A door to Damascus

14th January 2014

News, Alumni news

The richness and multi-faceted nature of Syrian society is explored through the purchase and restoration of a Damascus house, in a new book by Wadham alumna Diana Darke (1974, German and Philosophy/Arabic).

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    Diana in the courtyard of her Damascus house


  • Diana with her husband John McHugo

    Diana with her husband John McHugo (1970, Arabic) by Damascus's Barada River in April 2012

  • A 19th century 'secret ceiling' discovered on restoration.

    A 19th century 'secret ceiling' discovered on restoration.

  • ajami

    18th century wooden painted wall panelling known as 'ajami', located in the reception room.

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  • Wadham Image - bookcover_0

My House in Damascus - An inside view of the Syrian revolution illuminates the darker recesses not just of Syria’s history and politics, but also its society and secrets. The book draws on Diana’s first-hand knowledge of Syria’s many communities, explaining why Syria was always a special case and why the Assad regime was never as likely to collapse as those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Having studied Arabic at Wadham, Diana became deeply embedded in all levels of Syrian society when she bought and restored a house in Damascus. In September 2012, as fighting intensified, she offered her house as a sanctuary to Syrian friends.

Diana explains: “I bought the house in 2005, and spent three years renovating it and restoring it with the help of a Syrian architect and local craftsmen. It is a blend of elements from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries which have survived earthquakes, fires and wars. Situated in a mixed Sunni/Shi’a neighbourhood of the walled Old City, it is safe so far, but no one knows what dangers it may face in future as the course of the war changes in ways no one can foresee.”

“The house currently serves as a refuge for many Syrian friends who have been displaced from their homes by the fighting, sometimes more than once. All are apolitical, from a mix of backgrounds, just normal people who want their lives back and are praying for this nightmare to end. They are being forced helplessly to watch the destruction of their country, as outside powers, driven by national interests, determine their fate.”

By following her experiences and struggles with the realities of life on the ground from the 1970s until the present day, the book explores why Syria remains locked in conflict and why an estimated 75% of the population – the ‘silent majority’ – remain undecided between a repressive government and the splintering opposition.

Given the current tragedy inside Syria, I feel it is more important than ever to produce a book that is not just another political commentary, but a proper exploration of the richness and multi-faceted nature of Syrian society, to help the reader understand the social, economic, environmental and educational challenges that face Syria even beyond its revolution/civil war.

Diana Darke

Tutored by Ray Ockenden, Diana Darke (nee Taylor) graduated in Arabic from Wadham in 1977. The book has taken her some four years to put together and she describes it as: “a kind of 'life's work’, distilling my 30-plus years' experience of the Middle East.”

Always a keen linguist, Diana's interest in the Middle East began when she made a late decision during her first year at university to switch from German and Philosophy to Arabic. After immersing herself in Arabic grammar texts over the summer, she joined the second-years reading the Koran, and a passion was born.  

She went on to specialise in the Middle East for over thirty years, living and working in a range of Arab countries as an Arabic translator and consultant for both public and private sectors. Author of 16 acclaimed guides to the region, including Bradt’s Eastern Turkey, Northern Cyprus and Oman, she is well known as an authority on Syria, contributing to the Guardian, the Financial Times and the BBC.

She first knew Syria in 1978 whilst based at an Arabic language school in Lebanon. Three years into its own civil war, travel within Lebanon was severely restricted, so she spent most weekends and language breaks exploring neighbouring Syria in her battered Citroën 2CV.

Syria has always been her favourite Arab country and in 2004, with a commission to write Bradt’s Syria guide, she set off on a series of research trips round the country. Little did she know that it would lead not only to buying her Damascus house, but also to a revival of her interest in Arabic philosophy and literature, to completing an MA in Islamic Architecture and even to starting a PhD focussing on the residential Ottoman architecture of Old Damascus.

Diana’s husband, John McHugo (1970), another former graduate of Wadham (in Arabic) is also publishing a book on Syria, due out in May, Syria: From Great War to Civil War 1914-2014, a history of the last 100 years published by Saqi. After postgraduate research into medieval Islamic thought, John became a solicitor and worked as an international lawyer. His other book (also with Saqi) A Concise History of the Arabs came out last year.      

My House in Damascus is published by Haus Publishing Ltd and is available from Waterstones, the Guardian bookshop and Amazon.

This is a love letter to Syria, a story of re-building a beautiful Damascene house as a beloved country falls apart. Read it and you will discover a Syria that lies behind our daily headlines. It could only have been written by someone who has lived there, knows its language, and its people. With its strong writing, and strong views, this book takes you on a journey through a difficult history to discover a deep heritage, and won't leave you without hope.

BBC chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet

Supporting higher education in Syria

Diana will donate 15% of her royalties and the publishers will donate £1.50 per copy sold of this book to a Higher Education Fund for Syrians, administered by the Saïd Foundation. Diana explains her choice of charity below.

"Higher Education as the charity of choice for Syria perhaps requires some explanation, at a time when it is the youngest children, destitute and parentless, who catch the imagination and the headlines in Syria’s tragic war. But this ‘lost generation’ of the very young, if they are to have any chance of a better future in a better Syria, will desperately need a pool of talented Syrians who can help rebuild their country. Some 60% of Syria’s population is under 25, and at least half of its university students have had their studies interrupted.

When a country goes through the kind of terrible physical and psychosocial destruction that Syria has suffered for the last three years, the political transition phase will inevitably be fragile. Skilled leadership with well-educated support will be essential to help steer the country through this critical post-conflict period, yet research shows that Higher Education is one of the slowest areas to recover, making relapses more likely.  Graduates in Law must therefore be one of the top priorities, to set up a fair and depoliticised legislative system which will gradually rebuild trust in the state, so absent for so long.  Economics and Management will also be priorities, to start regenerating the businesses and industries that will create future employment and prosperity for the country.

Just before the Syrian revolution broke out, the Saïd Foundation had planned a 10-year programme to modernise the out-dated Syrian curriculum and to improve the quality of teaching at Damascus University. Once conditions permit, work on this will resume and in the meantime students who have fallen out of higher education because of the crisis are being helped to access it elsewhere in the region.

The Saïd Foundation also supports Syria Relief, a non-political, non-denominational UK-based charity set up by Syrians in summer 2011 to bring humanitarian and medical relief into the parts of Syria where UN and other international agencies have not been permitted to operate.

The sheer scale of the challenge is immense, but that makes it all the more important to help in all ways possible. The most important message of this book, despite the horrors, is one of hope, hope for what must ultimately emerge as a better and stronger Syria:  Higher Education is all about giving knowledge, confidence and hope."

Diana Darke