Another Nasty Couple of Weeks Damascus Syria

Another Nasty Couple of Weeks Damascus Syria

4 March 2012
Another nasty couple of weeks have passed, carnage and killing in Homs and beyond, two brave journalists died for trying to tell the truth, they chose to risk their lives believing that showing the world what is happening in Syria would make a difference, they like thousands of Syrians were killed for what they believed in.
Getting to the truth these days despite the digital age is just as difficult as it has always been, I am spending less time watching and reading the news regarding Syria, FB and Twitter equally tiresome, in all cases we have to draw from whom we trust for accuracy but it involves wading through a mountain of shit to do so.
A few nights ago while making my way to Mocha and More in the civilized surroundings of the Four Seasons my musing was interrupted by an explosion, not huge but not fireworks either, as I rounded the corner seconds later I watched the Four Seasons security guards extinguishing a few flames under a parked car, it was nothing, a small car parked on the corner opposite the now closed Taj Mahal restaurant, after the smoke had cleared there was no sign anything had happened, it took an hour until Twitter had the answers, the Four Seasons had been attacked, a sound bomb in Abu Ramanah, Molotov Cocktail thrown at high ranking officer, several people saying in fact there was no explosion, like everything else in Syria I really only base my opinions on what I see and what I hear.
One thing that did stick in my mind was a conversation with a friend who had been at the funeral in Mezzeh that drew such a huge crowd, it was not the tale of snipers shooting at peaceful mourners, not the gangs of Shabiha that flooded into the area to break things up, not the local residents opening their doors to the fleeing protestors, not the bit about bullet dropping out of the side of the stomach of the wounded man while trying to compress the wound, what really struck me was him telling me how much he had shouted and screamed at the regime, going home hoarse, a quiet mild mannered educated young man seizing the opportunity to vent so much built up anger, like so many others around the country.
People are of course still cautious, its amusing to see how suddenly conversation will stop when you happen upon people in the street, eyes glancing from side to side, talk resuming as you pass out of earshot, though not always the case, as I walked past the court building the other morning the area swarming with security as usual, I overheard a man openly cursing the “Shabiha cunts” to his friend as he correctly identified a bus load heading out to the suburbs.
The regime clearly has support but I like many others can feel a palpable change in Damascus.

Damascus Morning Raid

Damascus Morning Raid

It was dawn; I was lost in that moment between the conscious and unconsciousness of sleep, then the sound of heavy boots thumping the cobbled stones in the alley outside, in my confused state I didn’t understand what I could hear, then suddenly the sound of the stock of a gun being repeatedly bashed against a metal door, the fog of sleep banished in a second as I sat stone still, within seconds the shout of “jeish” screamed at the unanswered door, I sprang from my bed and stumbled into my trousers, comically tripping as my heart and mind raced, I through a coat over my camera bag and slid it under my desk, then the same bashing on my door, my heart heaved through my chest, I shouldn’t have been so surprised as the army had been searching houses in the Old City over the previous couple of days, I hadn’t quite realized they were going literally from house to house and had assumed just to those suspected, I opened the door and the soldier just stared at me and said nothing, other soldiers were milling around in the alley while others were going in and out of my neighbor’s houses, yes I said half expecting him to have opened the conversation, “jeish” he shouted at me, oddly I was calm, he was the same height as me and I smiled and said I could see he was the army, I handed him my ID which he had not actually asked for, he looked a little confused and passed it to a superior, they seemed a little amused when they read it expired in 2015, I invited them inside and they questioned me, had I any weapons, now there’s a funny story I thought but decided against mentioning the fact I did in fact have .22 air rifle hidden inside the sofa, I knew it was harmless but didn’t feel in the mood to tell them the very amusing story of the rat and the gun dealer, no I said, no weapons, had I seen anyone with weapons in the area he asked, my eyes glanced at the four Kalashnikov wielding soldiers poking around in my laundry basket and said I hadn’t, they didn’t look very hard and did their best to be polite, the plain-clothed superior handed back my residents card and said I was welcome, it was my house but I didn’t feel very welcome, they all filed out, I closed the door and my heart started to thump again.
Diary from Damascus 14 August 2012

Damascus Diary: Sunday July 29th 2012

Damascus Diary: Sunday July 29th 2012

As a photographer my eyesight is naturally enough the sense I most rely on, these days though since I am denied the opportunity to use my camera it’s my sense of hearing that seems to be working overtime, almost every morning the jarring sounds of conflict wake me from my sleep, yesterday the sounds continued throughout most of the morning, today they seemed to have paused, I sit with my morning coffee waiting for the noise to return, during Ramadan mornings tend to start very slowly, most of my neighbors seem to be still asleep, for a few minutes the only sound is of the sparrows darting about the rooftops.
By midday the peace is shattered this time the noise an explosion the fills the air and shakes the foundations of my house, the outside walls I am told are 400 hundred years old and I wonder if at any time in the past they endured such torment, another bang and I feel my stomach flinch, the sounds are much closer today, how close I can’t really tell, a couple of km’s maybe, what must that noise sound like there I wonder.
It’s a little unusual here to go to bed before midnight, its summer and Ramadan, not to mention the war, midnight is ambitious to say the least, still it’s what I attempted to do, in my mind I knew it wouldn’t work, a phone call maybe or just the neighbors TV, I lay down and drifted off, it was just twenty minutes later the sound of automatic gunfire had me jumping from my bed, this time the shooting was very close, sustained bursts, I heard Hassan and Osama running franticly back home, best friends they often hang out at the entrance to our alley, the shooting and small explosions were reverberating all around, the fighting was clearly in the adjacent alleyways, I dressed and tried to workout in my mind what scenario was being played out, the Old City is not what you would describe as strategic to anyone, the sounds were coming from all directions, very close but also from further away, I had little option but to stay in my house, I wanted to go to the roof and get a better idea but bullets had been zipping in the air above my head, I was pretty sure whatever nightmare was being played outside that I would be safe in my house, I never thought of myself as a typical Englishman but nevertheless I put the kettle on and made tea, I listened to the sound of different weapons being used, not knowing the type just the seriousness each sound makes, was this just another clash, the like of which I had been hearing for months in other parts of the city or was this the beginning of something even worse, as awful as things have been all over the country I knew things could still get worse, the fighting continued through the night, the sounds mostly further away from my house and less sustained, I heard the dawn call to prayer from my local mosque and not long after that I fell asleep.
By morning peace and quiet had resumed, my natural inclination was to go out and see what had happened but part of me was in no rush, when I eventually I did life seemed back as it was, no obvious evidence of the previous night’s gun battles, I spoke with a few friends who had differing versions of events, more rumor and hearsay, the media seemed slow on the uptake but were soon to imply sectarian motives, the two eastern gates of the Old City; Bab Touma and Bab Sharki are easily labeled as government loyalist areas, a simple assumption but only an assumption, the fighting though was not confined to those areas, most of what I could hear was from the Bab al Salam area, ironically meaning The Peace Gate and further to west, the Old City is easy to carve up into sectarian portions but in reality its very mixed, like the rest of Damascus, mixed by sect and mixed in loyalty, there are many making mischief out of this, the majority of Syrians I speak to are more than aware of this and are refusing to fall into the trap, the Syrian people are being tested to the limits, I have great faith in their ability to overcome this appalling time.
Sunday July 29th 2012

Help a Syrian Child

Help a Syrian Child

Every day my Facebook time line is filled with pictures of your beautiful children, their birthday parties, dress-up Halloween, guitar practice and first day at school, happy moments you share with friends and family, I love this insight, the peek into another life often far away.

So I want to share with a photo of a little girl who’s life is not so happy although with her straw blonde hair, blue eyes and knowing smile she could easily be a part of any of your families or friends, but she isn’t, she is unfortunate enough to live in a tent on the side of a freezing windswept hill in Syria, her Mum is not instagraming pictures of her blowing the candles out on her birthday cake she is just too busy trying to stay alive, she is not there by choice, she has fled the horror of war, she would love to go back home but she can’t.
She could though with a little help and kindness benefit from a wonderful educational program organsized by the Karam Foundation called Zeitouna; is it really too much to ask for you to make a small donation or at least share with your friends the link-please?

  • Please click on the image for details


Another Damascus Night

Another Damascus Night

The ancient walls of my house are a foot deep and yet still the noise from outside passes through them as though they were wafer thin, generally it’s a pretty quiet neighborhood, the children are loud and boisterous when they play but it’s hard to be annoyed, they don’t stray far and they don’t sit in front of TVs playing video games, when I was the same age I played in the street and we made our own entertainment often at the expense of others and more often than not the local copper, I have not lived in this hara for that long but already I watched toddlers having their first day at school, cheeky girls starting to wear the Hijab for the first time and becoming a little more coy with it, teenagers leaving school at the first opportunity just as I did and aimlessly hoping for some kind of a job, I know all their names and they know me, when I return home I get high fives from them all, they call out my name when they see me in the Souk, culturally we are poles apart but underneath we are pretty much the same.
Last night I was lost to my dreams when the noise from outside interrupted them, in my muddled state it took me a few seconds to recognize the sound of boots thundering along the alley, images of Monty Python were just starting to form when I heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked, the metallic click clack had me fully awake and on my feet, it was 2.30 am, not for the first time were soldiers going from house to house but this time they were going straight for somebody specific, whatever was going on outside for a few minutes passed me by I as dressed and grabbed my papers, soon they were marching off again with whoever it was they wanted, then the women started to screech and curse, the other neighbors were coming out, everyone was shouting and one women either wife or mother was hysterical saying she had no idea why they had taken him, then the children all began to cry, it occurred to me for the first time that some of my neighbors have babies and until now I had never once heard them cry, compared to what is happening all over the country just now this episode was brief and hardly noteworthy but the utter desperate sadness of this awful crisis crushed me, I thought I could live with the sound of the bombs and bullets but not the screams of a mother and her terrified children.
Syria is a country like any other, her people are like you and me and they are all suffering immeasurably.
(September 2012 Damascus Syria diary update)

Syrians Heart and Soul Exile in Istanbul

Syrians Heart and Soul Exile in Istanbul

Sitting in an café in the Fatih district of Istanbul I file my pictures; a rare story this time of Syrians doing pretty well for themselves in exile, I enjoyed the same Syrian food I ate with my friends in Damascus, now all exiled themselves, Abo Nour was shoveling Ma’anish into the oven as fast as he could, from Shargour in the heart of the Damascus, a true Damascene anyone will tell you comes from the heart of Damascus and he was putting his heart and soul into baking the Ma’aish, the waiters were buzzing around bundling up the take away orders for the queue outside the shop, the café I am now sitting in is a reasonably upmarket patisserie and many of the customers are also Syrian, they made me smile while they stumbled with their Turkish, Syrians making an effort to look after themselves while their country is ripped apart and the world turns its back, while my pictures upload I read a new dispatch from Syria, a tale of gung ho and daring do, the world needs to learn what is happening to Syrians yet we read more and more drivel, I try to stifle my anger, two Syrian women are in fits of giggles as they order sweets from the counter beside me, mixing Arabic and Turkish to their, mine and the patient assistants amusement, I pay the bill and head out into the rain, despite the weather I decide to walk, as I pass a park I notice some huddled figures sheltering from the rain, I go closer and see several children huddled together and guess they are probably Syrian so I go over to them, an old guy stands up as I approach and eyes me with caution, I say hello and he welcomes me, his name is Hassan and he’s from Saida Zeynab in Damascus, his friend is from Aleppo, the kids look on curiously as we chat, he’s been sleeping rough on the streets of Istanbul for a couple of months but thank God everything is fine he tells me, he tells me of a problem he had in Damascus I and I tell him of a similar experience of mine and he shakes my hand furiously in acknowledgment of my understanding, I bid them all a good night and make my way home, the rain has eased and its not, thankfully, very cold, I think again of the article I read earlier and the injustice it does to Hassan and the forgotten people of Syria, I will go back and see him again tomorrow and maybe bring him some Ma’anish from Abu Nour, baked with the heart and soul of Damascus.

Syrian Christians may get pulled into war

Syrian Christians may get pulled into war


A huge statue of the Virgin Mary towers over churches, monasteries and mosques in the Syrian city of Maaloula, where a dialect of the Aramaic language of Jesus is still spoken.

The town has managed to stay out of the Syrian conflict between Sunni Muslim rebels and the regime of dictator Bashar Assad, as have most of Syria’s 2 million Christians.

But worsening violence has forced the community into a corner: Continuous clashes between the rebels and the regime in this isolated town of 2,000 people as well as other Christian towns over the past two weeks have many Christians worried that they will no longer be allowed to stay neutral.

Ibn Arabi Sitting In The Lap Of Mount Qasyun Damascus

Ibn Arabi Sitting In The Lap Of Mount Qasyun Damascus

A garden among the flames
O Marvel,
a garden among the flames!
My heart can take on
any form:
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur’án.
I profess the religion of love;
wherever its caravan turns along the way,
that is the belief,
the faith I keep.

Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi 1165 -1240AD

Revolt in Syria Eye-Witness To The Uprising By Stephen Starr

Revolt in Syria Eye-Witness To The Uprising By Stephen Starr

Syria is once again the focus of the worlds media, a bloody conflict that has raged for two and a half years, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime has been splashed over the front pages of every newspaper from Abu Dhabi to Aberdeen, expert analysis on every channel.
So now we all know Syria, we all know the awful atrocities committed by both side, the evil dictator and bearded Jihadi nutters, neither side gaining much in the way of sympathy.
I don’t see the Syria I lived in for ten years and I hear little understanding of the roots of the crisis.
So perhaps its time to recommend some enlightened reading on the subject.
Stephen Starr is a good friend and has written probably one of the most important books on Syria, he lived and worked in Damascus for the best part of five years and the book reflects his understanding of Syrian society during the beginning of the revolution, not written from a squeaky leather chair in academia but from the streets of Damascus.
Am in good company when I recommend it:

Noam Chomsky: “This searching inquiry is painful reading, but urgent for those who hope to understand what lies behind the shocking events in Syria, what the prospects might be, and what outsiders can and cannot do to mitigate the immense suffering as a country so rich in history and promise careens towards disaster”

Syria expert Patrick Seale: “Stephen Starr’s four year stay in Syria as a sharp-eyed freelance journalist has given him unusual assets an uncommon knowledge of daily life in Damascus”

“Revolt in Syria is a must read for anyone interested in the causes and course of the Syrian uprising. Stephen Starr plums the religious and class divisions of Syria with a keen eye for personal anecdote and broad truths. What is more, he entertains as he instructs; his prose is lively and his conversations are filled with insight and startling revelations” – Joshua Landis.

Fergal Keane, BBC: “Stephen Starr had a unique vantage point as Syria’s revolution unfolded. Written with insight and verve his book is essential reading for anybody interested in Syria”

Robin Yassin-Kassab: “Starr’s analysis is precise and well-informed – he offers useful summaries and contextualisations of Syria’s class cleavages, the fears and hopes of its ethnic and sectarian minorities, and the urban rural divide – but the book’s foremost strengths are its eyewitness reporting and the space given to ordinary Syrians, in all their variety, to speak. This account, therefore, has the texture and the drama of a genuine inside view.”

Stephen Starr now covering the region from Istanbul