Many of the older modes of social distinction are fading, having been replaced by mere consumption.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.