Saturday, July 06, 2013

Matthew McNaught reconsiders his microbus map of Damascus

Earlier this week the Syria Comment website run by Joshua Landis and associates introduced one item by saying that they were
proud to post the following beautiful reflection by Matthew McNaught. Those who have lived in Damascus (or other Syrian cities) will relate to the pervasive presence of the “service” (serv-EES; plural ser-a-VEES). Personal accounts like this remind us of the Syria we love and miss. Matthew’s thoughtful celebration of the Syrian microbus is touching and helps us realize that even a transportation system can be an unexpected cultural treasure. Matthew maintains a blog called Ibn Sifr.
McNaught lived and worked in Damascus from 2007-2009, came to love it, and still feels nostalgic for it.  Riding the microbuses gave him the sense that he really knew the city and understood its social geography.  Most of his account conveys that sense of fascination and nostalgia for a social world that has probably been shattered irretrievably.  But as McNaught reflected anew on his experience of Damascus in light of the civil war that erupted in 2011, he was increasingly struck, in retrospect, by what was missing from his microbus map of Damascus.  The result is that this venture in urban ethnography leads to some painful socio-political realizations.

Here are some passages from McNaught's piece, "The End of the Line: A Microbus Map of Damascus". As readers will notice, that title has several layers of meaning.
Here is a Syrian microbus, more commonly known as the servees or micro:
Syrian service
As you can see, it doesn’t look like anything special. A white box on four wheels, about ten seats, a sliding door on the side, a sign on the roof with the route written in large letters. But three years after leaving Damascus, the servees is often on my mind.

I went to Damascus at the start of 2007 with a plan to study Arabic for a year. The city won me over, and I decided to stay on. I worked there as an English teacher until the end of 2009.

Some days, I still have pangs of nostalgia for the servees. [....]

It seemed that every Damascene carried a microbus map in their head, like the knowledge of a London cabbie. But as a foreigner, I had to construct my own map, one line at a time.

In the beginning, my mental map of Damascus was a stubby little thing. It was a Lonely Planet Damascus, a wandering line from the ancient souqs of Old Damascus to the hotels and banks of the modern city centre, punctuated by famous ice-cream parlours, cheap restaurants and historic bathhouses. It was enchanting, but I wanted to see more. When I figured out how to navigate the servees lines, the larger city began to open out in front of me. [....]

The micro lines showed me a city of contrast; from wide tree-lined streets to densely built-up working class neighbourhoods. They showed me a city of diversity; from conservative Muslim areas to places rich in minorities; Druze, Ismaelis, Christians and Mandeans from Iraq. [....]

When friends came to visit, I would insist on getting the servees rather than the taxi. ‘I’ll show them the real Damascus’, I would think to myself, and proudly take them to places outside of the usual tourist trail. It took me almost three years to feel like I really knew Damascus. But in the three years since I left, I have begun to realise how much was missing from my map.

When the uprising first reached the capital in 2011, I noticed something odd as I followed the news. The first areas in Damascus that rose up against the regime sounded strangely familiar, although I had never visited them: Jobar, Douma, Barzeh, Ghouta, Qaboun, Harasta. It took a moment before it hit me. They were the names that I had seen every day on the roofs of passing microbuses. They were the destinations of the routes; places on the outer limits of the city’s sprawling suburbs. Some of them were lines that I had ridden regularly within the city. But I didn’t have any friends or students in these places. There were no famous restaurants or beauty spots there. I’d never had a reason to ride the servees to the end of the line.

When I had taken the coach to other cities in Syria, I had occasionally glimpsed some of these areas out of the window. It had surprised me how far the urban sprawl stretched, a sea of grey in all directions. Some areas, like Douma, were cities in themselves, with their own souqs and parks and upmarket neighbourhoods. But as a general rule, the further we got from the centre of Damascus, the more the buildings became shabby and densely built up; naked concrete and breezeblock, unfinished roofs bristling with metal rods. The municipal services didn’t appear to reach this far; some streets were unpaved and rubbish piled up on corners. Why did the uprising reach the city through these outer suburbs? It might be suggested that the Sunni Muslim areas were the ones that rose up first. There is no denying the ugly sectarianism that has risen to the surface in this conflict. But most neighbourhoods in Damascus are dominated by Sunni Muslims. There must have been more to it than that.

When I mentioned this to Rami, a Syrian-Palestinian friend who now lives in the UK, he said that this was no coincidence. ‘This is not a war of politics, or religion, or sectarianism,’ he said. ‘It’s a war of poverty.’
[JW:  Of course, his friend was partly right and partly wrong. Like many other conflicts and upheavals, the civil war in Syria has been about all of those things, in complex combination.]
In the years I lived in Damascus, nothing much seemed to change. I had noticed the doubling of the servees fare along with an increase in the price of mazout heating oil. The price of bread also went up, and I was vaguely aware of a drought in the countryside from occasional news headlines. But none of this had impacted my Damascus. Looking back, the 5 lira increase in fare had reached me like a small tremor from a distant earthquake.

It wasn’t until I left Damascus that I realised the scale of the drought. Between 2007 and 2009, it had displaced 1.5 million people. Countless internal migrants had come to Damascus, and most lived in the outer suburbs of the city, where the housing was cheapest, and where they remained invisible to most people in the centre. These neighbourhoods were home to those who felt most keenly the grotesque imbalance of power and wealth in the country. They were the people who protested first, and who first faced the brutal reaction of the regime.

I was not blind to the poverty in Syria. I saw the contrast between rich and poor, but it was on the periphery of my vision. I didn’t see how far it stretched beyond the horizon. My Damascus felt normal but it was an anomaly. It was an island of relative plenty in a ocean of poverty.

The poor neighbourhoods were not the only places missing from my Damascus map. There were dark places in the city. Since speaking to Syrian friends now living in the safety of the UK, I have realised how their cities were haunted by places whose very names were a gut-punch of dread. Certain neighbourhoods such as Kafer Souseh, Adawi, Mezze and Barzeh were infamous for the security centres they housed; the prisons and interrogation rooms of the labyrinthine branches of the mukhabarat. These places meant torture, indefinite detention without trial, humiliation and helplessness. When I lived in Damascus, I passed heavily guarded military buildings most days. I may have looked at their armed guards and wondered vaguely for a moment about what was inside, but the wondering didn’t last long. These places didn’t occupy my city the way they did for Syrians.

The conflict in Syria cannot be oversimplified; it has become a sectarian civil war and an international proxy war as well as a local struggle against tyranny. But at its heart, it seems that the Syrian regime was a dictatorship that relied on old methods to deal with a new reality. Dictatorship depends on a precarious balancing act; finding the right combination of bread and terror to keep a people pacified. If the population are scared enough, a certain amount of hunger and hardship can be tolerated. But if the hunger becomes unbearable, then an escalation in terror is not enough to keep people silent. The balance is lost, and there is no turning back.

I never foresaw the intensity of the popular uprising in Syria, or the brutality of the government response. But the conflict could only be understood in light of those places that were absent from my map; those dark spots of brutality and the invisible band of poverty that encircled the city. With these blindspots, the unrest and violence seemed alien and surreal. Perhaps it is not surprising how many Damascenes swallow the regime propaganda that blames all unrest on foreign mercenaries and terrorists. [....]
You can read the rest here. It's worth reading in full.  As the introduction suggested, it's reflective, insightful, ethnographically illuminating, and ultimately quite moving..

—Jeff Weintraub

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