Mohammad Abu Hassan has only ever left Damascus or its surrounding countryside twice: once to visit the city of Tartus and the second time to complete his compulsory military service, where he was stationed in Homs. Mohammad then went on to work as a taxi driver for many years, meeting with a wide range of Syrians from all walks of life.
Mohammad grew up in the town of Shebaa in the Damascus countryside. He describes it as a modest place, with few inhabitants, unpaved roads and mud houses. As people moved to the town from a number of different Syrian provinces, the population swelled to nearly 40,000. Shebaa underwent a rapid construction boom and Mohammad soon found himself the owner of a three-story home, a far cry from his former two-room house. The development of the whole area changed things for many of Shebaa’s other residents, according to Mohammad, as some of them could now afford to own two or more homes in addition to cars and farmland. Despite the various sectarian affiliations of Shebaa’s inhabitants, they lived as one big family, sharing equally in everyones celebrations of joy or mourning
Mohammad recalls the neighborhoods that remain most deeply etched in his memories from his time as a taxi driver, beginning with the city of Jeramana, which he last visited in 2011. Previously, it was an old town in the Damascus countryside, which gradually grew into a bustling city.
“Jeramana is a commercial center with lots of shops and markets. Its residents are quite mixed in terms of sect and religion, with Druze and Alawites and Christians and others, all coexisting peacefully like a single family, where all members are equal to one another, sharing one another’s holidays and special occasions just like everywhere else in Syria” says Mohammad.
Mohammad goes on to talk about Yarmouk Camp, south of Damascus, describing it as much closer to a city than the word “camp” would have one believe. There, too, he witnessed noticeable development over time, and Yarmouk’s markets and stores were frequented by residents from the surrounding areas, where they would buy clothes and supplies. There were also several popular restaurants. He adds that Yarmouk’s residents were mixed, with Palestinian refugees and Syrians from all across the country living side-by-side.
Mohammad recalls the “Black Rock” neighborhood, about 10km away from Shebaa. “I watched the neighborhood change from a collection of simple houses to one with a concentration of large buildings,” he says. “Most of the residents are white-collar employees and teachers, and together they are a mix of people who have moved to Damascus from various different provinces, especially Quneitra Province. The Black Rock neighborhood is also a commercial center as it has quite a few car dealerships, it is considered the most famous market for cars in all of Damascus. There are also some popular souks and produce markets.”
Mohammad goes on to talk about neighborhoods in the Old City of Damascus. “The Old City is well-known for its beauty,” he said, “and for its traditional neighborhoods and historic houses. It is considered important from an archeological standpoint, and is a popular destination for tourists both from within the country and outside it. It is a focal point for the Directorates of Tourism and Antiquities, who work on preserving its unique character and architectural particularities. The Old City spans a number of neighborhoods and landmarks that attract visitors and tourists, like the Azm Palace, a beautiful and spacious old palace that has various statues scattered throughout its rooms, all of them depicting the ways of life of Damascus’s old inhabitants. There is also the Nour Eddine al-Shaheed Hammam, a popular old bathhouse, and the many important souks such as Souk al-Hamidiyah and Souk al-Bazrouriya and others.”
From Old Damascus, Mohammad takes us to the Kfar Souseh neighborhood, an area that has both traditional and modern influences. Mohammad describes its old alleyways, where the neighborhood’s original residents live, most of whom are farmers. Elsewhere, other parts of the neighborhood are witnessing a proliferation of modern buildings, luxury residential apartments and public gardens . Mohammad says that the real estate prices in the neighborhood are quite high, and that the people who can afford to buy there are all business owners or people with significant incomes.
Mohammad continues talking the neighborhood of Al-Zahira, also in Damascus, “Al-Zahira is a neighborhood that is at once old and modern. It’s about 2km away from the city center, a hub for transport and well supplied with electricity. Its water comes from the famous Al-Fijah spring, and it has a large public park where families come with their children to enjoy the playground games designed especially for them.”
The Mezze neighborhood, according to Mohammad, is quite similar to the Kfar Souseh neighborhood because of its mix of traditional and modern architecture, though the buildings in Mezze are more beautiful and luxurious than their counterparts in Kfar Souseh. Its streets are well organized and there is constant life and activity in the alleyways of its old quarter.
The Midan neighborhood is a more working-class neighborhood, says Mohammad, and is a sought after destination for people from all social classes who visit from both inside Damascus and other provinces. It is famous for its delicious restaurants serving simple but popular foods, such as fatteh and maqadem and grilled meats, and for its renowned sweet shops serving the best in Damascene cuisine.
The Marjeh neighborhood is right in the center of Damascus, and is famous for its cafes whose clientele come from Al-Jazira in northwestern Syria, according to Mohammad. The neighborhood is adjacent to a number of government departments and directorates, and has a dense concentration of modestly priced hotels.
The town of Harasta is in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus. Mohammad says that many of its inhabitants have moved there from various different provinces, such as Deir ez-Zor, Hasake, the cities of the plains, Qamishli and Damascus itself.
Harasta is famous for its agriculture and has many fruit-bearing orchards. Residents are made up of farmers and craftsmen, particularly carpenters and furniture-makers. Harasta has transformed from an area full of old houses to one with many modern buildings, and its agricultural lands have also been affected as a result of industrialization.
The city of Douma, the largest of the Eastern Ghouta cities, has a number of different factories and plants serving multiple industries. The surrounding countryside is famous for its fruit with a well known type of grape known as “Doumani” grapes.
Mohammad would visit Douma two to three times a month just to eat roast camel meat and mandi, two dishes the city is famous for. He describes its people as determined and strong.
Mohammad concludes, that he prefers the more modern Damascus neighborhoods to the old ones, due to their wide streets and the way they are organized, which is different to the narrow lanes and alleyways of Old Damascus, “where you’re sometimes forced to park your car and continue on foot to get to your destination”. He says that Damascus’s modern neighborhoods are continuously evolving, unlike the old neighborhoods, which have held on to their unique characters.