The concrete housing blocks are a curious mixture of half built and half collapsed; ageing before they were given the chance of youth. Wrinkled faces stare out of windowless frames, resting elbows on weathered sills. Boys bark at me at street level. I am in a suburb of Damascus, clutching an address scrawled on the back of a bus ticket in one hand, and a sparse map in the other.
Due to irretrievable data-loss all photos and videos from a journey to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in Summer 2003 have been erased from my digital memory. These vignettes are an attempt to articulate and safeguard the fading pictures of my biological memory. They will do little justice to the traumatic changes in Syria’s cultural landscape that took place a decade after my visit; it is only my personal consolation that maybe these words will do more good than so many jpgs confined to a hard drive. They are honest in their inaccuracy.
In the place where both of these items would usually display street names I can see only cursive lines with dotted accents. Somehow I manage to find the apartment of the Yemeni student I had met on the bus to Bosra. He greets me with a wide smile and introduces me to his flatmates, six young men from various parts of the region. After pleasantries and tea I make to leave for a hostel back in the city, but it quickly becomes apparent that that won’t be possible. Food is brought out and a bed is made up. I offer little resistance to my peaceful kidnappers. They become my hosts for the duration of my stay in Damascus. By day they take it in turns to escort me to the main sights, by night they share their food and drink with me, whilst I share secrets from the West: media portrayal of the Palestinian situation, perceptions of Saddam, job opportunities for young Arab graduates and so forth. One evening, they invite an ‘uncle’ round for water pipes on the small balcony; a general in the Syrian army. He quizzes me sagely, whilst my new friends translate enthusiastically. He seems satisfied with my performance and I never see him again. Once they let me leave for Lebanon a few days later I never see any of them again. One, the civil engineer I first met on the bus, keeps in touch via e-mail for a few months when I am back in the UK. He asks me if I can find him a job. I even ask the company I am doing my internship for, a well known engineering practice. To my knowledge he never found a job in the west. Now I don’t even remember their names.
The grand Umayyed Mosque is all I can really remember of old Damascus. It was the first time I had been to a large Arabic city, the first time I had experienced that distinctive turned inward patchwork of semi-public courtyards hidden amongst bundled, narrow streets. The area around the mosque was the only place where the old city opened up to breath. On three or four sides pockets of space unfolded out of the dark alleyways and washed up against the monolithic, windowless walls. These were the only public places, outside the cafes, where people lingered. I remember reading somewhere that this repression of public space was intended to limit the development of civil unrest. Possibly apocryphal. The walls of the mosque were enormous. A collage of great blocks of ashlar belied their age; different shades of darkening grey, different stages of decay. Beyond them was a space far greater than any other in the city. The courtyard of the mosque was a vast see, its colonnade a forest of trees that lined the edge, with doorways to giant halls, themselves the size of some small villages, with flying ceilings and bejewelled walls. Domed, marble pavilions were dotted throughout like islands. The floor of the courtyard was breathtaking: a single great arabesque, an oversized mosaic of shining marble paving, cream, grey and black interlocking into ripples of frozen water. Maybe if I could have stared long enough, I would have seen a slow glacial creep as the mosque adapted to the changing city around it. But of course I could only see the movement of the people, barefooted across the sea.
On my last day my kidnappers drove me up a mountain to the north of the city. We sat on a large veranda with views across the plain and smoked shisha as the sun went down. At night, from above, all healthy cities look pretty much the same. Twisting strings of light blur in to a gentle pulse. It’s hard to imagine them going dark. The lights went off in Damascus; the frozen ripples shattered, the glacial creep lurched against the bedrock. Many people aged before being given the chance of youth.