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How One Woman's Luxury Damascus Villa Became a Refugee Camp

The war in Syria seeps into the Old City

In 2005, British travel writer Diana Darke bought an Ottoman-era courtyard house in the Old City of Damascus. One of the only foreigners to own property in the Roman-walled center of Syria’s capital, Darke began to build a life for herself in a mixed Sunni-Shia quarter of the Old City, in a house known as Bait Baroudi—the “House of the Gunpowder Seller.” It was splendid but dilapidated; a three-year restoration made the house look old again, “as if the inhabitants of earlier centuries had just left.”

Then, of course, everything changed. Civil war broke the idyll of the Old City as violence raged outside its walls; Jebel Qassioun, the mountain that overlooks Damascus and a popular picnic spot, became the Assad regime’s launching pad for artillery and chemical weapons on rebel-held suburbs below. The narrative that resulted from Syria’s brutal descent is Darke’s powerful, moving new book, My House in Damascus, a hybrid memoir and travel book that elegantly contrasts a real estate dream with Syria’s ongoing violent reality. Many more have suffered far greater pains in Syria in recent years than Darke, who spent the last 30 years working in the Middle East as a consultant, fluent in Arabic, before buying her house in Damascus. Yet her sensitive, knowing story captures a rare view of Syria and the stakes of the conflict from an up-close observer deeply versed in its culture.

In late February 2005, Darke found herself in the Old City exploring an Ottoman palace just south of the Biblical Straight Street. Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, had just been assassinated in Beirut—Assad was widely suspected of involvement—and Darke was writing the guide to Syria for Brandt, a British travel guide publisher. She met a Syrian architect, Bassim, who was restoring the palace, once the home of a notable Damascene family. They chatted about the Old City’s historic houses, so many of them ramshackle, a few in the process of being salvaged by plucky developers and a government keen to make Damascus the next Marrakesh. “You realize that you can buy property here if you are interested,” Bassim told Darke, unprompted. “The government does not have the money to save all these houses. There are so many of them, neglected, abandoned, falling down, but what can we do? Our budget only allows us to save about 300 maximum. The rest will be lost.”

Before long, Darke was looking at houses, combing through Syria’s property code (“the worst of Ottoman and French law”), and—finally—reveling in a long, smoked-filled meeting with the two surviving brothers of the Baroudi family, in which she hammered out the details of her purchase of Bait Baroudi. For official records, a lawyer scribbled a much smaller number than what she paid on paper: “This is for the tax, so we don’t have to pay the real amount.” To pay for the house, Darke withdrew ten plastic bags full of cash from a Syrian bank. The Baroudi brothers took six hours to count all the money.

By exploring the history and architecture of Bait Baroudi, as well as the background of its neighbors and neighborhood (including a maddening, opaque, and often informal city bureaucracy), Darke details the charms and lives of one of the world’s oldest cities and perhaps the Middle East’s best-preserved urban center. The house is the setting of a unique account of Syria in the six years before the crackdown on peaceful protests led to the current, devastating civil war. She writes about how the Old City’s restoration in the mid- to late-2000s marked a conspicuous boom time in Assad’s Syria—for the regime and those lucky enough to be in its favor. Assad was known to frequent some of the Old City’s best restaurants, set in restored palaces and converted courtyards. The charms of Old Damascus are a kind of calm before the storm. 

But after Syrians started protesting against Bashar al-Assad’s crooked regime in 2011, only to be brutally repressed, her house became a refuge in the ensuing civil war. Dozens of people now live it in: the extended family of Darke’s various Syrian friends, including an Old City shopkeeper, Marwan, and Bait Baroudi’s caretaker, Abu Ashraf, whose home in the Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus was one of the sites of the regime’s chemical attacks last August. Marwan’s family took the upstairs apartment in Bait Baroudi. Meanwhile, “the numbers downstairs,” she writes, “would wax and wane according to the conditions in the Ghouta, ranging between five and thirty.”

As the fighting escalated, Darke’s visa situation became more precarious. She was already flying back and forth between England and Syria as the country unraveled. Arriving back in Damascus “in the full blaze of Syria’s revolution” in April 2012, the day of Kofi Annan’s brief and unsuccessful ceasefire, Darke describes her friends, “a mix of Muslims and Christians from a range of professions, deeply pessimistic about the future. … Politically they are neither activists nor regime supporters. They are the silent majority in the middle.” Abu Ashraf bluntly reiterates the groundlessness of his position. “Everyone is lying,” he tells Darke. “I don’t believe anyone anymore, not Al-Jazeera, not the BBC, and not the Syrian TV. We are stuck in the middle and have no voice.” Darke hasn’t been able to return to Syria since the summer of 2012, after the Syrian embassy in London closed and with it her visa contacts.

For many Syrians, Damascus represents a national ideal, from its rich cultural heritage to its religious and ethnic diversity. That has already been undermined by a sectarian war that threatens to destroy the culture and urban fabric that has long defined a multiethnic society. As another British travel writer, Colin Thubron, wrote of Damascus in the late 1960s, in Mirror to Damascus, “A thousand years ago the Jewish sector was to be found south-east of the Street Called Straight, the Christian to the north-east. And it is the same today.” (Syria’s Jewish community, however, has dwindled to an estimated 100 or so, mostly in Damascus.)

Now, as the Assad regime organizes loyal toughs known as “popular committees” to patrol the Old City, most of the area’s residents hunker down. The refurbished courtyard houses, many of them made into hotels in better days, have filled with refugees from the suburbs. War may reach the Old City; it already has with a few errant mortars. Last summer, Darke met Abu Ashraf, who snuck out of Syria for a day, in Lebanon, in the coastal town on Byblos. Collecting six-months salary in U.S. dollars, he insisted that Damascus won’t suffer the fate of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub in the north, and its preserved Old City, which has borne the brunt of fighting between the regime and rebels since 2011. The Free Syrian Army won’t risk entering the Old City of Damascus and making it a target. “The price is too high,” he said. “They know that we have thousands of civilian refuges sheltering in the houses. If the rebels come in, the regime will bomb us, and thousands will die.”

Darke tells much of her Damascus story through a deep knowledge of Arabic, especially the phrases that carry special weight and meaning for such mundane things as insurance. No one in Syria insures his or her house, she notes, because insurance is a mixed-up issue in Islam. “How can you take out insurance against the will of God?” Instead, things are left to fate, in a way, or qadar wa qada, “God’s decree and judgment.” It is a phrase she repeats throughout the book; each time it seems more consequential. She never built a hammam or Turkish bath under the courtyard of Bait Baroudi, as many recommended she do, though Bassim, the architect, drew up plans. “Today,” she notes, “it would have made a good bomb shelter.”