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Michael Jansen: Enlightening the masses
November 10, 2017
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Opening the Oxford and Cambridge English bookshop in the Syrian city of Homs was a gamble in 2015. While insurgents had been ousted from most of the city by government forces, the war that erupted in Syria in 2011 had not ended. Suicide and car bombings continued to kill and maim in Homs but schools and universities in government-held districts did not close. Children required English reading books and secondary school and university students needed text books.

Ghassan Jansiz, 44, and his wife Marwa al-Sabouni, 35, took the risk. They had remained in Homs throughout the worst days of the fighting although family and friends had fled to Turkey and Egypt. The couple rarely left home for two years. Their architectural office in the Old City, where they designed commercial and home interiors, was destroyed in 2012.

Sitting at his desk at the back of the bookshop, Ghassan told The Gulf Today Marwa “had the idea of opening a bookshop in 2012 when she could not find books she needed for her PhD thesis.” They secured a constant supply of books from the Oxford and Cambridge university presses and the Wiley publishing house in Britain.

While ordering books is a simple procedure, paying for them and getting them to Homs is not at all straightforward. Syria is not only at war but is under Western economic blockade. The Syrian pound cannot be used for external transactions and foreign currencies are difficult to obtain. Payments go from Homs to Beirut then to the US and, finally, to Britain. The books they order have to be sent in small consignments in order to avoid complications with Syria’s education ministries.

Shipments take three months to reach Homs and often go by way of Egypt or Lebanon before arriving in Syria. Consignments can take longer to reach Homs from the Syrian port of Latakia than from Britain to Latakia. In spite of these difficulties, the shop takes only a 10 per cent profit, Ghassan said. Prices are unbelievably low: $1 (Dhs4) for an illustrated children’s reader, $10-20 (Dhs37-73) for thick math or architectural books. Payments are in Syrian pounds. “Students buy many books so prices must be reasonable for them to afford essential texts,” stated Ghassan. While we spoke customers came, browsed or collected books they had ordered. During my earlier visits to the bookshop there was always a flow of clients.

I met Ghassan and Marwa a year ago. Both graduated in architecture from the University in Homs and are dedicated not only to English language books but also to the authentic reconstruction of the city’s built heritage. When we first met, Ghassan gave me a tour around the ancient souq in Homs’ Old City. As the person in charge of the project’s architectural design, he was enthusiastic about the plan adopted by the municipality and the UN Development Programme, which was funding the work. By restoring the souq, the battered but not bowed Old City’s traditional market, planners hoped to restart trade and encourage residents who had fled the fighting to return.

Rubble was being cleared from the streets and roofing pierced by shrapnel and bullets replaced. The team, all young people from Homs, had begun the restoration of a couple of streets. The plan was to rebuild the souq as it was when Ottoman craftsmen had remodelled the 13th century market at the end of the 19th century. Ghassan resigned last May to protest the abandonment of this intention. Although some streets have been restored to their pre-war state, in others, cement and ugly modern cement road tiles are being introduced.

This is a pity. Homs is not just a collection of concrete structures but an ancient city with a long history, a repository of civilisations and an amalgam of different cultures. Syria’s third largest city, Homs is at least 2,500 years old. Some historians date its founding to the era of the Macedonian general Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) whose forces swept across this region and reached Afghanistan and India. Homs was ruled by the Selucid and Roman empires, and rose to prominence as a trading hub when Palmyra was a key centre along the Silk Road stretching from China to the Mediterranean coast. The Byzantines held the city before the Muslims under Caliph Ummar ibn al-Khattab conquered Syria. Homs came under Arab, the Turkish dynasties, the Ottomans and the French before Syria gained independence in April 1946. Consequently, Homs has a wealth of historical relics to preserve.

Well before the souq project was in train Ghassan and Marwa had launched their crusade aimed at restoring Syria’s monuments, mosques, bath houses, shops, and handsome mansions as they were originally. Marwa wrote a book in which she argued that putting people into flats in multi-storey blocks rather than family homes alienated them and contributed to the war in Syria. In the book, The Battle for Home written in English and published in 2016 in Britain, she also argued Syria’s rich cultural heritage must be protected from officials and architects aiming to replace old buildings with modern structures, big business, and owners determined to bulldoze graceful old houses and build flats.

Marwa is rarely in Homs these days. She has taken their crusade to Europe and the US, speaking at festivals and seminars. Ghassan minds their two children, daughter Naya, 12, and son, Ayk, 9, carries on with architectural work during the day, and tends the bookshop evenings.
 
___________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
 

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