By Alex Ray
A chance Facebook encounter revives the story of a unique Syrian establishment after six years of war and tragedy.
My time as a foreign student of Arabic in Syria’s ancient capital began in typecast Damascene style.
Two young guides collected me from the smoky airport and dropped me outside the towering old-city walls adjacent to the Christian quarter and ‘Straight Street’ – referenced in the Bible for its connection with St Paul. From the city wall hung a rope ladder and a winch dangling a hook. This was the ‘grand entrance’ to the Damascus Hostel, Syria’s only youth hostel, when I arrived in February 2011.
Depending on their fitness and sense of adventure, new arrivals climbed the eight-metre ladder while their luggage was winched to the top of the wall. They were deposited in the main courtyard nestled among mezzanine terraces, dizzying staircases, and hidden rooms. Rescued tortoises and rabbits roamed the grounds, feeding on kitchen scraps, while travelers and students sipped sweet tea and shared stories of exploring the millennia of history in the surrounding city. Local youth volunteers and staff helped plan trips around the country and advised foreign students on how to navigate life in Damascus.
Before it fell into chaos and war from 2011, Syria was the top choice for most foreign students of Arabic. Syria was cheap, safe and relatively unadulterated by Western culture and had colloquial dialect close to modern standard Arabic. The University of Damascus and French Institute (IFPO) were major destinations for immersive language courses.
However, such authenticity came with a cost. Getting set up in Syria with little or no Arabic and no experience of negotiating the bloated and inefficient Syrian bureaucracy was a major obstacle. Trips to ministry or university offices to extend a visa or enrol in Arabic courses left many foreign students traumatised. The process of shuttling from one stamp-littered desk to another, reduced many foreigners to sign language and appeals to the sympathy of unmotivated chain-smoking employees. Even finding accommodation in a country where unmarried youth rarely live alone posed a challenge. This was where the Damascus Hostel stepped in.
Set up in 2006, when the Syrian government was selectively liberalising the country and burnishing its global image, the hostel offered comprehensive help to those setting up in Damascus for long periods of study. Some rudimentary internet advertising and contact via a personal email address was enough to ensure you would be warmly welcomed into the hostel family. New arrivals were paired with local youth who would walk them through the necessary processes for establishing residence in Damascus. Noel, a 21-year-old Christian student from Bab Touma was my guide. He told me he was then considering marrying his Muslim girlfriend, despite both families’ objections.
Students often took rooms in family homes in Bab Touma or other predominantly Christian areas. Large Damascene houses typically were designed for multiple generations of one family and often had spare rooms. Living with a family was a guaranteed way to learn Arabic faster though many students desired greater privacy and freedom than joining a conservative Muslim or Christian family could offer.
Noel found me a room in a dilapidated three-storey Damascene house near the underground 5th century Chapel of Saint Ananias in Bab-Touma. Run by elderly French-speaking sisters Fathiya and Teres, the house was built around a huge internal courtyard ringed by rooms accommodating students from Europe, Korea and Japan. Heating came from wood and ‘gaz’ (a crude local diesel) boilers that were left to peter out overnight. Each morning at exactly 07.50 the sisters would heat water for the single shower between eight people and call “Douche! Douche!” into the courtyard, sparking a stampede of students who all had to be at university 45 minutes later.
The adventure of exploring Damascus and its cultures was soon cut short however. The outbreak of protests and sporadic conflict throughout March saw foreign embassies issue travel warnings for all of Syria. When the Syrian government closed all land borders foreign students quickly abandoned the buzzing university campus. Like many, I hoped the troubles would quickly subside and it would soon be possible to return.
However, it wasn’t until November 2016, after five years of fighting and hundreds of thousands dead, that I again found myself outside the heavy iron door of the Damascus Hostel.
Despite signs of life – clothes hung out to dry and used cooking pots in the gloomy kitchen – no one answered my knock at the door. The rope ladder had gone and windows were broken and dirty. Neighbours said the building was now occupied by refugee families from the devastated Damascus suburbs of Jobar and Ghouta, that the owner “Abu Saleem” had gone to Jordan and his wife Tahani now looked after the hostel. Learning I was Australian, neighbour Josie asked me to help her migrate to Australia “to get away from the Muslims” as she put it. She had already fled violence in Homs in 2011. Back in Amman, I could find no trace of “Abu Saleem” – until 2018 when he emerged under another name.
Among Amman’s expatriate Facebook groups one “Raymond Gordon” frequently popped up with helpful comments on every aspect of life in in the Jordanian capital. Gordon often engaged in some not-so subtle spruiking of the Amman Pasha Hotel, one of the few hostel-style establishments in Amman. The hotel’s rooftop boasted a clear view of Amman’s Roman amphitheatre and tellingly, a veritable petting zoo of rescued tortoises, rabbits and other animals. The hotel’s other offerings – language chat groups, tours, communal dinners and volunteering opportunities – sounded familiar, and one day it clicked. Raymond Gordon was who I had corresponded with via email to arrange my stay at the Damascus hostel in 2011. He had now brought his enthusiasm for hostel hospitality to Amman.
Gordon was delighted to meet a former guest of the hostel and fellow Australian and invited me over to the Amman Pasha for a chat.
Gordon it turned out, is originally Palestinian, born Elias Salim Saleh Alasad to Christian parents in Haifa in 1946. Forced to relocate to Nablus with the creation of Israel in 1948 the family faced “abject poverty” with the loss of his father’s job as a sign-writer at Haifa port. If that was not enough, young Elias then contracted Polio. Overcoming the disease, Alasad managed to make his way to Kuwait as a young man, where he worked in hydroponic agriculture until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war broke out. Unable to return to Palestine, he sought a new home for his family. From Kuwait he traveled by land and sea to Italy via Damascus, Beirut and Cairo, where he applied to migrate to Australia in late 1968.
Adopting a new identity as Raymond Gordon, he eventually made good money as a Perth-based textiles and fashion trader, where he says he became known as ‘the King of Fashion’. On frequent trips to Asia he stayed in fancy hotels but missed the genuine socialising of hostels he had experienced in Australia. “Guests at five-star hotels aren’t often friendly or sociable, they look down at everyone. I like to talk and hear travel stories so I decided to create my own place that was down to earth, comfortable and relaxed” he said.
Gordon had fallen in love with the depth of Damascene culture during his first visit in 1967 and saw an opportunity to share that hospitality in semi-retirement in the ancient capital – once a popular stop on the hippy trail of the 1960s and ’70s. In an emotional reminder of constancy and change, my own mother visited me in Damascus in April 2011, bearing notes and a faded photo of an Aleppan trader with whom she had hitch-hiked from Germany to Syria in 1972.
By the 2000s however, many travellers were deterred from Syria and much of the Middle East by by wars, rising extremism and increasing anti-Western sentiment. While still well-known for grand colonial-era hotels such as the Baron in Aleppo and the Palmyra in Baalbek, the region was short on backpacker and hostel culture.
Gordon is accustomed to adversity. Yet he recounted that setting up the hostel in Damascus was so difficult that only “love and devotion” to both Syrian culture and hostel life saw him through. Unable as a foreigner to purchase heritage-listed property in Syria, Gordon relied on a close friend, Khalid, to list the property under his name. Before long the omnipresent and brutal Syrian intelligence services (mukhabarat) began to periodically interrogate Khalid along the lines of “‘Who do you hide?’ What do you do?’ ‘Do you hide any Jews, any Americans, any spies?’” says Gordon.
To take the heat off Khalid – his family’s only son – Gordon transferred the title to a Syrian lawyer who he trusted. However, “the same thing happened, the mukhabarat took him for questioning and they made his life hell,” Gordon said.
Gordon found a legal work-around that allowed foreign companies to invest in property in Syria and transferred the title of the hostel to his company and name. He summarised the experience as complicated, costly, and unsafe – after two years of stress he closed his company and transferred the business back to Khalid, his “right hand man.” Despite the trouble behind the scenes, business was “very profitable,” Gordon said.
In early 2011, soon after returning from a visit to Australia, the mukhabarat detained Gordon for several weeks. “As soon as I was released the war broke out. I came to Amman and put the property in my Syrian wife’s name.”
By early April 2011 most foreign students were forced to abandoned their studies and almost overnight, the once-lively University of Damascus language centre was left empty – as was the Damascus Hostel.
After Raymond left to Jordan, Tahani converted the hostel to another form of communal shelter – housing for displaced families from the devastated Damascus outer suburbs of Jobar and Harasta. Each small room housing a whole family, up to a dozen people in some cases.
It had been Harasta where I first witnessed signs of serious disquiet in 2011. My mother and I had planned a trip to Ma’aloula, one of the Middle East’s oldest Christian towns, where Aramaic, a language from the time of Jesus Christ was still spoken. The Harasta bus station was however empty that Good Friday morning. A taxi driver reluctantly agreed to take us for the hefty sum of 2000 Syrian pounds each way.
On the way out of Damascus we realised the source of his reluctance. Plain-clothed security had commandeered the public and private buses missing from the station to close off all highway exits into the outer suburb of Douma. The men’s leather jackets shielded them from the crisp morning air but failed to conceal assault rifles and shotguns. “To stop trouble makers from entering the city,” our driver told us. On the return trip the exits were still blocked. To enter the city and avoid questioning our driver had to ferret out a path for the boxy yellow taxi through ancient lanes built only for pedestrians and horse and cart.
Seven years later, in Amman I told Gordon, “they [the hostel’s neighbours] mentioned someone called Abu Saleem?” “That’s me,” he chuckled.
Despite the police interrogations, Gordon was nostalgic about his four years at the hostel. “I was having a great happy retirement in one of the best cities in the world. You know you go down Bab Touma [in Damascus’ old city] and you’d have more Westerners and visitors than locals. It was very, very popular.”
I asked Gordon to name his most memorable guests. “Well I never forget the mukhabarat! There was a daily visit and a daily tax that I had to give them. Abu Fadi, Abu Elias, Abu Naser, all of them were called Abu … as they won’t give you their real names,” he said, describing the common tradition of Arab parents taking the name of their first-born son.
Despite ongoing health problems Gordon continues the spirit of the Damascus Hostel in Amman where tourists, students and those generally uninitiated into Arab culture find a welcome and engaging home at the Amman Pasha Hotel. Touring the five-storey hotel I asked Gordon about the rescued animals that populate the rooftops and lobbies of his hostels. “They remind me of back home, Australia, where I lived for over 40 years,” he said.
Gordon also rescues falcons and other birds of prey from the Jordanian black market, setting them free once they have recovered. How do the rabbits feel about that? I asked. “Loss is a natural part of life,” he replies.
Characteristically, Gordon’s new premises in Amman reflect his generosity and sense of community. The hostel runs a soup kitchen, donates used clothes and has put more than a dozen youth through university through providing small loans for university fees. Students repay the loans once they get a job, with many working in the Amman Pasha itself.
While hostel accommodation remains relatively uncommon in the Arab world my visits to Syria in 2016 and 2018 suggest the Damascus Hostel and its associated culture will soon be back in demand. Declining violence is prompting businesses to start gearing up for the return of tourists. This positivity in Damascus in late 2018 was noticeable among youth, with an increase in community service and cross-regional networking seeming to have emerged as a result of war and displacement.
Many young people have become involved in volunteering activities in support of communities they had no prior link with. Late one evening, after shops in the old city’s Souk Hamaddiyeh had closed I came across more than a dozen youth playing team-building games in the square in front of the Umayyad Mosque. They were representative leaders from every province of Syria working together to train children to cope with psychological trauma. Their cooperation across so many supposed divides reminded me of Noel, the Damascus Hostel volunteer who had so warmly helped me settle into Damascus, and I hoped that he and his Muslim girlfriend had found a way to stay together despite the cleavages of war.
Similarly, when many regional universities closed due to violence, their students moved to Damascus or the coastal cities of Lattakia and Tartous, thereby mingling with other young people from all over the country. Damascus has also seen a noticeable increase in nightlife since 2011 in the comparatively safe old city bar hotspots around Straight Street. Some suggested that this is a result of returning youth’s experiences in European cities and Beirut.
In Amman, Gordon is aware of these changes and already planning a trip back to Syria. “As soon as I go back and the situation is settled I intend to renovate the hostel and open, inshallah [God willing],” he says.
As of May 2019 Gordon said the hostel has been gradually emptied of internally displaced tenants, and his relatives are beginning the early stages of renovation.