Jewel of Damascus

Jewel of Damascus

During a recent Eid holiday visit to my parents, my dad showed me amber-colored worry beads that he had bought a couple of years ago. 

He came from a religious family but he became a surgeon and now has pretty strongly secular values. Normally, it would be surprising to see him with worry beads. “I bought these in Aleppo,” he told me. “When your mother and I were drinking coffee in a local shop, a man came in with them. I asked him how much and he said ‘5 liras,’ in Turkish.” My dad bought them. He probably felt happy to hear Turkish from a Syrian street vendor right in the heart of Aleppo. Like that city, that coffee shop is most likely in ruins now.

Turkey’s real challenge with its Syrian guests recently took an interesting turn. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly said Syrians should be granted not just asylum but also citizenship. Erdoğan rightfully says that among the refugees suffering in camps and in the dangerous slums of big cities there are doctors, engineers and scientists. That may be “news” to him, but for us journalists who covered the crisis from its early stages, or for mayors of cities near the border like Gaziantep, this is an old story. 

I remember having a phone conversation with the former mayor of Gaziantep, Asim Güzelbey, three years ago. “The deputy mayor of Aleppo just moved in with his family,” Güzelbey said. “He is a city planner and an architect, and he is also a great family friend. I am knocking on every door to get him citizenship so I can employ him here. But all I hear is ‘no.’ The Foreign Ministry is not allowing the best of Syria to stay here.”

So we have lost most of the best-qualified Syrians. They were Turkey’s true friends. They came here with their family inheritance and were ready to buy small companies, good houses, and send their kids to schools. But Ankara failed them. Year after year, they saw their kids falling behind in education and saw their wealth evaporating into shady schemes and state bureaucracy. So they left. 

Let us not underestimate the culture of Syria. The Syrian land was as rich in culture as our land. Its educated young population had started exporting olive oil and red wine to Europe just before the civil war started, much like the Turkish hipsters of Ayvalık and Alaçatı. But Turkey did nothing to harbor them. Now, after hundreds of thousands of lost lives, Erdoğan decides it is time to grant other Syrians citizenship. 

The “East to West” documentary series produced by Bahçesehir University tells the story of the legendary Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. You may still catch it on the TRT Belgesel and Viasat History channels. It was a Christian basilica before being converted into a mosque. In the early years of Islam in Syria, Christians and Muslims prayed side by side in this iconic building. Sadly, it has now become a symbol of the foreign policy disasters of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But it is also still the symbol of Syria’s cosmopolitan future, secular life and unyielding resilience.

Look at Lebanon. After 30 years of fighting, one morning the Lebanese rose up and stopped the bloodshed. Our dear brothers and sisters from Syria, wherever they may choose to live, will prevail over these dark times. The jewel of Damascus will shine again as bright as ever. The tomb of Salahaddin will bear witness.