Damascus is located in southwestern Syria, 135 miles north of Jerusalem, and 450 miles
west of Baghdad. It is one of the world’s oldest cities and as carbon dating suggests, it might
have been continuously occupied for as much as the past 11000 years (1). During these millennia, it
underwent significant changes in language and culture and played a seminal role in the Aramean
civilization and the Umayyad dynasty. Damascus was also part of the Ottoman Empire until its
fall in the twentieth century. Since then, it experienced two coups and a twenty-year French
occupation. The political storms and the drastic population increase after the mid-twentieth
century played a major role in shaping it as we know it today.
During my father’s youth, the 50s and the 60s, the city’s population was around half a
million, compared to four million today (2). Back then, the southern and eastern parts of the city
were surrounded by a collection of farms called “Al-Ghouta;” a garland of trees and flowers
around the city’s neck. People visited Al-Ghouta regularly and took shade under its tall trees in
the hot days of the summer, or rode their horses in the laps of nature as the smell of fruits and
flowers filled the air. The primary source of water was Barada River, which passed through
seven regions in the city. The river provided water for everything from drinking to washing the
streets. Nature flourished and Jasmines grew in every part of the city until it was called “the city
The nature of Damascus was the source of inspiration for many poets such as Nizar Qabbani, who said in one of his poems, “jasmines have white nails that pierce through one’s memory.” They were the first thing that came to his mind during his time in Europe. Qabbani’s impression of Damascus would have been very different if he was still alive. I wonder what he would say when he sees most of Al-Ghouta gone and whatever trees left destroyed by the droughts. Rural areas became urban neighborhoods as the city stretched in all possible directions to host an ever increasing population, while devouring the nature around it like a hungry bear. Barada is no longer a river. It is a place where people throw their litter when walking by its bank. It no longer supplied water to seven regions. It no longer had enough water to even maintain its title, ‘a river.’ It is dead with mosquitos hovering over the dirt inside it. The government is sometimes forced to wash it with water from wells to prevent its pungent smell
from oozing outside it. The river which was once a symbol of life and prosperity is now
associated with the smell of dung. What would Qabbani say today?
During the 50s and the 60s, the primary means of transportation were tramways, public
buses similar to the ones here, cabs, and carriages. Most people could not afford owning a car
and the ones who did were recognized in their neighborhoods as individuals who are rich enough
to afford such a luxury.
Carriages are no longer used for transportation and are now a touristic activity available
at historic neighborhoods. All tramways were also removed by the late sixties. The primary
means are now cars, cabs, and public vans. Cabs normally cost between one half and four dollars
and public vans cost between ten and twenty cents depending on the length of the journey. Public
vans are mostly white colored worn-out Suzuki vehicles belonging to the eighties and having a
function similar to public buses here in the U.S. They are normally used by individuals who
cannot afford a car or a cab.
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Until the past decade, most people were unable to buy cars due to the stunningly high
tariffs. And while it is still difficult to own normally affordable cars such as Ford, Volkswagen,
Chevrolet or Honda, cheaper cars such as Tata, Dacia, Lada, Proton, and Cherry have flooded the
city. These cars are essentially an engine, two brakes, two or four seats, a couple of other
mechanical components, and a thin outer layer referred to as a car body. There are no air
conditioners, automatic windows, or anti-lock brake system. The great majority of these cars
have no chance of passing European safety standards. One car accident means the end of the car
and possibly the individual driving it. But since having a car is more convenient than taking
public vans or cabs, many people still choose to buy them.
During the 50s and the 60s, traffic was primarily directed by policemen. The streets were
mostly empty, and traffic congestions were unheard of. Driving was considered an easy task and
accidents were very rare.
To this day, some areas in the city still have policemen directing the traffic. The majority,
however, are controlled by traffic lights. Driving is no longer as easy as it used to be. It is now
one of the most dangerous activities that a person with high-blood pressure can embark on. There
are more than forty thousand cabs in the city that will do anything possible to pick up a customer
gesturing at them. By anything, I literally mean anything. This includes stopping the traffic
behind them, sudden turns with no signals, and whatever else it takes to get that potential
customer inside the cab. There are also diplomatic cars in every neighborhood, racing in the
traffic without paying heed to the traffic lights. The white lines that normally resemble driving
lanes are treated by all drivers just like the black asphalt around them. Many pedestrians cross
the streets without looking to their left or right and until recently, the only traffic laws in
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Damascus were: “don’t run over a pedestrian,” and “don’t cross the red light.” This made it quite
difficult for me to adjust to driving rules here in the U.S.
During the 50s and 60s, Damascus was home to great presidents such as Hashem Al-
Atassi, Dr. Nazem Al-Kudsi, and Shukri Al-Quwatli. They were simple men who lived in normal
neighborhoods instead of palaces, and walked in the streets of Damascus without bodyguards or
protection. Hashem Al-Atassi was also the first President to allow women’s suffrage3.
Today, unlike the 50s and the 60s, Damascus became home to a brutal dictator. A man
who dissolved its judicial system and replaced it with an amalgamation of corrupt judges,
running the capital and the country according to his will. No foreign company can operate in
Damascus without the consent of Rami Makhlouf and his partnership. Rami Makhlouf, who is
the president’s cousin, controls sixty percent of the economy4. He has become the face of
corruption, robbing the country for his cousin Bashar.
Briberies today proliferate every government office in Damascus. It is impossible for one
to finish their paperwork in a reasonable time without bribing someone. If you do not wish to
indulge in such an act, you should be prepared to witness an organization as agile as a sloth. For
instance, suppose your passport expired and you wished to get a new one. You could do so by
waiting in lines all day to complete the required paperwork, then wait a week for it to be ready
for pickup, and then wait in line again to receive your new passport. The other option is giving
one the employees 500 Syrian pounds—about ten bucks—and then waiting in the seating area
outside. Your new passport will be ready in about an hour. You will only be called when it is
time for fingerprints and taking a picture.
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During the 50s and the 60s, bribery was as rare as the Loch Ness monster. A person who
was willing to indulge in bribery was preparing themselves for social suicide and possible
imprisonment. It was difficult to do so such a task without it leaking outside. Life was much less
expensive and it was difficult to imagine why someone would abandon their morals for the sake
During the 50s and the 60s, the University of Damascus was the only university in the
city. The campus was composed of two colleges, the college of law and the college of medicine.
No other degrees were offered at the time and people were forced to leave to Aleppo in the
northern part of the country, or study in other countries such as Lebanon or Egypt if they desired
other degrees. Anyone with a bachelor’s degree was certain to find a job and secure a high status
in the society. In fact, an elementary school certificate was highly looked upon and was
personally signed by the minister of education. A large percentage of the population at the time
Today neither elementary school certificates nor high school diplomas are signed by the
minister of education; the latter is merely signed by an assistant in the ministry. Most people in
Damascus have a high school degree and many of them have furthered their education by a
earning a bachelors. The University of Damascus now offers over a hundred different majors and
is no longer the only university in the city; there are more four private colleges in the process of
attaining ABET approval. It is no longer easy to find a job in Damascus with bachelors, masters,
or even a PhD, but the new generation is more learned and capable than any generation before.
As George Carver said, “education is the way to unlock the golden doors of freedom. 5” Perhaps
this is the generation that will mark the beginning of a new era for Damascus.
1- Burns 2005, p. 2.
2- Brauch, Hans Günter. Security and Environment in the Mediterranean : Conceptualising
Security and Environmental Conflicts. New York: Springer, 2003. Print.
3- Jeffrey Sosland, Cooperating Rivals: The Riparian Politics of the Jordan River Basin,
SUNY Press, 2007 p.32
4- Peel, Michael (April 27, 2011). “Assad’s Family Picked up by the West’s
Radar”. Financial Times. Retrieved 6 May 2011.
5- “George Washington Carver Quotes.” Find the Famous Quotes You Need,
ThinkExist.com Quotations. Web. 22 Aug. 2011.