INTERVIEW: ‘My House in Damascus’ aims to humanize Syria’s tragic situation
William Armstrong - email@example.com
Diana Darke in the courtyard of her house in Damascus' old town.When Syria descended into a bloody vortex in 2011, author Diana Darke was putting the finishing touches to a book describing her experiences after buying and renovating a 17th century courtyard house in Damascus’ old town.
Darke had to repeatedly rewrite “My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution” as Syria was torn apart by conflict. Publication was delayed for years, but the end result is a remarkably sensitive snapshot - humanizing the image of a country long distorted by a savage war.
Darke spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about “My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution” (reviewed in HDN here), the current state of Syria, and the current situation of her house in Damascus.
You’ve been visiting Syria since 1978. What motivated you to take the plunge and buy a property there in the center of Damascus’ old town in 2005?
I’d never imagined in my wildest dreams that it would even be possible. But I was traveling all over the country while researching the Bradt guide to Syria. When exploring the old palaces around Damascus I had a chance encounter with an architect who specialized in restoration of old properties, and it became clear that a foreigner was able to buy a chunk of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I’ve always had an interest in old buildings. I love the feel of stone, the sense of history. When the architect explained that these buildings were falling down and the Syrian government didn’t have enough money to restore them, I just thought this was something that could be my contribution to the cultural heritage of Syria. If I could save one building and bring it back to a stable condition and maintain its original features it would be a dream come true. I never had any motives beyond that really. It was never about money. Many people say, “You must be so disappointed now with your investment!” But it was never about that. The house has repaid me in so many ways. I’ve learnt so much through it; it is really worth its waiting gold to me.
You were finishing a draft of the book when the first protests broke out in 2011. That was rather unfortunate timing.
Yes, but I wanted to write the book anyway. I always thought Syria suffered from a bad image problem in the West even before the revolution. So I felt that my experiences after becoming quite deeply embedded in Syrian society - at a simple level without any high connections at all - gave me a unique insight into the way Syrian society worked. At that time, tourists were starting to come to Syria in quite big numbers. Just before the revolution, Syria was often featured in lists of the “top 10 new places to go.”
I literally submitted the book, which was accepted by a high-level literary agent, and then the revolution broke out. All the publishers said “sorry, we can’t publish a book like this now,” so I had to repeatedly rewrite it. It was a real act of persistence and I was very close to giving up because the book was a constantly moving target. Everything was moving so fast. I still wanted to say all the things I wanted to say in the original book, but I had to incorporate everything else that was going on. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
When were you last back in Syria?
I was last there in December 2014. I had to go back because the house was stolen from me by war profiteers. So I went back last December and managed, against all odds, to get the house back with the help of friends and neighbors. We threw out the profiteers. We had seven changes of lock and soldiers smashing through the door. It was the most exciting two weeks of my life. Now I’ve got a friend and family living in the house again, so it’s secure.
The center of Damascus, especially the old city and the central commercial areas, are completely regime-controlled, so they are relatively safe. It’s probably one of the safest places in the country. All the destruction in Damascus is going on in the suburbs. So there is this very unreal situation. The only danger is the random mortar shells coming in from the rebel-held suburbs that can land anywhere at any time. You’re hearing all this shelling going on off-stage, in a very unreal way. It’s very loud sometimes. You hear it booming away in the distance at night and you just lie there thinking “what’s happening?” That is the kind of life that people there have to live all the time, with hardly any electricity and hardly any running water.
Over the two nights I spent in the house in December last year, I got a taste of what it is actually like for everyone there: Two hours of electricity a day; no bottled gas so you can’t cook anything; no hot water; and very little cold water because the water supply to Damascus is being regularly blockaded by armed groups controlling the source. But all this has become so normal now in Damascus that everybody has adjusted to it.
People get up in the middle of the night if the power happens to come on, to finally take a shower. If this was something that happened suddenly it would be a major shock, but because people have lost all of these normal utilities over a longer period of time, they have kind of adjusted to it. And they are incredibly cheerful about it; that’s the other remarkable thing. People were laughing. I myself haven’t laughed so much as I did during that fortnight in Damascus, despite everything that was going on. It’s a kind of weird coping mechanism.
You describe in the book your struggles with Syrian bureaucracy, having to pay bribes, etc. You obviously saw the country in its most ordinary state, so the contrast with the situation now must be enormous.
Before the war, everybody knew what the regime was about. They knew it was a repressive police state. They knew you could get arrested at any time because of an old emergency law that gave the authorities the right to pick you up and put you in jail with no trial. They knew you could just disappear. But as long as you kept out of politics you were basically left to get on with your life. Of course all that has completely changed now.
What’s so tragic is that there is a “silent majority” in the middle with nowhere to go. In my experience, the vast majority of people do not support al-Assad. But if you raise your voice to express that you’ll be taken off to prison and your family will be persecuted. Actually, while I was there in December my caretaker’s son-in-law and his family were arrested because of their connections with me. My former lawyer - who basically “went bad” - sent a report to the security authorities saying I was a terrorist with links to armed groups. On the strength of that report, my caretaker’s son-in-law, daughter and family, including a five-year-old girl, were arrested and put in prison. That actually happened while we were there. This was part of the intimidation process to try to force people to do what the regime wants.
The system is so corrupt that it’s all about who you know. This corrupt lawyer happens to have quite good connections in one branch of the security services. So he could talk to his mates and say “I want so and so arrested,” and they do it. It took a while for the system to catch up with the situation and finally release the caretaker, but not before he was tortured a bit. His feet were all swollen up and he was subjected to electric shocks. But this sort of thing is regarded as normal.
One of the things I particularly liked about the book was how you present the locals as human beings, not just representatives of Syria’s various religious sects. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Yes. I very much wanted to humanize the conflict. I wanted to give Syria a human face, to show that these are extraordinary people with concerns just like us. I realized that it’s very difficult sitting in Britain, or somewhere far away, to get a sense of what Syrians are actually like. It’s only through personal stories and personal connections that people can come to see it differently. That’s what I’m continuing to try to do in Britain: I’m starting a series of talks in schools to try to make them understand differently. I’m worried that a whole generation is growing up with very distorted ideas about the Middle East and Islam because of the barrage of stuff in the media now with ISIS dominating everything. Someone has to make people understand it differently.
When I lived in Damascus there was no sign of sectarian tension. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about Syria was that people often weren’t even aware of what religion their friends were. It just wasn’t relevant. I remember being very surprised when it turned out that my bank manager was Christian. It was only when she invited me to her home that I saw a crucifix on the wall. When I told my Muslim friends about it, they were also surprised because they hadn’t realized she was Christian either. It simply wasn’t relevant.
You couldn’t necessarily tell, just by looking at somebody, whether they were Muslim or Christian, or Alawite or Kurd. And Syrians were proud of this multicolored dimension of their society. There was no sense of trying to exclude any of the minorities. Quite the reverse, they were proud of all the different elements that made up their society.
I suppose the difficulty of achieving the human perspective is connected to the way Syria’s civil war has morphed into today’s proxy war waged by regional and global powers. Tragically that has obscured the perspective of ordinary people on the ground.
The original revolution has been completely hi-jacked. It’s so tragic that the quarter-of-a-million-plus deaths are mainly the moderate people in the middle. These were the people who were brave enough to stand up at the beginning and demonstrate peacefully for reforms and for dignity. They were shot - just gunned down.
The vast majority of deaths are moderate civilian people. And so far all those deaths have been essentially pointless, they have achieved nothing. We’re now stuck in a much bigger proxy war between America and Russia, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And it’s showing no sign of ending at all.
The only thing that makes me optimistic is what I know from first-hand experience of Syrian people and their resilience, their extraordinary good humor. You see it now with all the interviews going on with the refugees coming to Europe. It’s really striking how they’re laughing and how cheerful and well-behaved they are. They are remarkable. In my experience, most Syrians are like that. So I think that once the fighting does end, Syrians will - if they’re given a chance - do wonders with their country. The problem is that these sectarian narratives are getting deeper and deeper, and there is more and more distrust between the different religious communities. That is incredibly damaging to the fabric of society.
When I went back in December I was expecting to be very depressed by what I found, but the reality of what I saw was actually this extraordinary sense of solidarity between people. No doubt it would be very different if I was in areas where real combat was going on, but I was heartened in Damascus to see how resilient people are. Civil society is still surprisingly strong and Syrians themselves are surprisingly cheerful. That’s the only optimism I can cling to at the moment. I’m also hopeful that now, after the iconic photo of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach, people’s perceptions seem to have been transformed overnight and the crisis has been humanized. I hope that galvanizes the political powers into putting their heads together to find some kind of solution. But at the moment there seems to be a complete absence of political will.
* 15 percent of proceeds of all sales of ‘My House in Damascus’ are donated to a special fund for Syrian Higher Education administered by the Said Foundation.