Damascus is a city full of history and I am proud of it. I am proud of what is new in the city, and proud of what is old. I was asked by the Deputy Minister to take the bearded stranger around the sights after he had finished his work with us. We went on a Saturday, the day after the 14th of the month of Shaaban, Islam’s annual Night of Salvation. The Saturday itself was a national day to commemorate the martyrdom of the national guards who died defending the Parliament against French troops in 1945.
I took him to the Armenian quarter, the Christian quarter, the old Jewish quarter. Damascus has more quarters than you need to make a whole. We drove in a taxi around the old walls, marvellously preserved and including the East Gate, of Roman origin, over which the Christians’ St Paul escaped.
We went down Straight Street, which is called by that name in the Bible itself, though half of it now runs through the suq, the central market. We drove out of town, on the Beirut road, for lunch in a restaurant under a rocky bluff (on top of which the Free French built a fort to defend Damascus) and above a couple of the seven streams which feed the Barada river and have, for centuries, made Damascus the lush and fertile oasis it remains today. The blocks of flats we drove by still use a system of basket haulage, allowing women to shout down their orders to street vendors who load food into a basket which is then pulled up to the flat – and money goes down.
Not everything in Damascus is traditional or old: things change of course. There are modern hotels, there are sirens in the streets, traffic control, electricity cables, corner shops with fridges, waste management: all you need in a modern capital. But I am unashamedly proud of the old: my family moved here to Damascus, with the father of the famous conqueror Saladin, in the twelfth century.