly high premium on local cultures, Old Damascus is once again a status marker. Damascenes boast of the Old City’s glory to foreigners and other Syrians alike. For instance, Rana Kabbani, a Damascene author and media figure now living in London, promotes Old Damascus’s wealth of traditional natural beauty products to the readers of British Vogue (1998, 134–35).
Many Old Damascus supporters are not among the city’s wealthiest citizens and do not represent marriages of new money and old status. Many are intellectually oriented middle-class professionals—lawyers, doctors, and journalists—with comfortable but in no way extravagant lifestyles. Their families usually have deep roots in the city; their names are well known and often associated with Damascene exclusivity. Yet they are not always awlad ‘ila, members of old notable families. Many feel no sense of identification with the businessmen—some of whom are of old notable origin—whom they blame for working along with the government to destroy the Old City. For them, Damasceneness is a form of resistance to dominant values that they see as materialistic and superficial. Interestingly, some of the most prominent are former leftists who once believed in the nationalist project, and have since become disillusioned. According to a young translator:
I’ve noticed over the past five years that I have become proud of being Damascene. I see this also with my father, who was one of the founders of the Baath party. The Baathists used to think Syrians were all simply Syrian. Now many of them regret this. Now they feel that they are distinct from all the villagers, but especially from the ‘Alawis. They think: the ‘Alawis may have the money, they may have the power, but we have the tradition.
The prestige of this tradition sometimes attracts non-Damascenes with aristocratic pretensions. Non-Damascene, but nonetheless Sunni, Defense Minister Mustafa Talas is a well-known Old Damascus enthusiast whose publishing house, Dar Talas, has produced one of the most widely read Old Damascene memoirs. At the same time, it may be that wealthy Old Damascenes who have married their fortunes to new money do not need to promote their Old Damascus status. Whatever the reason, the very wealthy tend not to be at the forefront of the movement. Some serious aficionados are disenchanted former leftists, and their switch of political affiliation is often pointed to, by critics of the Old Damascus trend, as evidence of typically Damascene weakness of character. Supporters see heritage as an alternative to materialism.
The interest in Old Damascus is occurring as material wealth is becoming an increasingly important measure of status in Syria. Areas of the city are heavily marked in this way. The most incisive question to a potential bride or groom is no longer “Who is your father?” or “What do you do?” but “Where do you live?” People speak wistfully of a time when education and family background mattered. According to a young writer from Aleppo, “It used to matter, who you were and what you did, but now all that matters is consumption.”
This privileging of economic capital above all else is, ironically, in part a result of the Baath party’s socialist policies. The authority of the old elite families was linked to a combination of political and economic dominance, access to the West in the form of travel, education, and consumer goods, and an urbane, cultivated lifestyle of high education, refined manners, and attention to matters of taste. It was sometimes connected to religious learning. The demise of the old families’ dominance over social, political, and economic life in Damascus marked a shift in the understanding of what is considered elite.
Friends and Interlopers
Many Old City activists belong to an organization called the Society of Friends of Damascus (Jam‘iyat Asdiqa’ Dimashq). Established in 1977 by “people who were very keen to have the city as it should be,” as President Burhan Qassab Hasan—brother of Najat—put it, the organization founded the Museum of the City of Damascus and sponsors lectures and exhibits. Here too the purpose appears to be the promotion of a distinctively Damascene identity. Qassab Hasan estimates that 30 percent of Friends of Damascus’s members are Damascene. “We don’t place restrictions [against non-Damascenes], but we prefer to have Damascenes because they like Damascus more.” Yet in practice membership is restricted; a candidate must be nominated by two current members. Qassab Hasan argues that such regulations exist because “we need people who work, not who have fun.” He boasts of the organization’s preservation efforts: “We stopped the tearing down of houses.…We are doing our best. All the government officials cooperate with us. Many would like to see Damascus as it was before. Whether they like it or not, when we say this or that, they have to agree.”
Yet Friends of Damascus is often associated with lavish dinner parties that used to be held in Old City houses but now tend to take place at posh New City hotels. Much like the Daughters of the American Revolution in the United States, the organization’s primary goal seems to many to be not the preservation and restoration of the Old City but the maintenance and promotion of the old social elite. Ardent Old Damascus activists often express irritation and frustration at the organization’s lack of success in getting laws passed to protect large areas of the Old City. Themselves Friends of Damascus members, they point to a tendency to prefer socializing to activism. “It should be called the Society of Friends rather than the Society of Friends of Damascus,” said one. According to another member, an architectural historian:
And another, an architect, said, “What do they want, these Friends of Damascus members? They want what you could call prestige. They want to form and maintain relations among themselves, and with ministers and other prominent people.” A former member, a professional woman in her mid-thirties, takes this criticism further, “I don’t know why you are interested in Friends of Damascus. It’s becoming more of a matchmaking company than a society. Most of the women there are old maids looking for husbands.”
They do nothing, just waste time delivering lectures. Delivering lectures means nothing; we need to move!…In Ramadan they will break fast at the Cham Palace [Hotel] with a piano. This is ridiculous! They should act in a very different way, they should educate people about Damascus, about conserving and preserving. They should publish articles, they should change their ideas and the way they work, in order to be much better.
Many Syrians of non-Damascene origin living in Damascus see Friends of Damascus as a sinister organization whose bigoted and xenophobic members aim to rid the city of all “outsiders.” According to an ‘Alawi writer originally from the coastal region: “Their idea, which is not directly expressed, is that Damascus was invaded by many migrants who deformed its old or inherited identity. They consider those who have come to Damascus to have corrupted the majesty of the Old City. They would like us to leave.”
Constructing the Local
All the connotations of Old Damascus converge in the current transformation of the Old City into a recreation center. Most old notable families left their Old City houses decades ago, in favor of modern-style apartments in the elite districts of New Damascus. Their children and grandchildren are returning to the Old City now not to live as their ancestors had, or to shop during the day, like the peasants and tourists, but to spend leisure hours in the evening, either at the Piano Bar or at one of several newly opened restaurants. Set in old merchant houses, these establishments abandon the Western restaurant model that had inspired the previous generation of Damascus restaurants. Instead, they aim to provide a restaurant experience that is deliberately “Eastern” and, beyond this, distinctively Damascene. The most elaborate of these is the Omayyad Palace Restaurant, in the vaulted basement of what is believed to be the long-destroyed Umayyad Palace. “Damascus generosity and hospitality invite you to the Omayyad Palace,” reads the restaurant’s glossy brochure, in Arabic and English. The diner is ushered down a carpet-lined staircase into a cavernous room lavishly decorated with numerous carpets, a bubbling fountain, plants hanging from skylights, patterned marble floor, mother-of-pearl–inlaid and brocade-upholstered chairs, low brass tables, locally blown glass, copper urns, and glass cases filled with pottery and old photographs. Waiters in baggy black sharwal, black- and silver-striped shirts made from local cloth, fezzes, and imitation Docksider shoes serve drinks. The floor show begins with a “folklore” troupe, in shiny polyester black-and-green outfits, dancing to taped music. The dancing continues for half an hour, after which guests are asked to help themselves to an almost exclusively “Oriental” buffet. Tea, coffee, and water pipes are offered after the meal, as a “traditional” band, dressed in jalabiyas and fezzes, plays old songs. Whirling dervishes and Sufi music round off the evening.
Fig. 7. Old Damascus: Café al-Nawfara. Photograph by Christa Salamandra.
Commoditized representations of Old Damascus are not limited to the Old City itself. Old Damascus theme restaurants and cafés have sprung up in the wealthier districts of the New City over the past decade. Noteworthy among these are recent additions to the Damascus Sheraton, the city’s most elegant hotel and favorite haunt of the city’s elites. Al-Narabayn, built on the hotel’s back grounds, is an upscale version of al-Nawfara, the popular café behind the Umayyad Mosque in the Old City. This establishment serves families and groups of teenagers coffee and tea and simple foods long associated with the poor, such as ful (fava beans) and fatta (a chickpea, bread, and yogurt dish), all at exorbitant prices. During the summer al-Narabayn moves outdoors, becoming al-Nawafir (a name again reminiscent of the popular Café al-Nawfara). The Meridien Hotel followed suit with Café Tric Trac, a two-tiered patio eatery decorated in mosaics and greenery, popular for water-pipe smoking and backgammon and card playing on summer evenings. Patrons pass away long hours, buffed, coiffed, and glittering in gold, talking and playing backgammon, seeing and being seen. Restaurants are uniquely intense people-watching sites. Unlike other leisure activities, such as cinema or theater, in which participants are afforded passing glimpses of fellow audience members, restaurantgoing provides a prolonged gaze of the other (Finkelstein 1989, 17). Tables are filled with al-mas’ulun—“the responsible,” the powerful and well connected.
Fig. 8. The Omayyad Palace Restaurant. Photograph by Christa Salamandra.
Fig. 9. The Sheraton Hotel: Café al-Nawafir. Photograph by Christa Salamandra.
The Sheraton has also replaced its elegant French restaurant with the “Oriental” Ishbilia (Seville). Here too the atmosphere is consciously “Eastern” right down to the waiters’ long waxed mustaches. On the night I visited, most tables were filled with Syrian men, many entertaining what appeared to be business associates. One table was composed of Syrian media figures. In 1986 the Sheraton invented a local tradition with its weekly Layalina, an outdoor, summertime, “Oriental” food and entertainment extravaganza that replaced the smaller and more expensive events at which French or continental food was served. This new event takes place around the hotel’s swimming pool, which, because of its long, grand staircase designed for bridal processions, is the most sought-after location for summer weddings. Layalina is held on Monday nights because hairdressers in Damascus are closed on this day, thus limiting the likelihood that the Sheraton would lose wedding bookings. In addition to a lavish “open buffet” of local specialties, a server in old-fashioned costume doles out falafel—a street food not habitually eaten in restaurants, let alone one of the Sheraton’s caliber—from a carriage like those once used in the Old City. Another serves sweets like those that used to be sold outside schools. All of these innovations were sound business decisions, according to the assistant food and beverage manager and service manager, Sami Farah. “People are fed up with classical European food,” he explains, “they want mezza, grills, and ‘araq.”
Yet the popularity of Old Damascus theme restaurants should not be seen as a rejection of the non-Damascene, the foreign and the Western. Instead, local culture is taking its place, self-consciously, among global cultures, with Café Tric Trac literally next to the Meridien’s Mexican restaurant and al-Narabayn next to the Sheraton’s pizzeria. Although the contrast between the eclecticism of the Piano Bar and the image of the Old City appears ironic, one of the markers of social differentiation in Syria is the ability to command both cosmopolitan and local idioms.
The increasing prevalence of Old Damascus simulacra also reflects the development of modernity through the growth of new leisure practices. Once an integral part of communal life, leisure activities are now separated from work, privatized, and commodified (Rojek 1995, 191). Restaurants are a case in point. Dining out has become the most popular pastime among the Damascene elite. Just two decades ago restaurantgoing was largely restricted to foreigners, travelers, and students. Damascenes used to denigrate the quality and cleanliness of their eateries. Dining was a home-bound, family-centered activity. Now restaurants are central to the experience of past and present, near and far, seeing and being seen, being and becoming. They are the locus of a new local culture.
Restaurants and other cultural forms relatively new to the Middle East are sites at which tradition is reinvented. Here the concept of “public culture,” as developed by the pioneering journal of the same name, provides a useful framework. Studies of public culture are concerned with the local production and reception of transnational cultural forms, often in urban non-Western contexts. As Carol Breckenridge and Arjun Appadurai note, “Much of the non-Western world has now adopted forms of technological representation, consumption and commodification which are harnessed to the idiosyncrasies of their own traditions, and to the ways in which indigenous elites reconstruct these traditions” (1988, 1). I would add that what is occurring in Damascus is not mere synthesis of local tradition to Western form but the very construction of the local. While identity construction involves consumption of cosmopolitan cultural forms, these are locally produced and locally transformed.
Television is the most easily available of these forms. During the first half of the fasting month of Ramadan in 1993, Syrian television aired a fifteen-episode serial drama entitled Ayyam Shamiyya (Damascene Days), directed by Bassam al-Mallah. This series, said to be inspired by Egypt’s successful Layali al-Hilmiyya (Hilmiyya Nights), was the first to depict social life in Damascus in the late Ottoman period (1910). It is also said to be the first such program without a strong plot, and with politics as a backdrop rather than the central focus. Damascene Days attempted to portray daily life in an unnamed Old City quarter, concentrating on family relations, problems between neighbors, and local administration. Customs and traditions associated with rites of passage were carefully depicted.
Damascene Days was clearly the media event of the year. It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which the series was watched and discussed. Most Damascus homes receive only two television channels: Channel 1, which aired the series, and Channel 2, which broadcasts foreign-language programs. Syria produces many low-budget serial television dramas each year, but showpiece productions are aired during Ramadan.Damascene Days was shown during what might be called Ramadan prime time, one hour after the beginning of iftar, the fast-breaking meal. It is a time when most people relax at home with their families, digesting the first food of the day. Television sets were tuned to the series even in the presence of large numbers of guests. Damascene Days sparked lively debate in the media and in conversation. Syrian Television also aired a two-hour discussion, filmed in an Old Damascene house, with all those involved in the production.
Assessments of the series were generally split along predictable lines: people with Damascene origins themselves were enthusiastic, whereas non-Damascenes’ reactions ranged from mild disinterest to fervent opposition. Most debates centered on the issue of authenticity. Critics argued that the series sanitized and romanticized life in the Old City, glossing over or collapsing social and economic differences. In Damascene Days both merchant and hummos seller have mother-of-pearl–inlaid furniture, and all characters are positively drawn, save the brutal but buffoonish Turkish soldiers. It was even argued that the Turks, who appear only briefly to hunt down a fugitive and to rape the sandwich seller’s daughter, should have been portrayed more harshly. Supporters stressed the authenticity of the dialogue, which was rich in archaic idiom; of the decor, which showcased inlaid furniture and other local products; and of social customs, such as those connected to marriage. As for the supposed neglect of class distinction, fans of the series argued that social differences at this time were in fact less accentuated than they are now.
Old Damascus once again occupied Syrian Television’s post-iftar slot during Ramadan 1994, in ‘Ala’ al-Din Kawkash’s thirty-episode series, Abu Kamil, Part Two. Set in an Old City quarter during the last days of the French Mandate, this unsuccessful sequel to the popular Abu Kamil was heavily criticized in many circles, but particularly among Damascenes. Most thought it drawn out, outlandish, and dull. Unlike Damascene Days, which presented an Old City quarter galvanized against the Turks, Abu Kamil, Part Two depicted Damascenes as traitors who collaborated with the French and fought among themselves. Another series broadcast in a later slot, Najdat Isma‘il Anzur’s Nihayat rajul shuja‘ (The End of a Brave Man), showed the people of Baniyas, a coastal city, struggling together against French forces. Based on a novel by the acclaimed Syrian author Hanna Mina, The End of a Brave Man won high praise in many circles for its tight plot and high production value but also for its depiction of a valiant and noble past, in which everyone was unified.
Many of the older modes of social distinction are fading, having been replaced by mere consumption. Higher education is no longer seen as an important mark of social distinction for the elite, or as a reliable means to upward mobility for the humble. The democratization of Syrian universities has spread meager resources very thin. The majority of students graduate virtually unskilled. At the same time, low tuition fees and less-than-rigorous entrance standards have increased access to higher education, undercutting the prestige once associated with a university degree. The same is becoming true for degrees from Western universities, as the children of the expanding new-money classes are able to attain these with ease. Some upper-middle-class families encourage their sons to eschew university altogether and to go directly into family businesses. The title “duktur” no longer has the same deep resonance.
The trappings of Western elite culture—familiarity with current movements in the performing and visual arts; theater, opera, and moviegoing; museum and gallery visiting, highbrow fiction reading—do not constitute cultural capital in the upper reaches of Damascene society, as they do in Bourdieu’s (1984) France. Foreigners—diplomats and oil company employees—are virtually the only visual arts patrons. Often the more impoverished part of the artistic community itself makes up the audience and readership for local high-cultural production. The same faces can be seen at all highbrow art events: concerts, plays, films, and exhibit openings. Paradoxically, mass media such as television link the most general of audiences to a few producers, whose success elevates them to honorary membership in the social elite.
Wealth is displayed in elite hotels and expensive restaurants and at engagement parties, weddings, funerals, and other rite-of-passage events. Elite consumption practices often privilege representations of Old Damascus, or at least allusions to older forms of social life—Old Damascus theme cafés, old-fashioned horse-drawn wedding carriages, iftars and suhurs (Ramadan meals) in posh restaurants. The most talked about wedding of the 1995 season, staged by Najdat Isma‘il Anzur—director of The End of a Brave Man—featured the bride entering the Sheraton Hotel on camelback. Reconstructions of Old Damascus, as status markers or as metonyms of national culture, have become central to the experience of modernity in Syria. As Daniel Miller (1995a, 4) points out in more general terms, many social groups around the world are now constituted not through traditional value systems but through appropriation or rejection of global forms. Production, consumption, and rejection of Old Damascus simulacra are for Syrians the basic materials of identity construction.
The authentic Old Damascus of Damascene Days represents true mass consumption, available to all, rejected by some. But those who produce authenticity for the masses may themselves frequent exclusive venues like the Piano Bar, where drinks cost $5 each and the decor is an ironic hodgepodge of past and present, local and foreign. Discussions of local appropriations of global cultural forms often gloss over such distinctions. At the level of imagery, however, it is true that the search for the return of Old Damascene authenticity is a journey into the urban, Middle Eastern experience of modernity: from the Old City itself (whose mostly lower-middle-class inhabitants would leave it if they could), to intellectuals and media figures who claim to represent local tradition and complain of apathy and frustration, to exhibits and dinner parties, bookshops and television shows, to that favorite haunt of the Old Damascenes, the Sheraton Hotel; and finally to the ultimate decenteredness of the Piano Bar, which, in the words of a librarian, “has absolutely no identity.”
The one who did the decor has assimilated too many cultures. We have a saying that fits: “From every orchard one flower.” Those dishes on the wall are Dutch, but they are not arranged in a Dutch way. It’s for younger people. You can never place it anywhere. They offer a very limited menu—shish tawuk, which is Turkish, and spaghetti, which is Italian. They have an old piece behind the bar that was part of the Umayyad Palace. Such a combination is unbelievable. And the curtains! I have never seen this fabric, which used to be used for cushions, used for drapes. Yes, it is Damascene, but it is used in a totally different way. Next I’m afraid I’ll find part of my mother’s underwear hanging as a curtain! They are arranging old things in a rather modern art way. We have this desire to live in a modern way, because at least in furniture we can do it. In our thoughts we are often tied to old ideas.
The final paradox is that “old ideas” is itself an image distinctive of modernity, and the pursuit of Old Damascus is a contemporary phenomenon.
Funding for fieldwork in Damascus, 1992–94 and February-March 1996, was provided by a Social Science Research Council International Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and a Linacre House Trust Research Grant.
1. These are the most recently released figures. The results of the 1996 census were not yet available at the time of writing. [BACK]
2. For a discussion of Ibn Kannan and other eighteenth-century literary celebrants of Damascus, see Tamari 1998. [BACK]
3. A reference to a saying (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad regarding the appropriate time to break fast during Ramadan, when it is so dark that a black thread can no longer be distinguished from a white thread, and, more generally, when to say the dawn prayer. [BACK]
4. Laylat al-Qadr, the twenty-seventh of Ramadan, the night the Qur’an descended. [BACK]
5. The ‘Alawi, Syria’s largest minority group, are a religious sect considered heretical by the Sunni Muslims of Damascus. Originating from the villages of coastal Syria, they are strongly associated with the peasantry. [BACK]
6. The Sheraton was eclipsed in 1995 with the opening of the lavish Nobles’ Palace. [BACK]
7. Visiting a hairdresser on the day of a wedding party is crucial for Damascene elite women, as weddings are among the most important occasions for social display. For more on Damascene weddings, see Tapper 1988–89. [BACK]
8. Historically most Middle Eastern cities lack strong restaurant traditions (Hattox 1985, 89). [BACK]
9. For a discussion of Hilmiyya Nights, see Abu-Lughod 1995b. [BACK]
10. This was very true in 1993, but by the end of the following year middle-class households were gaining access to satellite dishes. [BACK]
11. For more on Syrian Ramadan television serials, see Salamandra 1997. [BACK]
12. A university-educated government employee earns $80 to $100 per month. [BACK]