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It’s Saturday and no school! Kids play in the street and line up at the little dukkan to get some sweets, and maybe a cool kazouza on this hot day. Ta’ barrad! Ta’ barrad! Come cool off! says the owner, so the kids line up. Another Saturday afternoon in al-Qanawat, Damascus.

The neighborhood of al-Qanawat is one of the older ones in Damascus, but lies outside the walled city proper to the west a bit. It was named for the water canals — qanawat in Arabic — that were used to bring the source of life from the Barada River to the Old City. There are traces of Roman-era constructions as well as some medieval buildings in al-Qanawat. The neighborhood really began to thrive in the Ottoman period as a result of the importance of Damascus as a stopping-over point for the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the case of this particular quarter, the routes branching from Damascus to the Hawran and Palestine passed through al-Qanawat. Many of the mosques, madrasas (note: it is not spelled madrassas!), and mausoleums of al-Qanawat date to this period. By the late 19th and early 20th C, the quarter gained prestige as notable political families relocated there to be closer to the administrative center built around Sahat al-Marjeh, to the north.

The arrival of the French in the 20s brought some advances — a cement factory in 1930, for example — and also some ideas that didn’t quite work out so well — like an urban plan, still in use today, that entailed the destruction of many of the older quarters and the paving over of many of the gardens for which Damascus was once famed, all in the name of modernization and progress. In addition to depriving the city of green space, this had the additional effect of cutting off neighbors from one another and undermining the fabric of daily life. It also meant the removal of the water canals. Homes and shops were left to their own devices, which is to say, to fall apart. Tourists might see this as Old World — very Old World — charm, but life in such quarters became increasingly untenable. In al-Qanawat alone, the population declined by over 50% in the last two decades alone!

Despite some efforts to renovate the area, al-Qanawat bears the scars of this transformation. One notes in the photograph the odd juxtaposition of the old facade somewhat a kilter posed next to a more modern one — with both being held in place by old beams. Cement blocks stand side by side with homes made of traditional wattle and daub (al-till wa-taub in Arabic).

al-Qanawat is a friendly neighborhood, without too many of the pretenses that come with renovations in the Walled City – home of restaurants and cafés and hotels de charme. Charme sells! Here you will find nice people going on with their daily lives, under the watchful gaze of their departed president. Hafez al-Asad looks on from many walls in Damascus, his stenciled figure no doubt a reassuring presence in times of strife and toil today. Always watching out. Always watching. The Barada River may be a distant and diminished presence for the residents of Damascus, certainly for those still residing in al-Qanawat, but it’s good to know that the politicians are looking out at them, if not for them.

Please see the proceedings of the SB10 sustainable development conference held in Madrid in April 2010. Much of the data from this entry comes from the conference papers.