Ancient Modernity or Modern Antiquity?

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By Nolan DiFrancesco > Junior > International Studies > Johns Hopkins University
It is only a two-hour taxi ride away, yet Damascus feels like a different world. Beirut is a city of posh high-rises, swanky nightclubs and nice cars. But Damascus, or Al-Sham in Arabic, can aptly be described as old. Really old. In fact, people have lived there for so many thousands of years that Damascus earns the title of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

But the capital city of Syria may not be all that you think it is. It is heavily Islamic and conservative, certainly more conservative than nearby Beirut. Still, the city and its people find ways to surprise. Even the women who choose to dress in burqas are often keen to show off a Western sense of fashion, whether through flashy jewelry or fashionable sunglasses. Alcohol is also readily available throughout the city–though Syrianbeer leaves something to be desired.
Take Mustafa. He is something close to royalty in Islamic culture; he is “men al-bayt,” or "of the house." This means he can trace his family lineage through official documentation all the way back to the prophet Muhammad. Truth. He showed me his ID card, complete with every name of every great-great-grandfather. But Mustafa is no Quran-wielding imam. He is a big fan of American movies and American women. He told me all of this as we shared a beer together in one of Damascus’ contemporary cafes.
I think Mustafa’s story is a good representation of life in Damascus. Religion and family are still the largest factors in people’s lives, yet this is a society discovering icons of modernity such as Facebook (the website officially became legal here just three weeks ago). As unprecedented change sweeps across the Arab world, it is difficult to predict what will happen in Syria. But for now, it is a modernizing place that offers visitors an incredible look into ancient history. I hope to travel to Syria many times in the coming months, and I will offer a closer look at this society as it transforms in ways that are impossible for us to imagine.


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