The City of Jasmine and Poetry

As Damascus prepares to launch the events for Arab Cultural Capital 2008, local writers and historians reflect on what this millennial city means to them and how it has influenced their life and work.

Abd al-Nabi Steif, general director of the Syrian Organisation of Books

Photos Manaf Hassan

Abd alnabi steif

“The importance of Damascus as a capital of Arab culture stems from the fact that it is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, at least 10,000 years old. Moreover, Damascus was the centre of the world for at least 100 years during the Omayyad period. Even Andalusia was more or less an extension of the Bilad al-Sham civilisation; Cordoba was the counterpart of Damascus, while Seville was the counterpart of Homs. Therefore, I think it’s a great occasion for all of us who love Damascus to reinstate it as the cultural capital of Arabs, Muslims and even humanity as a whole.

I love Damascus, and I’m proud that I was born here. Though I lived in Oxford for 10 years and had many work opportunities in Europe and the US, Damascus brought me back to my country. I’ve explored every corner of Old Damascus; I could find my way through its small alleys blindfolded.

For the last half century, Damascus has been neglected. We don’t have a reliable public transport system, or enough gardens and leisure areas. We face great problems, like pollution and traffic. It would be good to address these issues in 2008, when Damascus is the Arab Cultural Capital.”

Nadia Khost, Damascene writer and one of the founders of the Committee for the Preservation of Old Damascus

Nadia Khost

“Damascus boasts a long and rich history. It’s the gate to Jerusalem, located in the heart of the Arab world. It’s our responsibility to save its historical identity. Announcing Damascus as the Capital of Arab Culture is a good opportunity to do that.

The most important thing is to announce that the Old City’s urban scheme is permanent. In addition, plaques should be mounted to explain the origin of each historical monument in Damascus. Important shrines, such as those of the Ayyubid women, have today passed into oblivion. These women founded schools in the Middle Ages in what is currently Salhiye Street, and these have been closed and neglected for years. We should restore the schools and open them to the public, which would teach the younger generation about their past. I think young Syrians are detached from their history, and I believe this is culturally, ideologically and politically dangerous.

As for the future of cultural life in Damascus, two approaches are possible: one puts a lot of effort into the project, digging deep for inspiration; the other has a fast food ideology, fast results with little attention to the value of the final product.

Damascus is a very precious city. It’s rooted deep in my heart. It hurts me a lot, however, to see it being polluted and neglected this way. It is so sad that many Damascenes don’t appreciate this great city.”

Kheiri al-Dahabi, Damascene novelist

Kheiri Al Dahabi

“I don’t think that any Arab capital actually deserves the name of Capital of Arab Culture – all of them have potential. Of course, there are culturally distinctive capitals in the Arab world, such as Omayyad Damascus, Abbasid Baghdad, or Moroccan Marrakech. Nevertheless, Damascus is the closest to my heart as I’m a Damascene myself and I know how Damascus formed and was formed by its culture.

Damascus is synonymous to the Omayyad period, to Saladin, to Sultan Nur Ad-Din and to a long line of scientists and intellectuals. The Omayyad mosque, which I consider to be a miniature of Islamic civilisation and a metaphor for religious coexistence, is a symbol of Damascus, this great city that receives and loves everyone and never looks down upon others.

We’re lucky that Damascus has been named Capital of Arab Culture and we, as Syrians, should pay our debt to her by producing culture. Today, Damascus faces many challenges. I live in a neighbourhood that has 350,000 inhabitants – as many as the population of all of Damascus in the early 20th century. In my district, there aren’t any theatres, cultural or social clubs; there aren’t any expressions of a modern society that transforms the inhabitants from individuals into a community. Commercial art is gaining more popularity than profound art. But as the Koran says: ‘The froth vanishes and what benefits people stays.’ We hope so…”

Colette Khoury, Damascene novelist and poet

Colette Khoury

“Damascus is the ever-young city, though it is at the same time considered history’s firstborn daughter. You can feel the continuity of life here; you find women wearing frocks and belly-dancing in the traditional houses of the Old City. Others live in modern apartments, wear mini-skirts and go to discos. This is why it continues to flourish, because Damascus adapts to each generation.

The new generation has a different way of expressing itself. They’ve left books for the sake of TV, computers and the Internet. But I don’t see this as a problem; every generation has its own interests. It’s true that people today are materialistic and that the middle class is vanishing, but these things change with time. I believe that there will be a renaissance.

The name “Damascus” reveals a lot about the city. Legends say that the Romans called this city “Du-misk”, which means “very aromatic”. When I was little, Damascus indeed had a very pleasant scent of jasmine. The word Damascus also means “to build rapidly” in Old Arabic. It is said that our city is called Damascus because it was built soon after Noah’s flood. In Europe, there is a common saying that when someone is lost or in trouble and then finds a way out, they “are converted on the road to Damascus”. This saying stems from St. Paul, who wanted to kill the Christians in Bab Tuma in Damascus. On his way to the city, he had a vision of the resurrected Christ and converted to Christianity.

There are many beautiful cities in the world, but what is special about Damascus is that you discover her beauty gradually. The more you stay in Damascus, the more attached you become to her.”

Nasr ad-Din Bahra, Damascene journalist, writer and radio broadcaster

Nasr ad-Din Bahra

“Damascus is a culturally distinctive city because of its antiquity and its history as the capital of the Omayyad Empire, whose boundaries stretched from China to the Atlantic Ocean. Damascus was the home of Arab culture since pagan times, and throughout the Islamic, Omayyad and Abbasid periods it produced countless intellectuals, especially poets. Moreover, Damascus has peerless antiquities such as the Omayyad Mosque.

However, Damascus underwent huge architectural changes that destroyed many of its historically important houses and alleys. Building suburbs, on the other hand, wiped out great parts of the Ghuta and the green areas. Damascus also underwent large demographic changes during the last half century. Today, more than three million of its inhabitants come from other cities. This has brought about political, social, and cultural changes.

Culturally speaking, this demographic change has however been very constructive. Many poets, novelists and thinkers moved to the capital. This migration made Damascus Syria’s cultural centre.

Damascus actually breathes culture. Growing up in the Old City is what made me an intellectual. You can’t escape culture in such a city where every inch tells something about its history and the history of the millions of people who lived here. For me, Damascus is more beautiful than a lover. She never leaves me, not even in my sleep.”

Mahat Farah al-Khoury, Damascene poet and translator

Mahat Farah al-Khoury

“I was born in Damascus, and I first saw the light of day in one of its old traditional houses. Damascus is my roots, and it is present in all my writings.

Damascus, which is the cradle of the three monotheistic religions, forms a great example of religious coexistence. The neighbourhoods in old Damascus formed a mosaic of Jews, Christians and Muslims living together like a big family. I remember how we shared breakfast with our Muslim neighbours in Ramadan. I’ll never forget the funeral of Dr. Isaac Tawtah, a Jewish family friend; 4,000 people walked in his funeral, most of them Muslims and Christians. I felt as if all Damascus was mourning him. Religion has always been part and parcel of the history of Damascus, its past, its present, and hopefully its future.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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