There was a big house in our old neighbourhoods, so big that a keen observer could find everything it it although it was no larger than 400 square meters and only two stories high.
The house’s overall structure was created by piling up different building forms over four generations of the same family. Each block of this large building had its own story, one that would be told and retold by the house’s many residents within earshot of their neighbours. The saga of the house, the almost continuous building and tearing down, neighbouring, and sharing and dividing among its generations and offspring, is a condensed one and speaks for the life stories of the other neighbouring houses. These latter represent a microcosm of the city itself and (and if I may say) of the whole country.
More than three quarters of a century ago, our neighbourhood which lies west of the city, was nothing more than a piece of land for growing wheat. It was only when the city began to spread out from its centre that such lands were turned into orchards to meet the needs of the city’s people, and landowners became in need of labourers who were brought in from surrounding villages.
Shukriya al-Sayyed Ismail and her husband were among the first families to come to these fields and the first who built their shack on this land that later would become the “Big House.” Shukriya worked in the orchards of Moussa Aso like no other. She was a mother of nine, three of whom were triplets, yet she never missed a day of work in the fields. Not only because she was a strong-built and a most patient woman who could work from dawn to sunset, but also because of her husband who was the kind of man nicknamed in our old neighbourhood as the “Barefooted Sultan.”
The women of the neighbourhood who knew Shukriya al-Sayyed Ismail in the final years of her life remember how she would explore the map of the scars on her hands and feet and her calfs and face. It was the price of more than thirty years of work in the dozens of orchards near her shack, back then a mere pile of wooden vegetable boxes and the remains of tin food boxes which were filled with mud and stacked on top of each other to make up their single room.
Over the long years during which many mud houses were built and dispersed in the fields west of the city, two related events took place. The first was the building of dozens of grand houses in the city centre. These mini places belonged to the field owners, merchants and the city’s new political class whose wealth came from the newly-established state institutions in which they enjoyed a monopoly on all kinds of decision-making. This development led to the second event which was a state decision to turn thousands of hectares of the city’s orchards into urban divisions, and overnight the field owners had become a new class of nouveau riche*.
Shukriya would not give up her single room for any price because to her that meant displacement. She sold all her gold and pleaded with the landowner to give her ownership of that small plot of orchard land that had become part of the city property in return for the long years of hard work on it. It is said that she even bared her arms and thighs so the owner would see the map of scars etched on her body by the work.
Many years had not passed when on a very stormy night Shukriya fell on the muddy path between her home and the only paved street that stood five hundred meters away from it. Every evening she would leave to pick up her children who were coming back from Al-Fadilah school and could not walk in the mud. The children’s school which stood out for its French architecture later became the headquarters of a Ba’ath Party branch in the city.
Shukriya fell and broke her pelvic bone. She screamed for hours, unable to pull her large body out of the river of mud, and with no one to hear her except for the children on the other side. Hours later they brought her home unconscious but the ambulance could not come and three tractors broke down while trying to move her to the hospital. She died there, in the middle of that mud scene, between her home and the few trees left standing among the houses and orchards.
During the two decades that followed, the rooms in Shukriya’s house grew in number as each of her sons were married and built a new room of mud, and soon the house took the shape of a closed box of rooms with a large courtyard in the middle. This courtyard, teeming with inhabitants, was an eye into Syria of the 70s and 80s and the extraordinary demographic transformations it was undergoing. Shukriya and her husband’s offspring alone added more than fifty new inhabitants to the house. Their family life which was dominated by struggle, cries and conspiracies was something out of a Naguib Mahfouz novel, albeit on a less sophisticated level.
During those years, the house underwent three big changes that are best related through four tales that in themselves depict totalitarian Syria.
According to custom, the house should have been divided among Shukriya’s four sons, but as their eldest sister had been divorced a few years into her marriage, they were obligated to offer her and her two young daughters a room in the house. This event was the start of a struggle between the eldest sister and her brothers’ four wives, for while she insisted that this would always be her father’s home and that she would not leave it until the grave, her sisters-in-law would famously tell her and the many neighbours “the house has barely enough room for us let alone to raise strangers’ children.”
As things grew worse between them, the brothers could not find any solution except to open a door from their sister’s room onto the street, making it somewhat independent of the house’s other rooms. This, however, resulted in a sanitary problem whereby a corner of the room was made into a kitchen and the side closest to the door turned into a small toilet. Thus, there was no way for the sister and daughters but to continue to use the house’s only bathroom. The neighbours would look on, dozens and hundreds! of times, as the sister’s two girls knocked with all their strength on the house’s front door to use the bathroom, but the sisters-in-law would forbid their own children from opening for them in order to anger their mother. Then, one of the neighbours would volunteer and allow the young girls to use the bathrooms in their own homes.
The second tale involved a military intelligence member who was from the Syrian coastal region but was working in the town of Qamishli. By the end of the eighties he had met by coincidence Shukria’s youngest son and rented a room in her home. The agreement was that he would only stay for six months, but the man refused to leave the house on the pretext that the house was in violation of the city property laws and still legally belonged to the owner Moussa Asso. He ended up staying in the house for more than seven years during which he made the lives of its people and neighbours a living hell. He only agreed to move out in exchange for a large compensation shared among the house’s residents.
The last tale concerns the room of the eldest son. After a few years into his marriage, he and his wife migrated to Lebanon for work, and after some thirty years from there they moved to Germany. All this while he refused to give up the room which was the biggest in the house and the only one overlooking the street. He would not share it with any of his brothers as he considered it his right as the eldest whether he occupied it or not. Even during the holidays when he visited from Beirut, he would stay at his in-laws’ for days on end without bothering to pay his brothers a visit to ask how they were doing.
The women of the neighbourhood, however, have a different story to tell about this family affair. According to them, the eldest brother’s wife was in love with the second brother but she was not able to marry him, and so she harboured a secret hatred of him and his family. Even after the passage of more than thirty years, when the brothers decided to divide up the house, the eldest brother’s wife forced him to return from Germany to claim his share.
The house was divided into three parts after two of the brothers sold their shares to the others. The sisters insisted that a share of the house be kept for the divorced sister and her daughters whose saga of bitter struggle with the brothers’ wives continued unabated until two of her brothers’ sons were married to her daughters.
At the start of the seventies, the third generation of the family began to look for their own private space in the house.
The only solution was to turn the mud room into a concrete one like others around it and to try to stack one room on top of the other as they needed to fit more than twenty rooms into that tight space. And of course there was a story behind each concrete room as it was not an easy feat to build one.
The first of these rooms belonged to the only grandson who had finished his secondary education and at the time was appointed as a teacher in the neighbourhood school. Besides saving part of his salary for over two years, he worked a night job as an accountant at a club in the city. Many of his students had also promised to help with the construction work including tearing down the mud room, digging foundations and moving building material from the factory to the house.
The neighbours’ stories say that the grandson, “Mr. Loqman,” finished the room where he would later be married four years after the start of its construction, and that the works were interrupted for two full years because his aunt refused to give him a share of the land behind her single room.
Another way was to offer a piece of the house’s land to one of the building contractors in exchange for constructing four stacked apartments whereby he would keep two of the apartments and give the other two to the landowner. Eight apartments were built on half of the land’s area and they embodied all the ugliness of that edifice. Each of the apartments which were around 80 square meters had less than 6 meters of access to air and natural light.
The apartments had no balconies and even the roof was used for storing provisions and satellite dishes. The house was poorly lit and ventilated, and its extremely narrow space was crammed with over 100 residents which included Shukriya’s grandchildren along with the newcomers who had bought the newly built apartments. The overcrowdedness gradually pushed the residents to occupy the sidewalk and street in different ways. Passersby could see the women in the morning as they furnished the sidewalk and went about their daily activities while the children made a racket on the street all day long. The house was a death sentence to all forms of privacy and individuality especially for the most vulnerable members of the household and those who longed for privacy the most, women and teenagers.
This “residential cell” was the outcome of more than four decades of Assad rule which not only destroyed the middle class of the educated and lower-rank employees but also reduced laws and municipal institutions into mere tools for legitimizing corruption and engaging the regime’s agents, whose only capital in any partnership was their power . During those same years, thousands of beautifully-built and exceptionally extravagant villas started to pop up. They belonged to men in power and their accomplices in smuggling goods and public embezzling. The former, however, felt estranged from the city and its people and built their beautiful villas on the mountainous Syrian coast.
During those years, the “Big House” became more of a slum , part of which was a hideous storied and suffocatingly narrow building, and the other, overlapping concrete rooms from which residents could easily see and overhear one another. There were also two mud rooms on the brink of collapse as the aunt wouldn’t hear of any change to her “mother’s heritage.”
Added to all this was the attempt of the residents to invest in those parts of the house that overlooked the street. It started with opening a small grocery shop in the aunt’s room where she would sell products from the window opening onto the street. Less than two years later she built a wall, dividing the room into two parts private quarters and one part grocery shop, and to make up for the tight space she fenced in the entire sidewalk facing her room, thus extending the area of the shop. The women of the neighbourhood would often go to her and complain that their children, when passing by her shop on their way to school, were forced to get off the sidewalk onto the street at great risk to themsleves. The aunt would respond with complete indifference “what do i care if they go to school at all?”
Another of the grandchildren turned his ground floor apartment to an aluminum workshop. The shavings from cutting aluminum would cover the entire street, injuring the feet of the neighbourhood’s children and the noise especially disturbed the elderly. The neighbours were powerless to do anything, however, as they did not wish to cut off any man’s means of living during those hard times.
The grandson who was the teacher and his wife turned their only room into a private tutoring space to dozens of high school students who would come at all hours in the day. The neighbours called it the “cultural centre.” The residents of the house refused to allow the daily nonstop trail of students in and out of the building, so the teacher was forced to build a metal staircase on the street, which the students would use to climb up to his room. The only resident who offered no objections was the aunt as her grocery shop profited handsomely from selling students all they needed from stationary to soda drinks.
Another grandson’s wife used her home as a beauty parlour where she would thread all the neighbourhood women’s eyebrows. It was rumoured that she had made a deal with her husband that he would leave the house everyday for eight long hours and in exchange she would provide him with a personal allowance and cover all household expenses. The husband would sit for long hours in the park and when a passerby would stop to ask how he was doing, he would jokingly say “my working hours have not finished yet to go home.” He would later leave the house for more than twelve hours when another room became a bridal salon.
The changes from a shack in an orchard to a mud house and later to a horrid monstrosity were not arbitrary in nature but part of the larger and deeper transformations that occurred within the city and the country at large. Shukriya’s home was one example of millions of others that formed the haphazard Syrian settlement plan. Despite having been accepted by the Syrian people, these homes would not remain for them. They came down over their heads or were abandoned or struck by a terrorist explosion, killing the many who lived there. That was the fate of Shukriya al-Sayed Ismail’s house which was destroyed in a terrorist attack on Qamishli on the morning of July 27, last year.