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“His Family Had a House in Malki, So We Thought He Was All Right” Socio-Spatial Distinction Damascus’ beauty is hidden; it doesn’t give you everything from the first moment; its beauty comes to you little by little. —Damascene television director Ghassan Jabri Damascus is like a beautiful girl who desires to be sought. —Damascene author Nadia Khost Damascus is a whore, but a high-class one— she doesn’t give herself except to those who’ll pay a lot. —>Alawi journalist “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 to poor migrants, are now the subject of a heritage industry with the old urban elite at its helm. The winding narrow streets and inward-looking houses that a few decades ago represented vestiges of backwardness have now become the center of contemporary concern. 1 Evocations and reminiscences of Old Damascus often involve references to Old City houses and neighborhoods, and the very different way of life they were once home to. Until the late nineteenth century, most domestic architecture in Damascus was built in the traditional Arab style, with a single entrance and a central courtyard onto which the rooms of the house opened. Grand houses consisted of several courtyards, but rarely more than two stories. Even poorer houses had wells, and sometimes fountains in their courtyard. Trees, bushes, or some form of greenery colored and shaded this central open space. In the early part of the twentieth century, urban notables began to leave their Arab-style, Old City houses for the newly built modern flats of the “garden districts” toward the slopes of Mount Qasiun. Elite families of the period welcomed and actively encouraged urban modernization. Old City activist Siham Tergeman describes this migration: It started with a few families, who built factories—the first private [industrial ] production in Syria. They became very rich, and wanted to live in villas [apartments in detached houses]. So they went to the orchard areas and built villas, one after another, and this is how the neighborhood of Abu Rummaneh came into being. All the rich Damascene families moved there. The families still living in the Old City started to imitate them, so alRawda and al-Jisr al-Abyad were built. In their era the French built a few neighborhoods, like that of the Franciscan [parish], built in the French style, with iron balconies. These houses were what the Damascenes began to want, and they became fashionable for the upper classes (al-akabir), the “high society.” They wanted to move to apartments, because Arab-style houses were tiring, needed a lot of work, with their trees shedding leaves, and stairs the women had to climb up and down. It is difficult to develop a precise profile of Old Damascus’s current inhabitants. While some Damascene families—particularly those in Christian areas—have remained in their Old City houses, most have left. Rural migrants from a variety of regional backgrounds—including Palestinians—have replaced them, living several families to a large merchant house. Most are lower-middle-class artisans and skilled laborers. Many would leave the difficult, crowded condition of the Arab-style house if given the chance, and move to the comfort and convenience of modern apartments, as the elites had decades earlier. Prominent Damascenes have not chosen to join these poorer families by moving back into the Old City. Yet they have come to revalue the Old City’s unique architectural heritage, and now promote it as a great national resource. A city steeped in millennia of 26 A New Old Damascus civilization is the legacy Damascenes embrace as an identity worthy of prominent position in a global arena of cultures. Damascus in History (and Before) Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Just south of the Old City, in the Ghouta orchards, lies an early Neolithic site dating back to 7790–6690 B.C. The first textual mention of the city dates to the eleventh century B.C., when it served as capital to a small Aramaean kingdom (AlSayyad 1991: 29). Known as Damashqa to the ancient Egyptians, it was part of the Assyrian Empire in the eighth...


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