Was buying a house in Syria the brightest decision I ever made

Was buying a house in Syria the brightest decision I have ever made-obviously the answer to that question will not surprise anyone.

I do get quite a few questions on this particular chapter of my life, so without this turning into a guide to buying property in the Syrian Arab Republic I will just mention a little of the circumstances then and now.

It was hands down a bloody ridiculous decision, although in my defense at the time of purchase there wasn’t a war or even a fledgling revolution. In point of fact there was a mini property boom in the Old city of Damascus.

The Old City of Damascus is very old, it’s the oldest city ever, and it was already old when Saint Paul shimmied over the wall to flee the disgruntled Jews, and it is largely those city walls that inspired my purchase. The city walls mark the boundary of its World Heritage status, everything built inside the walls is protected and nothing new is being built.

With its narrow cobbled streets over-hung with vines and tumbling bundles of Jasmine, no poet with his head in the clouds could resist such a romantic image. But image and reality are rarely comfortable bed fellows.

The Old City had been undergoing something of a regeneration, the wonderful old houses with large courtyards, fountains and fruit trees were being bought up by local entrepreneurs and converted into luxury boutique hotels and restaurants, more and more tourists were coming to the previously forgotten city. 

I had already failed in a previous attempt to buy another property, an unassuming building in an alleyway just behind the Omayyad Mosque, so close in fact you could almost touch the northern minaret of Isa, so called because Jesus will descend the minaret to confront the Antichrist, this was one confrontation I didn’t want to miss and from my rooftop terrace I would have a front row seat. Sadly the legal process proved too complicated so I had to search for other confrontations.

I was told not to trust Abu Ali, and I didn’t him, but I did want to buy the house he was selling, my legal team, a serious chap called Abu Mahmoud was meticulous with the required due diligence and legally he didn’t see any problems but he still didn’t think the deal was a good idea, but we did it anyway.

Eventually the process was completed and I withdrew the final installment of cash from the bank, blocks of shrink wrapped notes totaling several million Syrian pounds. Nervously I carried the cash back to the house to meet with Abu Ali and a friend, sitting on the dusty stone steps the money was counted and double checked, Abu Ali was satisfied and stuffed all the notes inside his shirt and handed me the keys.

It wasn’t a palace and pretty much everyone accept Abu Ali thought it a bad idea, it was mongrel of a building, the outer walls were traditional style and as much as four hundred years old but the interior was much more recent with concrete and stone and wooden beams, while for the most part it was in good condition it would take a lot of work to make it livable.

And so, slowly, with the valued service of my builder; Abu Joudi, a chap whose chequered past is marked by scars of active conflict; (I won’t mention which conflict so as not to annoy the government of my current host nation) the house began to take shape.

By the time of the Arab spring in 2011 the house was looking quite nice and people started to agree it wasn’t such a bad idea, there was still quite a lot of work to do but I had been told the value had already doubled.

On February 11th 2011 I sitting with Syrian friends watching the TV with tears in their eyes as the Egyptian president stepped down, millions of Egyptians were cheering and dancing in the streets and in my small sitting room everyone knew things were going to change in Syria too.

Very soon the protests in Syria started, at first peaceful demonstrations calling for political reform but in the face of violent suppression things began to get progressively more violent. And then it was a war. Bloody, relentless and awful.

Inevitable fractures in society split those for and those against the government, daily life would have to go on but now with angst, fear and distrust. Every day I would walk around my neighborhood to try and get as much information as possible and then try to decipher rumor from fact.

The fighting had not yet reached Damascus but was raging in the city of Homs a 150kms away. One morning the conversations all revolved around an incident the previous evening, just a few streets away an argument between two family members outside their house, a neighbor tried to calm them down but one of the men produced a gun and shot the innocent neighbor dead, in front of lots of witnesses there was no disputing the facts, the murderer was Abu Ali, he would later accuse the neighbor of supporting terrorists in Homs before loading weapons into his car and driving off.

Then slowly began a series of firsts, the first gun shots, the first mortar bomb, the first helicopter, the first Mig and the first heavy artillery fire, it was a fast learning curve in the reality of war.

Somehow it wasn’t a difficult decision to stay; I just instinctively felt I should, at least for as long as I could. Working as a photographer was impossible, I had been denied permission to work with NGOs and working covertly in Damascus would be suicidal but by then photography was no longer important to me, I began to feel that images showing dramatic Kalashnikov wielding freedom fighters was futile and told little of the story unfolding and how it was affecting my friends and neighbors.

I had the privilege of choice but my Syrian friends didn’t, long conversations were had on what was the best course of action, some were able to leave through conventional means but many had to be smuggled over the border, some disappeared into police custody and some were killed.

Dark clouds of fear and uncertainty hung in the air as the sounds of war became ever present.  As odd as it sounds, I continued with the work on the house, on a few occasions ham-fisted mortar attacks from opposition forces just east of the old city landed pretty close.

The ancient foundations of the city were shaking with car bombs and artillery barrages, eventually Abu Joudi decided it best to leave; taking his family to what was then a safer part of the country, everyone had a different opinion on which was the safest part, many families moved from city to city and Abu Joudi was eventually forced over the border and into a refugee camp in Iraq. I was often assured by my neighbors that we were in a safe part of town but nowhere was safe, you were just either lucky or not.

My situation became untenable; for several months I had been under investigation by the security services and was banned from travel, when eventually I was cleared I packed a bag and took a car to Beirut.

Despite several massive explosions and random gunfire ricocheting around the rooftop satellite dishes the house is still all in one piece and is being looked after by a family who were displaced from the suburbs, it does need a new coat of paint though.

I was never planning to put down roots in Damascus; it was just a romantic idea of trying to connect with a fascinating city and its eternal history, I am now forever connected to that city but not because of the house, because of the people and relationships that were forged over that time.

The Old city walls are still standing and so is the house, it may not have been the wisest decision I ever made but its not one I regret for one second

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