Jamil al-Kayyem was born in the city of Palmyra, a city distinguished by its rich historical and archaeological sites. Most of the city's population worked in agriculture, especially palm and olive tree cultivation. Palmyra was also famous for animal products, such as dairy, cheese and wool. This was the case due to its important location in the Syrian Desert [al-Badia], where Bedouins in the surrounding area supplied such products.
Jamil says, “In the past, the people of Palmyra did not benefit from tourist activity because their livelihood was based on agriculture. They used to receive tourists, greet and feed them for free. Palmyra military airport of Tadmur was a civilian airport, and tourists arrived there from Damascus and Aleppo, then took buses to visit the archaeological area. Dependence on tourism began during the French Mandate period, when the French drove out the inhabitants living in the archaeological area, distributed land to the people outside the region, built roads and equipped the area with the infrastructure that was later necessary to build the city - all in order to stimulate tourism. Tourist activity began to flourish, especially after the 1980s, when hotels and restaurants, some of which were Palmyran houses of a distinctive architectural character, were converted into tourist facilities.”
Jamil completed his schooling in the city of Palmyra, where there was public interest and concern for education. He says: “There was a general tendency among the population to pat attention to education, perhaps because of the material prosperity. Due to the presence of foreign tourists, it was rare to find someone who was not fluent in English. There were even kids who spoke several languages.”
Jamil went to Damascus University in order to study civil engineering. There, he noted existing social differences between the two places. In Palmyra, social relationships were strong and people knew each other, and this was closer in character to a rural society than an urban one. However, Jamil was able to make many friends with people from different Syrian regions; he says that most Syrians share the same customs.
After graduation, Jamil returned to Palmyra and worked at the government military housing institution for 6 months before he enlisted to complete his military service. He was later assigned back to the same institution. A few years after that, and in light of the meagerness of the public sector salaries, Jamil decided to leave his job in order to be self-employed, and started his own construction business. He began to take on some contracts.
When tourism activity in Palmyra boomed, he decided to change his field of work. He converted a simple two-storey house into a hotel for tourists, and then transformed that same building into a five-storey hotel able to provide a full service.
He says, “There was no great interest from the Syrian state in Palmyra city; it was the city's people who made more efforts than the officials who did not appreciate the importance of the ancient city. Unfortunately, Syrian tourists were few in number. However, in the last years before the war there was a slight increase due to art festivals; Syrians would visit to attend concerts but not to look at the antiquities. Active tourism resulted in an excellent financial situation for the city's people to the point that the main street was full of souvenir shops, oriental antiques, hotels, restaurants etc. Orchards became parks in the eyes of their owners.”
Most of the tourists were Europeans who were very interested in the city's monuments. There were also Australians and a few Americans but the Japanese preferred to visit during the winter because of price reductions for hotels and services. As such, activity was strong during both summer and winter. This was beneficial to the local people who took their money in hard currency."