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A New Old Damascus

Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria

Christa Salamandra

Publication Year: 2004

"[F]illed with rare encounters with Syria's oldest, most elite families. Critics of anthropology's taste for exoticism and marginality will savor this study of upper-class Damascus, a world that is urbane and cosmopolitan, yet in many ways as remote as the settings in which the best ethnography has traditionally been done.... [Written] with a nuanced appreciation of the cultural forms in question and how Damascenes themselves think, talk about, and create them." -- Andrew Shryock

In contemporary urban Syria, debates about the representation, preservation, and restoration of the Old City of Damascus have become part of status competition and identity construction among the city's elite. In theme restaurants and nightclubs that play on images of Syrian tradition, in television programs, nostalgic literature, and visual art, and in the rhetoric of historic preservation groups, the idea of the Old City has become a commodity for the consumption of tourists and, most important, of new and old segments of the Syrian upper class. In this lively ethnographic study, Christa Salamandra argues that in deploying and debating such representations, Syrians dispute the past and criticize the present.

Indiana Series in Middle East Studies -- Mark Tessler, general editor

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Indiana Series in Middle East Studies

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pp. ix-xi

This book is drawn from research conducted in Damascus for twenty-four months, from 1992 to 1994, with a month-long return visit in February–March 1996. Fieldwork was supported by grants from the Social Science Research Council and the Linacre House Trust, and sponsored by the Syrian Directorate...

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Note on Transliteration

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pp. xi

This book transliterates Arabic words by slightly amending the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies system for formal Arabic. Certain cumbersome diacritical marks are omitted, though the hamza and ain are retained. Slight adjustments have been made for prepositions connected...

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Introduction: A Return to the Old

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pp. 1-24

If you enter the Old City of Damascus at Bab Sharqi (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 wooden door, walk along the tile-covered foyer, under the songbird’s cage, past...

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1. "His Family Had a House in Malki, So We Thought He Was All Right": Socio-Spatial Distinction

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pp. 25-47

“Damascus” and “Old Damascus” mean various things to people differently placed within the social configuration of the city. Their meanings have also changed over time, as the Old City has lost and regained prestige value. Nostalgia for a supposedly more homogeneous urban identity in Old Damascus is linked to transformations in Syrian society over the past three decades. Old Damascene neighborhoods, once abandoned...

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2. "That Color Looks Great on You": Consumption, Display, and Gender

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pp. 48-70

In Damascus, social identities are increasingly negotiated and contested through competitive consumption. Women emerge as central players in contests over position and prestige; what they wear, where they dine, and who they marry may signify, reinforce, and even create class affiliation. The...

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3. Old Damascus Commodified

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pp. 71-93

Ties to an elite Old Damascus, genuine or spurious, have become cultural capital in Bourdieu’s sense—very like women’s adornment —in a context of rapid social transformation and increasing emphasis on public image and display. The Old City itself, until the 1980s a nether-region associated with the backwardness of the past, is now considered a source of rich authenticity for Damascenes at home and abroad, who boast of the...

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4. Ramadan Lived and Consumed

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pp. 94-124

For devout Muslims, Ramadan is a time of self-purification. Fasting (sawm) from dawn to dusk is one of the five pillars of Islam. This applies not only to food and drink, but also to tobacco, non-essential medications, and sexual relations. Those unable to fast must compensate with a donation...

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5. Conservation, Preservation, and Celebration

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pp. 125-152

Damascenes celebrate and commemorate Old Damascus through a variety of expressive cultural forms, commodified and otherwise. As I have demonstrated, links to an old urban elite culture form symbolic capital for those who can claim it. The prestige of connection to the Old City sometimes attracts non-Damascenes with aristocratic pretensions, as members of...

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Conclusion: Weapons of the Not-So-Weak

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pp. 153-157

Old Damascenes find themselves increasingly sidelined by new groups. By local standards the old elite live comfortably, sometimes luxuriously; yet many feel a sense of marginalization after the social and economic transformation of the last several decades. They are relatively successful in a world they no longer dominate, and one they do not much like. As modes of political and economic dominance are no longer available...

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Epilogue: Of Hubble Bubbles and Cell Phones

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pp. 158-164

A decade has passed since I began fieldwork in Damascus, and many of the phenomena I wrote about have since proliferated. Visits to Syria from my new base in Beirut in the years 2002–2004 reveal an intensification of the cleavages and tensions I examined in the early 1990s. Issues of social distinctions have become more salient, but they remain sensitive. So it was with great apprehension that I shared my published work...


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pp. 165-172


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pp. 173-188


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pp. 189-199

E-ISBN-13: 9780253110411
E-ISBN-10: 0253110416
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253344670

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: 21 b&w photos, 1 maps, 1 bibliog., 1 index
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Indiana Series in Middle East Studies