Culture in Crisis: At Home in Syria, Talk With Zahed Tajeddin & Diana Darke, V&A, 23 October 2017

An excellent talk and reception at the V&A – part of the Culture In Crisis series – two contrasting stories about houses in war-torn Syria. 

Diana Darke is an English writer and broadcaster who bought and restored a villa house in the Old City of Damascus some years ago. She talked about the multi-faith, multi-cultural nature of Damascus; we learned that Sunnis and Shias often intermarry in Damascus; those folk are known as Sushis. The old city in Damascus has not been badly damaged in the war, but a corrupt lawyer tried (unsuccessfully) to steal Diana’s house from her. She’s written a book about it – click here – Janie bought the book after the talk.

Janie and I took tea at the Umayyad Palace Restaurant, Damascus, 1997

Zahed Tajeddin is an artist from Aleppo. He bought and restored an old villa house in the old city of Aleppo several years ago. He explained that most of the old city of Aleppo was very dilapidated when he was growing up; his grandparents were the last generation to use those houses as comfortable residences. But a restoration trend had started towards the end of the last century with a few restored and used as restaurants – Janie and I knew about that…

Janie and I dined at the Sissi House Restaurant, Aleppo, in 1997
Janie and I dined at the Sissi House Restaurant, Aleppo, in 1997

…but Zahed chose to buy and restore one to its former glory and residential purpose. His description of the project and his pictures were, for me, probably the best bit of the talk. Of course Zahed’s house has been severely damaged in the war; many of the neighbouring houses have been completely destroyed.

Aleppo street in 1997
An Aleppo Street in 2017

Both stories were fascinating. Zahed’s story is sadder, but both of the speakers demonstrated incredible courage and resilient determination to overcome their respective difficulties. Incredibly, Zahed has already started restoring his house again.

There wasn’t much time for questions, which was possibly just as well, because the few questions that did come up were a bit daft.

There was however plenty of time for a glass of wine and chat after the talk. Janie got to buy the book and chat briefly with both of the speakers, asking them far more sensible questions than those that came earlier from the lecture hall grand-standers. We met a couple of interesting young people; one young Oxford student who wants to go to Syria as part of her studies and one young Syrian student at SOAS.

A fascinating evening, rounded off with some fine sushi from the Sushi Shop in South Kensington…we’re talking Japanese style fish here, not a Damascene mix of Sunni and Shia people.

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