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Damascus 1946-1963: From the Reinvented City to the Populist Authoritarian State

Claudia Ghrawi

This research project engages with the manifold appropriations and reinventions of the city of Damascus by its old and new inhabitants in the post-independence period from 1946 until the political takeover of the Ba’th-party in 1963. It intends to investigate forms of subaltern and middle-class urbanism, i.e. practices and imaginations of urban life in a profoundly changing socio-political urban microcosm that was exemplarily for the transformation process from elite centered to populist authoritarian state. Hence, the project does not merely aim at retracing the causalities which provided the path for installing populist authoritarian rule within the socio-political arena of the Syrian capital. It also attempts to investigate alternative models of community, shaped and experienced in the transforming old quarters and newly emergent suburbs of post-war Damascus, and the possibilities they held for the nascent Syrian state, of which authoritarian one-party rule and sectarian factionalism might have been not the sole probable outcomes. The nature of changing urbanism in Damascus between 1946 and1963 and the possibilities it held for socio-political change on the urban and national level shall be uncovered by answering the following questions: How did the influx of rural population into growing suburbs and the parallel establishment of a new middle class in the old city quarters change the spatial and social organization of the city? What forms of interchange existed between the various religious, ethnic, and social communities and what practices of self-affirmation and integration into the wider socio-political urban fabric did exist? How did individual and shared rituals (spatial, religious) interfere with urban planning and governance? What (new) discursive practices of rule and conflict-mediation existed, how did communities mobilize for the pursuit of their social and political aims – what forms of cooperation existed between them? How did the politics of the quarter/community feed back into politics of the city and the state? To this end documentation compiled by foreign states and their diplomatic and commercial missions in Damascus – mainly France (Centre des Hautes Études Administratives sur l'Afrique et l'Asie Modernes, Paris; Ministère de la Défense/Service historique de l'armée de terre, Vincennes; Archives de la chambre de commerce et d'industrie, Marseille), the United States (National Archives, Department of State, College Park, MD), Germany (Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes and Bundesarchiv, Berlin), and Egypt for the period of 1958-1961 (Dar Al-Kuttub Al-Masryyia, Cairo) – shall be analyzed. Another group of primary sources are the collections by Christian missions on their religious, educational and health activities in Damascus until 1963 (Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, Archives générales des Capucins, Archives générales des Frères Mineurs Franciscains and Archives du Collegio Urbano, Rome). A third approach offer collections of contemporary Syrian, Damascene and Lebanese newspapers (collections exist for example in the American University Beirut and the Library of Congress, Washington). Auto-biographies and fictional accounts on urban life in Damascus in the 1950s and 1960s, like for example the works of Zakaria Tamer and Suheil Fadel (alias Rafik Schami) can add personal perspectives of individuals from different social backgrounds. Methods of utilizing literary sources for historical research are tested in a current research project which deals with questions of urbanity and social mobilization in Saudi Arabian oil cities in the same period.