Discussing Sami Moubayed’s book “Tramway: The Road to Modernity Passed through Damascus,” which is scheduled for release by Riad El-Rayyes Books in Beirut in early September, Amin Maalouf said that the new book “awakens nostalgia and some hope.”
The release represents the sixth collaboration between Moubayed and El-Rayyes Books. Together, the author and the publishing house issued a series of books on the contemporary history of the city of Damascus.
Their journey began in 2015 when they published “The Forgotten History of Damascus.”
Some of the books that followed include “East of the Umayyad Mosque,” “West of the Synagogue of Damascus,” “Abdul Nasser and the Nationalization” and “Nakba of the Christians of the Levant,” which was published in 2020.
In his newest work, Moubayed focuses his efforts on exposing important factors of the Syrian capital and asks questions like: “Was Damascus ready for change? Did it accept that change out of conviction? Was it really a conservative and classical city steeped in its historical heritage, or a city open to everything new? Finally, was Damascus fanatic, or was it tolerant of its young men and women in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century?”
Modernity and the battle for change in Syrian society from the end of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth century are two main titles in Moubayed’s book.
Moreover, the book tackles the “battle for change,” which, according to Moubayed, was waged on three fronts: between educated youth and their conservative parents, between men and women, and between secularists and clerics.
Based on Moubayed’s theory on Damascus’s “battle for change,” the platforms for conflict have varied and their places have increased as they take place in alleys, neighborhoods, homes, mosques, the campus of Damascus University, theaters, in football stadiums, political parties, clubs and newspapers.”
Ultimately, the book sheds light on all the above-mentioned experiences regardless of whether they succeeded in impacting change or not. Nevertheless, these experiences remained sporadic and did not meet the desire of some enlightenment followers who were eying actual societal change in Damascus.
All these efforts for change were blown away by the military coups that Syria has been experiencing since 1949.
With a total of 416 pages and many rare pictures, Moubayed’s new book is divided into two main parts.
While the first part tells the experience of change in politics and society from the reign of King Faisal I (1919 - 1920) to the separation of Syria from Egypt in 1961, the second part deals with the “battle for change” in the fields of arts and culture.
Art and culture development in Syria can be traced all the way back to the great works of Syrian playwright Abi Khalil Qabbani, the founder of the short musical play in Arabic theater.
Moubayed says that he chose the “Tramway” as the title of his book because of the new life that was born in Damascus thanks to the public transport network that appeared outside the walls of the old city in 1907.
This transport network, along with electricity, which was introduced to Damascus in the same year, contributed to the establishment of entire neighborhoods outside the walls of old Damascus.
Several schools and hospitals were also established.
All this coincided with many Syrian youth migrating to study medicine, engineering, and law in European universities.
In Europe, Syrian students lived in story buildings and multicultural societies.
After returning to Damascus, they found that some of the city’s buildings had become like what they had seen in the diaspora. They also saw a network of main streets connected by small squares, followed by organized sub-streets.
In these new neighborhoods, storied European-inspired buildings were built.
Many wealthy children abandoned their parents’ homes in Old Damascus to live in these new European-style apartments.
In these beautiful, modern, and organized neighborhoods, a new generation of Syrians emerged, different from their parents and grandparents. The new generation was liberal in thought, clothing, and behavior, majorly influenced by European ways of living.
Syrian youth returned from university studies in Europe wearing a hat instead of a fez and pants instead of a brocade jumpsuit. The fez and brocade jumpsuit are a part of Syria’s traditional attire.
They returned to their city with foreign ideas about religion, the state, and society, raising the banner of secularism in their private lives and in raising their children.
These “liberal ideas” flourished beyond their homes. They moved them to their workplaces, in state departments, universities, newspaper offices, and law firms.
Moreover, liberal thought was the highlight topic discussed in clubs and cafes. It was then transferred to political parties established during the independence period.
“If it weren’t for their travels and their knowledge of the experiences of others, this transformation in their lives would not have taken place. If it weren’t for modernity in urbanization and ways of living, these ideas would not have been reflected in their homes, customs, and life experience,” wrote Moubayed.
The beginning of change, according to Moubayed, started with the “tramway” and all the modern neighborhoods that were born around it and because of it. These neighborhoods later became a stronghold for the young men and women of Damascus with the fall of Ottoman rule in 1918.
“One of the tragedies of our East is that social and intellectual modernity, which seems far-fetched today, began to flow generations ago in the veins of its sons and daughters, thanks to creative pioneers who were able to transform this part of the world into a real beacon of progress and civilization,” said Maalouf.
“This is what Moubayed tells us in his wonderful work on Damascus,” he added.
Moubayed’s book documented individual and public attempts at enlightenment in the Syrian capital. Some of them failed, and some succeeded in leaving fingerprints.
What is more important is that the book places the “battle for change” in Syria, in the last decade, in a historical context.
It does so despite its text focusing on the social dimension of the “battle for Damascus,” not the political aspects of the current battle and its toll on the Levantine nation.