A district seat in the Governorate of the Damascus Countryside (Muhafizat Rif Dimashq) and a market town, it served as a bridge, of sorts, between the agricultural areas of Ghouta and Damascus and was famous for its grape production. In the 1990s, increasing numbers of Damascenes seeking relief from rising costs in the capital began moving to the city—part of the broader trend of urban to rural migration that was accelerated by the growth of small manufacturing and agricultural processing. Between the censuses of 1981 and 2004, the population doubled to more than 110,000 people. By the onset of the war, in 2011, Douma’s residents were almost equally divided between the formal, planned neighborhoods of Douma proper and the ring of informal settlements that had grown around it since the early 1970s.
In 2011, Douma became an opposition center to the Assad Regime. The following year, it came under siege. As a growing number of residents fled the violence, the Saudi-supported Jaysh al-Islam consolidated military control of the city, while a local council representing the various factions maintained municipal and central government functions. In early 2018, the Syrian regime’s Operation Damascus Steel subjected Douma to near-constant indiscriminate bombardment, including the chemical weapons attack that forced the city’s surrender in April of that year. A Russian-brokered agreement to evacuate some 20,000 fighters, their families and supporters left around 40,000 civilians remaining in the rubble.
By all accounts, the siege was horrific and the scale of the destruction shocking. “It was like a wild place,” says Abu H, recalling his visit to his hometown two years ago. “I didn’t see a single building without damage.” Those who dared to return joined the people left behind in a city occupied by hostile government forces and associated militias. Checkpoints marked the main roads into the city, and security services regularly arrested people suspected of belonging to opposition groups or evading compulsory military service. Those who returned took up residence in precarious houses. Where possible, they rehabilitated rooms and fashioned makeshift kitchens. Plastic sheets patched or replaced roofs and blankets covered windows to maintain privacy and keep out the cold. Politically connected “mafias” distributed government-rationed gas cannisters (one per household each month), water and just a few hours of electricity each day, and food was scarce. The government-subsidized bread, produced by two local bakeries that had been restored by the government, “was inedible,” as Abu H recalls, “but we ate it.” Other than the bakeries, little had been rebuilt save for a government building and the military conscription office, both of which were funded by a wealthy local parliamentarian.
Today, despite ongoing insecurity, things are improving. Satellite images show most of the rubble has been cleared from the formal neighborhoods. In informal areas, roads are open. Fields surrounding the city are being planted again. Private donors have subsidized the restoration of schools, a technical college and a small local hospital with the help of local contracting firms that have donated their services. The local youth soccer program has also been revived, and life is haltingly returning to the souk. With the economic crisis, however, prices remain high, and people have little money to meet basic needs, much less rebuild their homes and neighborhoods. The question remains, for many like Abu H, of who should be responsible for reconstruction: The problem, he said, is that today the state is “made up of individuals, not institutions,” and they are not interested in rebuilding, at least not for the average citizen.
Covering over 2,149,000 square meters of expropriated properties, the Marota City project on Damascus’ southern periphery encapsulates the Syrian government’s approach to reconstructing cities in the wake of the war. The project—intended to symbolize and propel Damascus’ entrance into a world of networked globalizing cities—is the culmination of a series of pre-war and wartime legal transformations that have sought to reorganize the Syrian economy around finance, real estate and tourism. The government’s neoliberal approach to reconstruction—in which government units, ranging from municipalities to military corporations, invest in Public Private Partnerships alongside private capital—ensures that the regime and associated businessmen control the post conflict political economy. Publicity materials put out by Damascus Cham Holding, which is itself a product of these new regulations, promise a world-class urban space of wide boulevards, a shopping mall, luxury apartment towers and globally networked office spaces meant to serve local, regional and global elites.
According to the company, Marota City builds on Damascus’ history and carries it into the future. Plans for the area, however, suggest a space severed from its historical context and surroundings. They celebrate connectivity not with Syria or its capital but with the global, touting its proximity to an airport, high-speed communications infrastructure and highways to neighboring countries.
Marota is a planner’s city. Its historical imagination extends only as far back as the 1950s, the heyday of modernist urbanism. Large, standardized building envelopes populate standardized development blocks, all arrayed in a rigid geometry. It is, at the same time, an architect’s city. The planned towers, disconnected from each other and their surroundings, are standalone monuments seeking architectural distinction. As such, they become barely distinguishable from one another. The plan provides ample green spaces, but they remain largely distinct from the built-up areas. The wide boulevards suggest a lifeless street reminiscent not of old Damascus but of Doha.
Marota and other projects modeled on it, for example in the suburb of Qaboun, are displacing thousands of Syrians whose properties are being forcibly expropriated and transformed into shares in public-private partnerships. Owners are faced with the options of holding onto them, selling them for cash or putting the value toward acquiring property in the new development or in “alternative housing” developments nearby. Renters, meanwhile, receive cash subsidies to rent properties elsewhere in the city. For supporters, the transformation of value into abstract shares constitutes protection of property rights. Moreover, the requirement that developers provide “alternative housing” for those displaced, especially from informal neighborhoods, reflects a commitment to the improvement of urban space and the lives of citizens.
But many Syrians are skeptical of the Marota model—whose legal and administrative framework has, since 2018, governed reconstruction across the country. Their objections revolve around its crony capitalist nature and the government’s zeal to attract Gulf based capital and contractors to profit from reconstruction. They are also skeptical of the government’s plans to provide housing, either itself, or through the Marota model, which requires redevelopment projects to provide alternative housing to those they displace.
Views from Below
Prior to the neoliberalization of urban development that began in the 1990s and accelerated after Bashar al-Asad’s ascendance to power in 2000, the government managed a range of programs to provide apartments at below-market prices. These programs—aimed at specific populations, including public employees, the military, the youth or workers near industrial cities—assembled land to build clusters of uniform, low-rise apartment buildings or taller towers. Depending on the program, after paying 30 or 50 percent of the price through monthly installments, the subscriber received a guarantee of an apartment to be delivered upon completion of the project. They would not know, until delivery, the apartment’s precise location in the development, the details of its finishing or, in many cases, its final cost.
In addition to, and often more effective than, the government’s social housing efforts were the semi-governmental cooperatives. Cooperatives were able to purchase inexpensive state land developments, often on the planned outskirts of cities and towns, where they benefitted from special permitting procedures and building materials at below-market cost. Here, too, members would subscribe to a project and receive a guarantee of an apartment after a certain percentage of the price was paid.
Dowamni we spoke with had little respect for these government housing projects. They were perpetually behind schedule—often by ten to 15 years or more—and typically produced small, standardized apartments, usually with low-grade materials. When provided, finishing such as flooring, tiles or countertops was often so poor as to require residents to invest their own money to remove and replace it. Their dissatisfaction extended beyond bureaucratic and quality control issues. Programs neglected the socio-spatial organization of life in Douma. For Abu M—a Doumi now living with his family in East Amman—home was much more than the house. “I remember Ramadan when I was still living in my old house. In addition to the meal my mother had prepared, there were always several plates from our neighbors. This is what I call home. It is you, your memories and your neighbors.” In his view, these programs were destructive of the notion of home and undermined community. “They ‘peel off’ people from their neighborhoods… and place them… God knows where! They don’t provide ‘homes.’”
The pre-war programs, much like the alternative housing being provided today, denied peoples’ agency in organizing their own housing and community. Historically, such agency manifested in self-help, with individual families and property owners working together or with small contractors to produce housing in existing and new neighborhoods. In Douma, as elsewhere, families arranged with contractors to demolish their homes, especially the mud-brick courtyard houses in older parts of the city, and replace them with apartment buildings. As payment, the contractor would claim a percentage of the apartments and/or ground floor shops in the new building (usually 50 percent), while the remainder would be divided among family members.
Nor are the interiors of the home fixed. Rather, they shift with the household’s daily routine and gendered practices. For example, while parents sometimes have a dedicated bedroom, children rarely do. Instead, they sleep in the rooms that make up the living quarters on mattresses that are picked up as the day begins. As the day progresses, and the women of the house complete their chores, their attention often turns to making goods for the market. Prior to the war, they made the embroidery for which Douma was historically famous, Aghabani, produced on special sewing machines stored in the corner of the main room. When the husband and children returned to the house, the machine would be returned to the corner and the space reverted to a sitting room. The family might have dinner and tea in the same room, sitting on cushions on the floor around a low table or a cloth spread. At the day’s end, the mattresses reappear as the family prepares for bed. The arrival of guests, too, changes the uses of the rooms. In summer months, male guests gather in the courtyard. Spouses, daughters or female friends socialize in the sitting room. In the winter months, the men utilize that room while the women used the kitchen or another interior space.
The courtyard is, for many, the most important part of the house. Open to the sky, it allows for sunlight and a breeze to permeate the house, providing relief on a hot summer day. In the summer months, it becomes a place for socializing, drying laundry and preparing food on gas stoves. Often, especially in larger homes, it contains a garden shaded by orange or lemon trees tended by the women of the family, who grow herbs and flowers for beauty and for making herbal tea.
Return to Incrementalism
The government’s neoliberal approach to reconstruction is not simply about the production of high-end spaces. It is also about imposing a rationalist spatial order upon society. The war has provided cover for the imposition of a new round of laws and regulations targeting pre-war informal districts for demolition and redevelopment. Indeed, municipalities are now expected to pursue reconstruction through public-private partnerships and plan space in line with a disciplinary modernism.
Moreover, the alternative housing they are offered is not free. Rather, they must purchase it on the failed subscription model used by social housing programs of decades past at prices far out of reach of an increasingly impoverished population. When asked whether they would accept an arrangement, if affordable, to abandon their claim to their pre-war homes in exchange for an apartment in a yet-to-be-developed project, most Dowamni said no. Um Z, whose family had lived in Douma for generations, needed less than a moment’s thought, “I would not accept it. I want to stay in Douma.” Although her son is pressuring her to sell the home to fund his own business venture, she refuses. “My memories are in that house. I gave birth to my daughters there. My memories with my husband are in that house,” she said. It was not simply a matter of nostalgia but also about how she and her family related to the space of the home and its surroundings in the informal area of Douma. “We can’t live in a closed apartment,” she said. In Amman, her family had rented a top floor apartment so they could use the roof. Like the courtyard of her home in Douma, it served as a private space that remained open to the sky and nature. The balcony, in contrast, was a public space she and her daughters felt uncomfortable using for reasons of piety and privacy. Her son transformed it into a garden, using planters to grow herbs, flowers and small trees. “We brought Douma here with us,” her daughter chimed in, laughing.
Others, such as Abu M, welcomed the possibility of a new municipal plan for his family’s neighborhood, even at the cost of losing square meters of his land. Access to proper public roads and utilities, a school and a health clinic would be worth it, but only if the people of the neighborhood were able to build their homes themselves on land they owned. As he saw it, if the government subsidized building materials, there was no need for the Marota model. Indeed, there was no need to look outside Douma and its history of self-help for solutions. Even on a smaller plot, a deal could be made with a contractor to build a formal apartment building with rentable ground floor retail space, as people had done before the war. Noting that there are few large contractors able to build on the scale the Marota model pre-supposes, for Abu M, the return to incrementalism is the key.
As did others, he strongly rejected the government’s approach of creating public-private partnerships that would force property owners to exchange their land for shares in a shareholding company or accept living in “alternative housing” towers. Like Um Z, Abu M wanted to return to Douma and gather with family and friends scattered by a decade of conflict. The government’s present approach “is not reconstruction,” he said. Leaning forward in his chair, he rested his elbows on his thighs, looked down at his hands. “Was it not enough what we have been through?” he asked quietly. “The humiliation, the bombing and the hunger? All of this was not enough? And so now a new war over land will start?”
[Najib Hourani is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Global Urban Studies at Michigan State University. Safa Rawashdeh holds an MS in Spatial Planning from the School of Architecture and Built Environment at the German-Jordanian University in Amman.]