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Old Damascus Commodified She washed my face, dressed me in a gown she had made by hand and tattered sandals that fell off my feet on the road. So she carried them and carried me part of the way. Before we arrived, she put me down to fasten them on my feet, telling me to keep them on no matter what, as it was improper to walk barefoot. Not only because I was her son, but because we were from the city, and city children were different from country children. —Hanna Mina, Fragments of Memory 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 Old City’s glory to foreigners and other Syrians alike. For instance, Rana Kabbani, 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: 134–135). In a global context with an increasingly high premium on local cultures, Old Damascus is again a status marker. Damascenes and others experience the Old City through a variety of expressive cultural forms and new leisure practices. Selective participation in this reinvented Old Damascus, and the various discourses surrounding it, reflects the many tensions permeating the social field 3 of the city. Damascus, in its various manifestations, is the axis around which insider and outsider lines are drawn and claims to prestige and merit are laid. Heritage operates as a tactic in status wars, as a mode of social distinction. Restaurants Until the early 1990s a middle-class or upper-middle-class Damascene might never have ventured into the Old City of Damascus, a place then associated with peasants and tourists, with the backwardness of the past. Today that same urbanite, whose parents or grandparents abandoned the Old City and all it stood for, spends long leisure hours in this former backwater, in one of several recently opened restaurants. Here we have the transformation of old residential quarters into a leisure center for the new middle classes. The opening of restaurants in Old Damascus 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 urban elite. Just two decades ago, restaurant-going in Damascus, as in much of the Middle East, was largely restricted to foreigners, travelers, and students. Aside from their coffeehouses and street stalls, few Middle Eastern countries have developed elaborate restaurant traditions (Roden 1988: 3). Morocco and Lebanon, both heavily influenced by the French, are notable exceptions. Syrians used to denigrate the quality and cleanliness of their restaurants, and considered working in them among the lowliest of occupations. Dining was a homebound, family -centered activity. In the mid-1980s, there were relatively few restaurants in Damascus, all of them in the New City. These ranged from humble student sandwich shops to upscale French-style establishments with airy patio seating, such as those in Malki’s leafy Restaurant Square. By the early 1990s, restaurants had become central to the experience of past and present, near and far, seeing and being seen, being and becoming. They form part of a new local public culture through which sub-national identities are expressed and negotiated. In the late 1980s, restaurants began to open in the Old City’s largely residential Christian quarter. Set in old merchant houses, these establishments have abandoned the Western or “continental” restaurant model that inspired the last generation of Damascus restaurants. Instead, they aim to provide a restaurant experience 72 A New Old Damascus that is deliberately “Eastern,” and beyond this, distinctively Damascene . One of the oldest and best known of these is Le Piano Bar, described in the introduction. A less self-conscious and more elaborate reconstruction of the past is the Omayyad Palace Restaurant, located in what is said to be the vaulted basement of the long-destroyed Umayyad Palace in the Qaymariyyeh quarter (behind the wood suq, south of the Umayyad Mosque). “Damascus Generosity and Hospitality...


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