Published by Beloved Syria with the permission of the author.
Lady Damascus was first published in SYRIA through writers’ eyes, edited by Marius Kociejowski (Eland Publishing Ltd, 2010).
Brigid Keenan is a journalist and author. Her book Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City (Thames & Hudson, 2000) and the photographer Tim Beddow who helped her produce it are mentioned in Lady Damascus. See this link for a recent video of Brigid Keenan reading Lady of Damascus.
(The images and video featured on this Beloved Syria post were taken in Damascus, between 2004 – 2019, by Susan Dirgham.)
By Brigid Keenan
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I fell in love with Damascus – it was the first time I went inside one of the great courtyard houses of the Old City. It was a palace called Beit Mujallid: I was quite unprepared for what I was going to see, and overwhelmed by its glittering beauty. Then, when I realised what a poor state the building was in, I was filled with concern and I rushed back to try and persuade my husband that we should sell our home in England and rescue a Damascene palace instead. Luckily, our marriage was preserved when someone else stepped in to save Beit Mujallid – this was Nora Jumblatt, the Damascene wife of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who bought it and restored it exquisitely. So there was a happy ending for the palace, but my newfound passion for the Old City was still unfulfilled: I had no place there, I was an outsider – I felt a bit like a frustrated lover, only able to visit the object of my desire in daytime, never staying the night.
How can you fall in love with a whole city because of one house, you might wonder? The simple answer is because it opened my eyes. Until I was taken to see it I was simply a foreign tourist shopping in Straight Street or in the spice souk, not suspecting that behind the facades of the houses surrounding me lay so much beauty and hidden treasure. Being shown Beit Mujallid was like being let into a wonderful secret. I spent the next months desperately searching for a house in the Old City cheap enough for me to buy, so that I could belong to this fascinating place, and become a real part of it.
Then the strangest thing happened, the sort of uncanny miraculous event which seems to happen in Damascus: a relative whom I had never met, an architect it turned out, died and left me just enough money to buy a little house that I found in the Muslim area behind the great mosque. I bought it and restored it over the next couple of years, and I lived there with my husband for the short time we had left in Syria, between the house being finished and our posting to that country coming to an end.
I was not the first Western woman to fall in love with Damascus. It is said (I don’t know by whom, but it is quoted in Marie Fadel’s charming little book, Damascus, Taste of a City) that ‘when a man has lived for seven years in Damascus, Damascus lives in him.’ In fact, I didn’t notice this happening to the men around me in Syria so much, but the city certainly had a magnetic attraction for the other foreign women I knew there – as it has to many women in the past.
when people asked her if she had liked Damascus, her response was: ‘Like it! My eyes fill and my heart throbs even at the question…’
Isabel Burton, wife of Richard, the famous writer and explorer who was the British Consul in Syria in 1869, lived there for much less long but fell under its spell. Mrs Burton should have been in Damascus for many more years, but her husband was abruptly recalled to London because he had upset too many powerful factions in the city (including the British missionaries). Isabel wrote that the afternoon before she heard the news that they were obliged to leave was her ‘last happy day’. And long afterwards when people asked her if she had liked Damascus, her response was: ‘Like it! My eyes fill and my heart throbs even at the question…’ Like me, Mrs Burton couldn’t exactly explain her passion for the city. When friends asked her why she had become so fond of it, she had to reply that she didn’t know. They would go through lists of possible reasons: The climate? The luxuries? The house she lived in? The society? The power which her husband’s position gave her? In the end she would simply say ‘I can’t tell you – if you had lived there you would know…’ Indeed.
Seventy-odd years later, the archaeologist Freya Stark found herself equally enchanted by Damascus and just as lost for the reason why. ‘In spite of dust, noise, tawdriness, ugliness of detail, there is a magic, not to be understood in a day or even two!… I am in love with the enchanted city… there seems to be something peculiarly luminous in the air of Damascus – as if the atmosphere were thinner than elsewhere and the light could shine through more easily.’
By far the best known of Damascus’s western female admirers was Jane Digby, the English aristocrat and beauty, who went there in 1853, fell in love with an Arab Sheikh twenty years younger than herself, and never left. (She is buried in the Protestant cemetery there.) Of course, in her case it is hard to separate her love for the Sheikh and her love for the city, but she lavished attention on the two houses she built there which were greatly admired by Western visitors. The Prince of Wales, who called on her in 1862, wrote that her rooms were ‘charmingly arranged’ and that her garden was full of roses. Jane Digby became a great friend of Richard and Isabel Burton during their brief posting to Damascus and she later wrote nostalgically about the evenings they spent on the roof of the Burtons’ residence on the edge of Damascus – together with another exile, ‘Abd al-Qadir, the Algerian leader whose own country had been conquered by the French. ‘It was all wild, romantic and solemn: and sometimes we would pause in our conversation to listen to the sounds around us: the last call to prayer on the minaret-top, the soughing of wind through the mountain gorges and the noise of the water-wheel in the neighbouring orchards.’
… somehow I have always felt at home in Damascus
Jane Digby’s biographer, Mary S Lovell, went to Damascus in 1992 to research her book, A Scandalous Life, and, like her subject, found herself instantly smitten; she has been back many times since. ‘It exerted a very powerful pull on me right from the first … somehow I have always felt at home in Damascus. Initially, I suppose, I noted only the lift of spirit caused by the dry desert air and the radiant light so peculiar to this enchanting and enchanted place … then there was the tug of history; of Jane Digby’s history in particular, but a much wider history … here is the home of Ananias who took in the blinded St Paul … here is the tomb of Saladin, the arch-foe of Richard the Lionheart …’
Only one woman seems to have remained impervious to the charm of Damascus – Lady Hester Stanhope, another British aristocrat, who visited in 1812. After a bad start in a house in the Christian area, where she refused to stay ‘surrounded by Greeks and Armenians’ because she wanted to experience the real Orient, the Governor of Damascus allocated her a magnificent mansion in the Muslim quarter were she held court for a while, but then moved on to Palmyra where, later, the locals crowned her queen. Perhaps Lady Hester had too big an ego to be happy in Damascus. Mark Twain wrote that this city ‘measures time not by days, months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin’, and it seems to me that such a place does not have much patience with people who show off or give themselves airs. To be accepted there, you must surrender to Damascus and live on her terms, rather than trying to impose your own.
I don’t know who worked out that Damascus’s horoscope sign is Leo, but I am sure they are wrong. It must be Scorpio. Damascus is an extraordinarily sensual – you could even say sexual – city, and that, I have come to the conclusion, is the reason why we western women are so drawn to it. Of course this has something to do with Syrian men who are attractive, and seem to like women – not just young and pretty ones, but all sorts – and who are courteous and flatter them in a way that no one does anywhere else, but it is much more than that. This is a city that delights in the difference between the sexes, where there is a gentle game going on between men and women – a kind of flirtatious conspiracy. There is nothing overt or unpleasant, nothing that hassles or frightens – it is a question of an exchange of glances as you buy your vegetables in the market, a second of eye contact in a restaurant, a light hand that hardly brushes a shoulder or elbow to guide you across the street. It’s innocent and even humorous, but it gives the atmosphere a sexual charge, a frisson of excitement. And there is no denying that it is very pleasant to be in a place where you are made to feel good.
Damascus is a city where women walk with a jauntier step – but it is also a city all about women, and full of women.
Damascus is a city where women walk with a jauntier step – but it is also a city all about women, and full of women. Its icons and saints are women; Mohammed’s granddaughter Zainab, and Ruqayya, his great-granddaughter, are buried in Damascus and every year up to two hundred thousand Iranian pilgrims, most of them women, come to pray at their shrines. The streets teem with them in their flapping black chadors, brushing shoulders with other women out shopping in mini skirts, Mother Theresa nuns going about their good works, women up from the Haroun with tired tattooed faces, young women with big hair, women whose hair is covered by the modest Muslim scarf or hijab. Down in the Christian area is a young woman Myrna, who has had visions of the Virgin Mary and whose house is crowded with yet more women pilgrims, some from as far away as Australia. And in the secular world, it is not surprising to me that the owner and creator of the first tourist hotel in Old Damascus is a woman. Only a woman who loves the city would have been able to overcome as many man-made obstacles as Maya Mamarbachi has done, to fulfil her dream.
I lived in Damascus for nearly six years and it was there that I learned how Arab women enjoy each other’s company. Really enjoy it, I mean, and not just while they are waiting for the men to arrive – for at the women’s parties thrown to celebrate weddings and other joyful family occasions (occasionally in a hammam or bath house where everyone ends up wrapped in towels and smoking hubble-bubble pipes) the men will never arrive. They are not invited. The women are happy together, eating, gossiping, singing karaoke, dancing sexily with and for each other, and generally letting their hair down, like girls on some sort of unlikely non-alcoholic hen night. There is camaraderie and fun and bonding among these women that I have never come across outside the Arab world. And here is another women’s secret – in the souk in Damascus you can buy the most erotic underwear I have ever seen. Slowly it occurs to you that the veiled, nun-like women who pass you in the street, so modestly clothed, are the customers for the open-nipple bras and crotchless, musical knickers and such. (I bought a couple of pairs of the musical knickers to put in my daughters’ stockings one Christmas as a joke. The man who sold them to me called me back as I walked away with my tiny parcel. ‘What is it?’ I asked, ‘Extra batteries for you’, he said, pressing them into my hand and looking into my eyes with a huge smile.)
To my mind, Damascus itself is female.
To my mind, Damascus itself is female. The Old City is perfumed with the aroma of spices and fresh-ground coffee from the souk, and its architecture is curvy and sensuous. In Aleppo – a masculine city – the houses are built in cut stone, but in Damascus they are in stone only on the ground floor; the rest of the house is made of mud-brick coated with mud ‘plaster’ which has been smoothed onto the building with human hands; all is rounded and tactile. It is a cliche to talk about he Damascus house being like a veiled woman who reveals nothing of herself on the outside and keeps all her beauty for those privileged to be close to her (like the modest women in the saucy underwear) but it is true in a way. The city has a very female mysteriousness – you know there are architectural glories – courtyards, fountains, and exquisite decoration – but they will not be revealed to you unless you have access. You cannot walk from a dark alley into a dazzling sunlit courtyard unless invited. (The entrances to most of the grand houses are built with a bend so as to prevent anyone on the street from seeing inside.) And women are the gatekeepers in Damascus: I could never have written my book on the houses of the Old City had I been a man because no woman would ever have opened the door to me.
But the city is as flirtatious as its inhabitants – not all the houses have angled entrances and as you pass through the streets you occasionally catch glimpses of their courtyards – a spray of jasmine here, a fountain there, a patch of exquisite paving at the bottom of some steps somewhere else. These are the city’s equivalent of glimpsing an ankle under a long dress or a lock of hair escaped from a veil. Of course I am being wildly romantic in describing it this way; the sensuous mud plaster has fallen off half the buildings, and as for ‘behind the veil’, there are museums and houses open to the public, which you may easily enter and explore – but nonetheless, sensuality, secrecy and mystery are the overwhelming sensations I have in Damascus.
Video: Once a family house now a restaurant, Beit Jabri features in Brigid Keenan’s Damascus: Hidden Treasure of the Old City
The political regime and the predominant religion of Syria play no mean part in creating the exotic mood of Damascus. I cannot imagine that the place would hold quite the same allure if it was the capital of a modern, non-religious, Western-type country, with its streets lined with chain stores, and not a veil or chador to be seen. And there is something relaxing about a city where you can be certain you will never see a drunk. Another vital part of its charm is that the Old City is living in a different time frame from most of the rest of the world, one in which men are shaved with cut-throat razors, medicine shops sell dried baby crocodiles to improve men’s fertility, and the heating oil is delivered in a cart drawn by a horse with ostrich feathers and pompoms on its head. As Ross Burns writes in his book Damascus: A History, ‘Traditional life continues in the old city with a matter-of-fact air that makes light of the centuries. While Damascus has had to face more tumultuous challenges than most historic cities … it has done so with an inner strength …’
I remember thinking when I lived in the Old City and friends used to ask nervously ‘What will you do there if there is a revolution?’, how easy it would be to disguise oneself in Damascus in a time of turmoil or trouble: whatever sex you were, you could just put on a chador and literally disappear into the streets unnoticed. On the other hand, it would be very difficult to have an illicit affair in the Old City – neighbours are ever-watchful and prying, noting everyone who goes into and out of your house, how long they stay there, and what they have with them.
When Tim Beddow, the photographer, and I were working together on Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City it was obvious that we should base ourselves in my little house in the Old City so that rather than driving in from the suburbs each day we could walk to the places we wanted to photograph. But I was warned by Syrian friends, ‘Pretend he is your brother or people will be shocked’. One evening, after a day spent photographing houses in the Christian quarter, I came back to the house, ahead of Tim, exhausted. As I put my key in the lock of my door, my neighbour stepped out of his house – he had obviously been waiting – and asked me ‘How is your brother?’ ‘My brother?’ I said unthinkingly, ‘I haven’t seen my brother for months.’ ‘But he is staying with you, is he not?’ came the reply. ‘Oh no,’ I said, quick as a flash, ‘that’s my half-brother who is staying with me…’
Damascus, city of secrets and hidden glances
I am perfectly sure that my neighbour knew the truth, but honour was satisfied. That is the way in Damascus, city of secrets and hidden glances, where things are not always what they seem but where everyone respects the outward proprieties, and where, despite the neighbourhood watch, everyone keeps his own council. Damascenes have a saying, which perhaps explains why they are such an enigmatic people: ‘A secret must be kept only between two’ – meaning your own two lips.