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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Great decisions are the ones that change our lives. I’m always inspired by your stories and photographs, John.
One can only hope there is a day when you can go back and live in that house in peace. When that day comes I’ll come visit the city and we can have a drink! Once again a lovely story and photos John. I do so enjoy your blog posts!
Another inspiring and awesome diary entry. Thank you, John.
A quite extraordinary story John. Thanks for sharing it.
Lovely written, John! Unfortunately, I haven’t been to Syria yet, and just as Anna said, when things get better in the future, you can go back to your house and I would love to come and visit you. Thank you for your generous volunteer help and support to my blog! I wish you much happiness and love!
A wonderful story. Thank you for this glimpse into a life in Damascus 🙏🌹
Oh I so understand this – I took on a 15 year lease on a dilapidated traditional house in a Chinese village during the Covid pandemic while I had no reliable income. You don’t always get to choose which country and which house you fall in love with, and have no influence on war or other geopolitical circumstances that might descend on your chosen home. I decided it would be worth giving in to the lure of rural life in a traditional house even if I could only live there for a short time – and it was! Did a massive renovation as there was no running water or sewage and lived there in peace for a year, before I managed to transfer the lease to a Chinese friend (so it’s still ‘in the family’) and leave the country. The circumstances in Syria are much worse but I hope you’ll get to see your house again one day, and that the people who were part of the process of buying and renovating it are ok.
We visited Damascus in 1996 and I was charmed by the city, so I can quite understand your initial decision to buy there. However I think I would have left as soon as war started, and I’m quite amazed (but pleased) that your house is still standing. I hope one day you can return to a peaceful city and start to enjoy your purchase again.
I am so glad you had the chance to visit. My first time in Syria would have been around the then too.
Leaving would have been the sensible thing but in my head or heart I knew I had to stay.
Wonderful account of your incredible life.
Thank you my friend 🙂
I can well understand why you wanted to buy a house there. How awful it must be to see a country you love fall to bits around you and to know the people you care for have had their lives blown to bits. I hope one day peace will come. It is certainly overdue but these are such angry times everywhere. No one can imagine what another civil war would look like in the US but I feel it coming and the people I worry about most are the many hundreds of thousands who risked their lives to come here, escaping from their own wars and genocide. You make me care about the people in your writing.
I do agree. We seem to be living in strangely uncertain times everywhere. War is not always somewhere else.
Thanks for sharing part of your story, so glad you can still hold on to your connections 💕
Thank you, as always.
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Bad choices give the best stories and strongest memories. At least you’re living a courageous life rather than wasting away in the safety of an American middle class suburb.
The American middle class suburb was a near miss actually 🙂
Hard to leave a place you love, a place you’ve decided on and earned with sweat equity. You are so right about there being no safe places in wartime, random blasts and bullets respecting nothing. And the beauty and allure of dangerous spots, like I saw in Vietnam in 1970-71. The badlands and ancient towns of Baja both scare me and beguile me. No country for old men. Where the whales spout. If I go again it won’t be by plane and bus and taxi like before, at 69 that was a physical ordeal with a fake hip. But I’m glad I went. I think the wonderful seaside promenade called el malecón de La Paz, will soon be submerged, already the high tides and wind swamp it. So I took pics. It will be harder and harder to keep the sea out of the fine hotels and restaurants.
I love this – I hope you can return to Syria your house in Damascus. I had so wanted to visit Syria, but left it too late. The closest I got, was standing on the road to Damascus, near Al Mafraq, in Jordan.
Its a shame you didn’t get the chance to visit, if you enjoyed Jordan you would love Damascus.
Lets hope for a better future for everyone.
I found this story interesting. Thank you for sharing the practical and emotional journey of owning the Syrian house and the flavours of the characters you encountered. Your love for the region and your friends really comes through. I hope that one day you may visit Damascus in peacetime again.
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Thank you Tia
I remember when I first discovered your work years ago – and when I think of you now – I have the vision of you painting your house in Damascus (I see you on a ladder in my mind’s eye) while explosions are getting closer. You are up there on your ladder, and on this particular day, there is a missile attack that changes everything.
I am grateful for you, I am grateful for your writing and photography, and I am grateful you are alive and free. Your ability to simultaneously hold peace, beauty, brutality, and endurance – your witness to humanity – is tender and awe-inspiring. You remind me to have courage and to be kind and to take chances and to notice the world – the detail of gesture and color and form and grace.
I am grateful your house is still standing!
Thank you, John Wreford – through your words and images, you are a friend.
I am rarely short of words but your messages always leave me stumbling.
Since I started scribbling this blog you have always been there and always in my mind, and always making me smile and giving me peace, I am grateful for that more than I am able to express.
The reality of course, is that I was only holding the ladder and not actually doing the painting, you would have done a much better job, for sure.
Thank you Holly Troy x
As I read and write this message, I am listening to Blonde on Blonde-Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Give it a listen
Thank you, John. Oh, it’s been a long while
I am glad you had some time to enjoy your house. I am glad I got to visit Syria before the Arab Spring. I hope both of us can return, some time, but I hate to think what we would find. I am particularly concerned about Aleppo.
Thank you Kathy
I am glad you had the opportunity, I
Thank you Kathy.
I am glad you had the opportunity to visit. I am in no hurry to return but obviously I do wish for a peaceful resolution so those Syrians forced to leave can. Yep, Aleppo had not fared well, sadly.
Thank you. Lets hope 🙂
I certainly think it’s time to turn your rather incredibly well-written and monumentally improbable blog into a book, with glorious heretefore unseen pics of course. Agent, publisher, pitch (“the new Bruce Chatwin!”), book deal, fame and loads more coffee. Wot sayest thou?
Haha thank you, monumentally improbable, I may use that!!!
Appreciate your words my friend, thank you.
Your wife was probably right about the pic, but kudos all the same
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It is wonderful to read you, John! It has been too long. You always tell gripping stories; this one reads like a dramatic movie with the addition of insightful lessons. Take care.
Thank you for waiting and reading.
Your kind words do encourage me and I do appreciate all your support 🙂
You are welcome, John. Thanks for letting me know. Take care.
Thank you Michele
I always appreciate you kind words 🙂
You’re welcome! 🌻
Another wonderful story and photos. I love how you embrace other cultures and places. War is awful anywhere and I work daily to end them all. May peace come and allow you to return to your home and your friends there. Meanwhile I’m glad you are safe and continue to carry on your compassionate work.
Thank you Katelon.
I do appreciate your kind words and support and thank you for all you do 🙂
Thank you Katelon.
We do what we feel we have to do.
Take care 🙂
What a story. Thanks for sharing. Such a journey.
My pleasure Erik, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment
My pleasure Erik
The events that shape our lives and the stories they tell. A combination of the place and the person, all weaved together as one. An intriguing and fascinating account of the past with no clear notion of where the road to the future will lead. Only time will tell.
Thank you Geoff.
Wise words of a man who has traveled, I can tell!
Time will tell.
Absolutely. I am excited to see the next chapter.
Thanks for dropping by and the kind comment 🙂
Thank you Megren, I am glad you enjoyed the read.
Thank you 🙂
This was absolutely riveting. Thank you so much for sharing such a rich and ultimately sad story in such a way that when I was interrupted actually returned to your blog to finish it!
Readers not being what they used to be.
Where are you now John?
Thank you Cecilia, I am so glad I kept your attention and I really appreciate the comment.
These days I am living in Istanbul and still traveling the region, stay tuned 🙂
I am tuned in!
Missing the front row seat was inevitable i guess. As always, beautiful and sincere feelings and thoughts. I naturally connected deeply to many parts of it, both the warm and sadly, the heavy ones. The Jasmine city was lucky to meet you, and will always miss your vision, and your lens.
Thank you Miss Noor
I was the lucky one, but, the light has gone from the Jasmine city.
Thank you, John. Eid Mubarak ✨
I can only imagine how magical it was to have a house in Damascus. Hoping you can visit it in peace, sometime.
John, what a compelling account! Thank you for sharing some of your experiences in Syria.
I was teaching in a Muslim school in Florida as a secular teacher during the Arab Spring. Once a week my fourth-grade students shared their current events reports as we sat in a circle on a rug. There were numerous discussions about the events of the Arab Spring.
We had students from a dozen different countries. One of my students used to tell about visits to her grandparents’ farm in Syria and spending time with their goats. She was very relieved when her grandparents moved to the US as the war began, and was delighted to have her grandparents nearby.
Hey there, John!
I was brought to your blog by a recent like for one of my posts. Your story is truly amazing, God has brought you through much adversity, and it appears to have been a long journey.
I hope everything went well and that you are safe and have resolved the matter there.
Beautifully written, and I went into this with the thought some of my worst decisions (as others would say) often were some of the best decisions I’ve made. You sum up this situation with what I felt when I started reading with a bit of positive envy of you having such an experience: “… 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.” Congratulations, and I say this with a heavy heart as the people of this beautiful city and country deserve better.