The Making of a Cosmopolitan Quarter: Sha’laan in the 20th Century

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Dawn Chatty


In 2001, the French Institute in Damascus (IFPO), in collaboration with the Maison de l’Orient de la Méditerranée/Université de Lyon 2 (GREMMO), and the Faculty of Architecture and Geography at the University of Damascus, began a multidisciplinary study of Damascus which undertook to examine the architecture, and the socio-economic development of Sha’laan.  Dr Anne-Marie Bianquis, a geographer at GREMMO, began the scoping study of the Sha’laan quarter in that year.  This included an examination of cadastral surveys, satellite photographs and detailed descriptions of the quarter by French bureaucrats, visitors’ reports and private diaries. In June 2006, with the mission of Dr Françoise Metral, some of the notable families of this quarter were identified and interviewed.  Dr Metral’s survey highlighted the fact that the extended family of the Ruwalla Bedouin tribal leader, Emir Nuri Sha’laan, had played a significant part in establishing this once late Ottoman agricultural settlement into an important political and economic centre of Damascus.  My role in the project was to contribute to the ethnographic history of the quarter through the personal testimonies of its inhabitants.  With the support of a grant from the Council for British research in the Levant (CBRL), I made three research trips to Damascus between May 2008 and April 2009 seeking out a representative sample of the oldest living residents of the quarter who could contribute to an anthropology of this quarter.   I engaged a research assistant, Jihad Darwaza, who ably sought out and negotiated informed consent with potential interviewees.  Over three two-week periods I conducted a total of 22 interviews with a wide range of current and former residents in the quarter from the grandson of the Emir Nuri Sha’laan to a retired geography teacher turned bookseller. We interviewed shopkeepers and merchants who had maintained business in the quarter for over a half century and others who had been present in the quarter for decades but had recently sold up and moved to outlying suburbs of the city to take advantage of soaring real estate prices in Sha’laan.

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