by Ruwaida Tinawi
Loud noises sound from the inner courtyard of the neighbouring house and the voices of young and old are full of anticipation. What’s going on? Our neighbour Abu al-ʿIzz announces that he wants to go to the Ghouta the next day with the whole family.
The Ghouta of Damascus was, in fact, once one of the paradises of this world and one of the most fertile stretches of land. Its plantation gardens were supplied by the tributaries of the Barada River and by a network of irrigation channels. The Ghouta grew various types of fruit trees, all kinds of vegetables and the famous Damascene corn and flowers.
When the fresh spring morning comes, it promises everyone a pleasant trip. All the senses are brought to life in the Ghouta of Damascus, where it smells wonderful and looks enchanting. The fresh air simply enlivens everyone as soon as they come into contact with it. Umm al-ʿIzz, the lady of the house, asks her daughters to look for the kerosene stove. The cooking utensils rattle against each other in the hectic rush. They are all made of pure copper, which the quarter’s copper polisher, the so-called Mubayyid, has brightly rubbed in his skillful way. “Don’t forget the oil”, calls the grandmother from afar. “During the last trip we had to ask our neighbours in the next plantation garden for it.”
The sons of Abu al-ʿIzz are looking for the football to play with, while his daughters are preparing the skipping rope and the women are getting the Barjis, a popular board game. But even more important than any of these things is the choice of food they take with them on the trip. This could be Mujaddara, a well-known dish made of lentils and wheat grits, or Maqali, fried vegetables, as well as salad or various Kabab (minced meat) and barbecue meat. All this remains a secret until the parents discuss it with each other. “Get the barbecue skewers and charcoal,” Abu al-ʿIzz calls. Now that they know what they will eat, the children are all the more excited about the picnic.
All items for the trip are being packed into leather bags called “sac”. In one sac, are the food items, in another, a pillow for the aged grandfather and in a third, a blanket and mats to spread out on the grass to sit on. There is no doubt that the Damascenes adopted the word “sac” from the French during the mandate period (1918–46) – like many other French words still used in the colloquial language of Damascus.
The Ghouta, which surrounds the Syrian capital Damascus, used to comprise numerous plantation gardens covering an area of about 230 km², including a total of 39 villages. Administratively, it is divided into two districts: West Ghouta and East Ghouta. In the north, it is bordered by the Yazid River and to the west by the Mazzawi and Dirani Rivers. While in the south and east, the further away from Damascus one goes the smaller the Ghouta’s area gradually becomes.
The oasis Ghouta, with its green abundance, has been a settlement area for several populations since time immemorial. Archaeological studies and excavations have revealed the presence of many prehistoric monumental buildings and settlement mounds (talls), such as the famous Tall Aswad with its settlement layers dating back to the Middle and Neolithic Ages. From more recent eras, the Ghouta is home to numerous religious sites, monasteries and tombs, as well as to particular burial places such as the Maqam (shrine) of Sayyida Zaynab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, or the Maqam of the Prophet’s companion Saʿd ibn ʿUbada al-Ansari.
Since the middle of the 1950’s until today, the extension of the Ghouta has changed due to drought events. The wells have dried up and many spring watercourses that had irrigated the green meadows have disappeared. In addition to these changes, the Ghouta was facing another danger threatening to make groves and gardens eventually disappear: the gradual advance of the city with its building blocks and factories, polluting the water sources and destroying considerable quantities of land from the Ghouta.
However, this danger would not have existed without the greed of investors, who have exploited the situation of Damascene youth, whose parental homes have become too small and who have felt the desire for independence. If there is a lack of money and the desire is strong, where should they go? To the gardens of the Ghouta, close to the city. Some farmers have renounced their garden lands for abundant profits on the real estate market. So our beautiful Ghouta has been filled with bricks, cement and iron after it has always filled our souls, bodies and lungs with its gentle breeze.
At the beginning of the last century, the Damascenes often drove to the Ghouta in horse-drawn carts. Later on they replaced them with buses. The young people sometimes walk to give older people places in the vehicle. And if you complain about the means of transport, the head of the family will tell you, “Only a few years ago you would have made the trip up on the donkey cart.”
In the spring, within the shadows of the Ghouta’s blossoming trees were favourite places to sit, always with the parental request to the children, “Don’t tear off the blossoms! Haram – it would be a pity!” For within days, these flowers will turn into delicious fruits such as apricots, mulberries, plums, cherries, peaches and walnuts.
The days turn the pages of time. The war comes and transforms the remaining green areas of the Ghouta into battlefields, destroying its houses, burning what was left of its trees and making it a hideout for all kinds of weapons. This place is no longer one of those paradises of the earth of which poets sang, in which writers competed to describe and which people enjoyed to the fullest.
Its lamentations echo from afar: “I am the bride of Damascus! Why have you forced me to take off my green dress? I am your lung. Explain to me where you can get fresh air without me! I fed and satiated myself with the water of the Barada, to then give you the fruits of my efforts and to feed you with delicious food, vegetables and fruit, and to give fragrant plants. I did not let myself be taken in by the rich or the poor – I was there for everyone, altogether. As long as you are a Damascene, you shall visit me; for I truly fill your lungs with the air with which you will survive the coming season. I am the Ghouta of Damascus, whose purity had filled the souls with joy, happiness and contentment and has now been overwhelmed by poisons.
But, well, I still have enough memories to comfort me in my grief. And I do not give up hope that one day you will return to me after I have put back on my green dress.”