Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tradition vs. Restaurants in Old Damascus

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tradition vs. Restaurants in Old Damascus

Article excerpt

It used to be that visitors to this ancient Arab city had limited options for fine dining: a buffet at the Sheraton, a French bistro at the Meridian, or a Chinese restaurant in the Cham Palace Hotel. Travelers looking for an authentic Syrian culinary adventure - exploding with cumin, thyme, and garlic - settled for one of thousands of shawarma stands (serving shaved beef and chicken wraps) or else hoped for a dinner invitation from a Syrian family.

That's changed in the past few years, though, as old city Damascus - the part that's been continuously inhabitedfor at least 4,000 years - has been overrun by eateries. Wealthy Syrian businessmen have bought some 40 traditional Arab homes - jewel boxes of friezes and frescos, marble and mosaic - and converted them into restaurants with trendy names such as Oxygen and Neutron.

This has been a boon for tourists, and it has saved some 300- year-old architectural gems from decades of neglect. But critics complain that the noise and traffic these businesses bring are fraying the city's delicate social fabric and upsetting a historic mode of life for those who dwell near the new restaurants.

"You are introducing commerce to a neighborhood where Christian and Muslim [families live] in a very specific, traditional way," the same way their ancestors lived for hundreds of years, says Mouaffak Doughman, manager of the city's Antiquities Department.

It's a lifestyle that emphasizes seclusion, beauty, and family togetherness. In old Damascus, each home, regardless of size, is conceived as a private paradise, says says Ghiath Abdullah, dragoman, or interpreter, to diplomats and expatriates in Syria. He has lived his entire life in the Old City's Christian quarter and gives tours of Damascus's homes.

In an Old City house, the courtyard - or two or three, depending on the owner's wealth - is typically a secret garden of damask roses, citrus trees, jasmine, and gurgling fountains in summer.

Surrounding the courtyard are two floors of living space, the upper level used in the winter months. The lower level includes open reception halls with arabesque and rococo paneling on ceilings and walls.

Privacy and seclusion a way of life

The privacy of occupants is protected by thick cement walls surrounding each home. These twist and turn without windows or the slightest architectural flourish. Doors and entrance corridors are equally spartan. The effect is a labyrinth of poker-faced homes, concealing the grandeur within.

The seclusion inside the walls reinforces the idea of the family as the most important social structure, says Mr. Abdullah. By family he means in-laws, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, all of whom traditionally reside in the same home. Preserving this way of life is the main concern of those who oppose the restaurant trend.

Now, instead of nighttime peace and quiet in its residential areas, the Old City buzzes with tourists and hip Syrians long after the souk shuts down for the night. Pointy, high-heeled boots click along cobbled alleys and disappear behind wooden doors; down long corridors; into new restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs.

Fatima al-Amadi lives across the street from Oxygen, which has a Western menu and bold decor including Modigliani- inspired portraits. Ms. Amadi, who shares an old home with eight family members, says that much of the time, diners stay till three or four in the morning: "It's an annoyance to the neighbors. …

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