As a university student in the early 2000s, I lived off and on in the informal settlements that surround Damascus. At that time, I did not notice where the capital city ended and its slums began – rather, they formed a continuous urban fabric, where the uglier it was, the more spacious the housing was. Living in the informal settlements suited my meagre income and modest needs for housing and food. My acquaintances at that time also lived in the slums. There, with comrades and friends from various classes and political backgrounds, especially from the left, we discussed destiny, the future and the past. What I believed at the time was a class affiliation that united us, I see today as yet another type of belonging: living there played a hidden role in papering over our differences and contradictions and united us in the face of Baathist Syria’s stifling inequality and discrimination.
I moved between many different rental homes in Jaramana, some of them in newly-sprouted neighbourhoods on agricultural land still laden with traces of damp soil, as well as animals and insects that had not yet adapted to the chaotic human occupation of the place. There, I lived in a basement with no lighting, where the water pumps never rested, scouring for droplets of water to draw from the poorly laid pipes. In Qaboun, I climbed the upper floors of buildings without columns or iron rebar, where you could feel the building swaying beneath you after a heavy step. In al-Hajar al-Aswad, the local mosque was in a nearby apartment, and the noise of the muezzins penetrated the thin walls. Drinking water mingled with the sewage and garbage that accumulated freely between houses. At the edge of the Yarmouk camp, I arrived at a void where rubble and landfills grew like mountains. I visited friends many times in Masaken Al-Arin and Al-Haras and in one of them, I saw a waterfall of sewage. I spent a few nights in Mezzeh 86 and Ashrafiyat Sahnaya, wandered and ate in Al-Tabaleh, and got lost in Dwelaa.
Despite all that strangeness, I was not a stranger in those areas. I quickly grew accustomed to its ugliness: the sight of bare cinder blocks, hanging electric cables and open sewage pipes. Apart from the chaos and the absence of a unified architectural system, without a building code, structural studies, or any space left for the public – what those slums share is that their main visible elements are limited almost completely to cinder blocks and cement, rather than the aluminium and corrugated metal as some other slums in the world. My eyes grew used to the rectangles of cement blocks, their yellowish-grey hue, the stacked buildings climbing on top of each other. And in the few spaces that this architecture recedes from, where there is a bit of open area, the blue of the sky appears more grey – a background for the rust of antennas and satellites and red plastic water tanks.
In these places, there is no state with institutions, but rather chaos, equipped – when necessary – with the weapons of security forces. It was there that I first witnessed a violent clash between Syrian authorities and the people, when law enforcement forcefully evicted the residents of the Al-Kabas informal settlement to expand a public road. No financial compensation, no alternative housing, nothing for residents who had just been thrown into the street to watch bulldozers demolish the ruins they had lived in. Those people defended their miserable homes with all the strength they had. They defended their right to live in that chaos, in the face of an authority that sees them only as a burden. At that moment, I understood the meaning of having a home, even in a slum.
Title: The Right to Slums
Writer: Mazen Ezzi
Date: 01 December, 2023