Saturday, March 12, 2016

Damascus diaries

It’s four years since Britain, and many other countries, closed their embassies in Damascus, Syria, and withdrew their diplomatic staff, the famous city having become too dangerous to live in or to visit. Before then, though, it had an exotic appeal to Westerners, especially Peter Clark, who fell in love with the place in the 1960s and then returned in the 1990s to run the British Council branch there. His diaries of that time have just been published by the specialist Middle East publisher, Gilgamesh. They paint, Gilgamesh says, ‘a vivid and almost nostalgic picture of life in this remarkable city’. I, too, have visited Damascus, in the mid-1970s, staying just a couple of days as I hitchhiked my way from Europe to Australia. As my own diary entries remind me, I found the Syrians most friendly and hospitable.

Peter Clark was schooled in Loughborough and Southend before studying at Keele, Cambridge and Leicester universities. He joined the British Council in 1967, mostly working abroad, in the Middle East and Africa, remaining with the institution for 30 years or so. In 1992, he was invited to reopen the British Council office in Syria, a country he’d first visited in 1962, and he remained until 1997. He enjoyed good relations with the British diplomatic staff, and, briefly, met successive foreign ministers, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind, on their official visits to Damascus. Among Clark’s cultural successes were a production of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas in Arabic and an exhibition of Freya Stark’s Syria photographs. After retiring from the Council, he returned to Syria occasionally leading lead tour groups.

Clark is fluent in Arabic, and has translated novels, drama, poetry and history by contemporary Arab writers. He has written books on the Islamic scholar Marmaduke Pickthall and the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, and published a collection of writings on the Middle East - Coffeehouse Footnotes - as well as a book on Istanbul. He is a trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a contributing editor of Banipal, and an adviser on cultural tourism to Turkey and Syria. He is married, and lives in Frome Somerset. A little further biographical information is available from Debretts, The International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Gilmour Print Service or a Marmaduke Pickthall fansite.

Throughout most of his adult life, Clark has kept personal diaries, and his time in Damascus was no exception. Perhaps because of the troubles now afflicting Syria and its capital, Gilgamesh - a specialist in Middle East books - has chosen to publish Clark’s diaries of his Damascus years. It says of the book - Damascus Diaries: Life Under the Assads - ‘Here we see the dramas and routines of everyday life played out against the backdrop of the world’s oldest continually inhabited city on the eve of collapse into civil war. Enchanting and alarming by turns, everyday events combine to paint a vivid and almost nostalgic picture of life in this remarkable city.’ Reviews can be read online at The Economist and The Tanjara. Here are several extracts (with thanks to Gilgamesh Publushing).

23 October 1993
‘I am at the office early and at precisely 9.30 we hear the screaming of sirens, and Douglas Hurd, his detective, and the Ambassador arrive, followed by members of his entourage - Richard Culshaw in charge of the press and his Principal Private Secretary, John Sawers, whom I last saw in Yemen in 1980. I take Douglas Hurd round the exhibition of Freya Stark’s photographs, and he talks to some of the staff. He also signs my copy of his novel, The Palace of Enchantments, which was already signed by the co-author, Stephen Lamport, in Abu Dhabi. And that is that. The party disappears and so do we.

Douglas Hurd has called on the President, with Andrew Green. It is the first time Andrew has met him.’

24 October 1993
‘I am in the office very early. The Hurd visit has been seen as a success. A tide is moving in our favour, an enhancement of Syria-British relations. Meanwhile the situation in Algeria gets grimmer by the day. The country is slipping into confusion and foreigners are being kidnapped and assassinated. At this rate the British Council will withdraw and there may be extra funds for Syria. Every cloud has a silver lining.’

20 January 1994
‘In the afternoon we go for a walk, due north, beyond Muhajirin and up the mountain. Jabal Kasiyun has slowly had the city encroaching upon it. We climb up roads that are at a gradient of about 1 in 3. The views over the city get more and more splendid - skyscrapers stand out, tall white buildings, with here and there to the west patches of green, all that is left of the gardens of Damascus. It is invigorating. We descend, passing by an office that is surrounded by dozens of black Mercedes cars and lots of security people. I learn later that this is where the President has his office. It is a shabby building but one can, at least, walk within 20 yards of it, and the residential flats nearby in these leafy suburbs must be desirable.

We are invited to dinner with Dr and Mrs Drubi. He is a prosperous doctor from Homs. She has three daughters, one of whom is studying English at the British Council. Another was Miss Syria in 1986 and is now in Canada. I talk to Zelfa Samman, half-sister of and 20 years younger than the novelist, Ghada, who chooses to live in Paris. Zelfa’s mother is a Shishakli, a niece of the former President, Adib. Her mother’s mother is a sister of Akram Hourani, who is still alive, in exile in Amman, over 80 and frail. Zelfa’s father was President of the University of Damascus and has been briefly Minister of Higher Education. Our host’s brother was Minister of Petroleum. The older ruling official and the contemporary elites merge.’

22 January 1994
‘We walk into the city centre. There are more people around than usual. Men in dark suits persuade shopkeepers to close up and by 1 o’clock all shops have their shutters down. Groups of youths process in hooting cars, carrying pictures of Basil [the President’s son, who died the day before]. Newspapers with large photos are stuck on shop doorways and people pause to peruse. One paper has a long poem by the Minister of Culture. Yesterday people seemed to be too stunned to show any reaction. Today there are demonstrations. A human tragedy is perceived. Everyone can deplore the death of a child before his parent. Basil was writ large across Syria. His father, prematurely aged, must be shattered. I hear there were troop movements all last night, including tanks in the city. The accident, we hear, was on the road to the airport, perhaps late on Thursday night. Basil was perhaps drunk, driving to see a Makhlouf cousin off to Germany.’

23 January 1994
‘I try unsuccessfully to get some guidance from the Embassy. I decide myself to keep the teaching centre closed today. We arrange to put a notice of condolence in the paper and to send a cable to the President. Yesterday there were manifestations of grief: fake orchestrated and genuine. Today there are further demonstrations that border on the contrived. Shops and schools remain closed. I think in years to come Syrians will look on Basil al-Assad as the herald of a golden age that never dawned. His early death will be an alibi for frustration or disappointment.’

8 November 1995
‘At noon I get a summons to go to the Embassy to meet Malcolm Rifkind (or Rifkunt as one of my Syrian colleagues calls him). I bump into a breezy, relaxed Andrew Green who is accompanying him. The Secretary of State is in the loo when I arrive. The top floor of the Embassy is transformed into a mobile office. One man is busy on the phone. Another is scanning faxed press cuttings. A girl is at a typewriter. Coffee pots, teapots and cartons of fruit juice are on a shelf. Malcolm Rifkind comes in, relieved. We stand talking for my allotted five minutes. He fires questions at me and seems well briefed. I tell him that we see our role as subversive, promoting the values of an open and plural society. He laughs encouragingly. He has heard of the success of the opera. (Bully for him!)

I go to the airport to meet Leila Abouzeid, the Moroccan writer. I have been told that she is quite a big woman. I accost all the larger women coming off the plane from Tunis and Algiers and get “old-fashioned looks”. Eventually Leila accosts me. Actually she is quite petite in appearance, looking older than I expected. I take her to the house before the hotel. She is surprised at my interest in contemporary Arabic literature. I tell her I am an endangered species.’

14 December 1996
‘I am translating Sa’dallah’s play and am having difficulties. There is no problem getting the meaning but I am not getting the brio of the Arab text into English. I feel my present version is mechanical. The challenge is the dialogue that has to be spoken. It is different from translating a novel or story that has only to be read. I am now translating something with a production in mind.’


I have my own Damascus diaries, but they are only two entries long! In my youthful travelling days, back in 1974, I hitch-hiked from Europe to Australia, by way of the Middle East, stopping in Damascus for only two days. I was befriended by a young man named Khald, who so generously let me stay in his house, and took me around the city with his friends.

13 July 1974, Damascus
‘After a cold shower, I’m up and out quick. The bus driver tries to rip me off 40L for a ride to Syria, so I hitch - 8km of no mans land signalled by barbed wire. A visa costs me nearly £2 - big rip off. I should have got a transit visa. By 10 I am in Syria. I hitch a ride to Allepo and take a bus to Damascus S£5. There is an English couple on the bus, but I take an immediate dislike to them. We three English are befriended - given cucumbers and nuts and asked our names. One of the passengers, a teacher, speaks English so we talk for a while. Several little girls are always smiling. The journey is long - five hours sitting and standing. At first, all the land is ploughed, but dry-looking with something growing but later it becomes arid and desert-like. I see many soldiers, and tanks shunting backwards and forwards. On the bus, Khald befriends me. We arrive by 6:00. Khald takes me to his flat which he shares with his brother and a friend. In the evening, we stroll slowly around the town, stopping to talk to friends, and always shaking hands when meeting and leaving them. Many boys walk together with arms or hands joined, very strange - everywhere is very lively - a glass of ice with lemon juice - a chapati with egg and mayonnaise and tomato, and another with meat and cucumber. I sleep well on the floor even though I sweat a lot at first.’

14 July 1974, Damascus
‘This morning I walk for a few hours - it’s very, very busy with numerous street sellers, and a lot of smoke. I pass by several long narrow covered streets selling mostly clothing, shoes and fancy goods, handicrafts, copper, wood - rickety overhangs balanced on bent beams provide the shade. Everywhere, there are old buildings, once beautiful, but now falling down, and much building of modern blocks too. I visit the Umayyad Mosque. This is the most beautiful place I have yet seen. As you enter through the arches of a vast courtyard, there are the most fantastic mosaics of bright colours far above, with enchanting pictures of villages. To one side, there is a vast edifice with two beautiful altars of mother of pearl in wood and very detailed wood carving. People come here for cool and rest and prayer. In the middle is the tomb of the Prophet Yehia (John the Baptist) with a velvet cloth covering. So beautiful. For S£1 I go next to the Al Azm Palace, the 18th century home of The Pasha - one of the ruling class, a typical rich man’s house - here too are many lovely things. The rooms are smallish with the most beautiful wood carvings on doors and ceilings - painted so intricately with dour colours and gold in square patterns. The courtyard is very pretty, with many green plants - but this is usual. There’s a folkloric museum here too.

Later, I sit in a cafe drinking real lemon juice and watching a game of chess - everyone plays chess, backgammon or cards - a lot of water-pipes being smoked - iced water is free for all - shoe cleaners takes people’s shoes and clean them while they play or smoke. Khald is very happy because he has money. We all eat chicken brought to the house. They sleep, but I go out to walk a long way up a very steep hill. I turn and see Damascus - a panorama. Hot and weary I return. Khald goes to the cinema with his girl, while I walk in a pleasant garden in a mosque. I play a little chess with someone who claims to be the fifth best player in Syria. Khald is happy; but sad that I am going.’

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