restricted access Conclusion: Weapons of the Not-So-Weak
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Conclusion Weapons of the Not-So-Weak 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, elite Damascenes increasingly assert identity through public cultural production and consumption. Commodified forms of Old Damascus itself, in restaurants, bars, and cafés, and its representation in books, art exhibits, social clubs, and television programs, offer politically permitted avenues of social and political critique. Old Damascus and Damasceneness are commodified; paradoxically, they are also expressions of resistance to what many Damascenes see as the shift toward entirely consumption-based criteria for elite status. Consumption of Damascus is a medium through which the consumptive practices of others are criticized, either implicitly or explicitly. Such contestation shapes the social lives of urban Syrians; Old Damascus, like the bodies of women, forms a focal point around which status competitions pivot. Shifting Identities? To my suggestion that the interest in Old Damascus was an expression of a society in which social identities are in flux, Damascene philosopher Sadik al-Azm replied: There is no identity crisis here, certainly not in the sense in which Americans understand it. In Damascus, still, everyone knows exactly who he is, who his father is, who his mother is, his social position, his situation. The merchants know this too, know that they have been merchants and project this into the future. The identity crisis is very marginal. The idea that you must define yourself, find yourself, and make decisions about your life in the way that Americans do doesn’t apply here. On the contrary, what we have here is too much identity! Identities here are solid, strong, and, from my point of view, almost overly ossified. Yet Syrian class and social identities show little evidence of ossification . Or perhaps elites are changing to remain the same, as many of the older modes of social distinction are fading. Higher education is no longer seen as an important mark of social status for the elite, or as a reliable means to upward mobility for the humble. A university degree now weighs less on the marriageability scale. Likewise, the professions of law, medicine, and religious leadership carry less prestige than they once did. The title doktur no longer has the same deep resonance. This devaluing of education is related to the absence of a shared sense of a local high culture. Instead, wealth is displayed in elite hotels , expensive restaurants, and at engagement parties, weddings, funerals, and other rite of passage events. Some of these events involve references to Old Damascus, or at least allusions to older forms of social life—Old Damascus theme cafés, old-fashioned horse-drawn wedding carriages, Ramadan meals iftar and suhur 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 riding into the Sheraton hotel on camelback. The trappings of Western elite culture—familiarity with current movements in the performing and visual arts; theater-, opera-, and cinema-going; museum and gallery visiting, highbrow fiction reading —do not constitute symbolic capital in the upper reaches of Damascene society. Foreigners—diplomats and oil company employees —are virtually the only art 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. Given this situation, there appears to be some justification for the claim, popular among Old Damascus proponents, that the quality of social life, and particularly of elite culture, has deteriorated under the dominance of wealthy peasants who hold money as the measure of all good. Yet this supposed deterioration is at least in part a figment of the nostalgic imagination. Non-Damascenes, for their part, are quick to retort that the Damascenes have always had a mer154 A New Old Damascus cantile mentality, that they have never been great artistic patrons, and that both the artistic community and its audience are largely non-Damascene. Damascenes are rarely found among vocal opposition figures, and Damascenes tend not to prioritize freedom of expression . As a prominent industrialist...