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.”