Seated on a yellow couch on a rooftop apartment in Beirut overlooking the seaside, 64-year-old Roula Roukbi looks through her photo album recalling her time in Damascus. She is among the few Damascus socialites who created an alternative space for art, culture, and some politics in the city.
She is the daughter of one of the founders of the Baath party from Hamah, and so politics has always been part of her life. Her father, Dr. Faysal Roukbi, distanced himself from the Baath party soon after its establishment and embedded free thinking in the family.
Upon her return from France in 1991, where she read history and French literature at the Sorbonne, Roula encountered a manager at the Al Fardoss Hotel in central Damascus who invited her to join the team. “I never worked in the field of hotel or tourism, although I had some courses during my time in France.” Little did she know on that day that she would spend the next 25 years in the hotel, and over a decade as general manager, building an alternative venue for the middle class and intellectual elite. It was there, under Roula’s management, that some of Syria’s best and brightest exhibited their work, argued, and even planted seeds of future political movements.
Roula’s desk sat right at the entrance of the hotel. Passersby were always able to catch sight of her shock of red hair and her stylish, avant-garde wardrobe. Roula’s posture and appearance made people pay attention to what she said. Visitors would sit by her desk, sipping coffee and discussing the latest news, not only on politics but also on art and culture. Intellectuals such as Mamdouh Adwan, the late Syrian poet and playwright; Ahmad Barkawi, the Palestinian philosopher; Omar Amiralay, the late Syrian documentarian; and Samar Yazbek, the acclaimed novelist, were fixtures at Roula’s table.
In the mid-1990s, she began hosting book signings, art exhibitions, and guests of the Damascus international film and theater festivals, which were held annually and drew artists, filmmakers, and writers from across the Arab world. These included Egyptian actor Mahmoud Hamida, Tunisian director Fadel Al-Jouaibi, and Syrian intellectual Sadek Jalal al-Azm.
She also met foreign journalists, which of course posed a problem in a police state.
Yet Roula walked a knife-edge between what was necessary and what was permitted under the tyranny of the Assad family. She even managed, with her sharp tongue but diplomatic style, to keep at bay the mukhabarat agents who stood outside the Al Fardoss Hotel and prevented them from surveilling her famous guests or projecting their power and influence, as they did at other Syrian venues. Roula excelled at living as if Syria was a free country, and in many respects, her hotel came to embody a microcosm of what freedom might one day look like. The first time she was called in for an interrogation by the mukhabarat, it was after the death of President Hafez al-Assad.
“At the time, there was a big influx of foreign correspondents who came to Damascus to report on the death,” Roula told Newlines. “I met one of them over lunch, as I always do with guests staying in a hotel.” A few days later, a piece was published in Yediot Ahronot, the Israeli daily, quoting a female hotel manager as saying: “It is not acceptable for us Syrians that they change the constitution overnight to justify the new appointment” of Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad, as president. Roula was the only female hotel manager in Damascus at the time. The journalist who had come to Al Fardoss on a French passport turned out to be an Israeli reporter. The mukhabarat officers were furious and asked her why she hosted him in her hotel. She responded that he came to Syria on a visa obtained through the regime, so if he had infiltrated, it was their bosses who were to blame. Nevertheless, she had to deny what she said about the constitution.
The day after Hafez al-Assad died, Roula came to the hotel wearing a light purple dress. The staff were astonished. The hotel owner asked why she wasn’t wearing funeral black. “Thirty thousand people were slaughtered in Hamah and you want me to wear black for him,” she replied.
In 2000, Bashar al-Assad took power in a seamless transition overseen by the old guard who protected his father’s reign. The new, young president came in with promises of change and reform. The so-called Damascus Spring had started, and the Atassi Forum, a weekly meeting at which freedom and democracy were discussed, was established in the hope of encouraging discussion about change and democracy. That year, 99 intellectuals signed a petition calling on the government to abolish the emergency law, which limited people’s freedoms and rights, and introduce changes. The drafting and signing of the petition were initiated during meetings at the Al Fardoss Hotel.
Hopes for democratic change faded that same year. But at Al Fardoss, the coming decade witnessed even more cultural events, some of which included young Syrians who later helped bring about a second spring.
The first decade of Bashar al-Assad’s reign saw some economic changes that benefited the ruling elite. But locally, political freedoms were still absent, and liberalization only benefited cronies of the regime, such Rami Makhlouf, the president’s cousin and telecom magnate, now in disgrace with the regime.
At Al Fardoss, Roula continued her efforts to create an alternative place. The most significant development was the Bayt al-Qasid, the House of Poetry.
Lukman Deirki, an anarchist Syrian Kurdish poet, floated the idea in 2007 and started hosting poetry nights in a traditional house in the Old City of Damascus. Speaking from France where he lives in exile, Lukman said he wanted to exclude the intellectual elite from the poetry evening and open it up to ordinary people. “We used to send invitations to friends and friends of friends and invite those unknown poets to read their lines.” The idea was not to have a podium and a formal poetry night but, rather, an amicable reading over a beer or a glass of wine. Lukman started with a one-man show and then went on with the poetry nights. He would introduce the reader, then have an interval and open it for discussion. As the audience grew bigger, and with Roula’s encouragement, the poetry evenings moved to Al Fardoss. A few steps from the entrance lies the Jackson Club, where the House of Poetry was officially relocated.
There were poets from across Syria, Deir ez-Zor, Suwayda, Daraa, and Latakia. We heard poetry in all different accents.
“We wanted to hear different, new voices among Syrians young and old, but those who are unknown,” Lukman said. “We didn’t want the media or any spotlight; just us bonding. There were poets from across Syria, Deir ez-Zor, Suwayda, Daraa, and Latakia. We heard poetry in all different accents.”
The poetry nights became an open and a weekly ritual that its admirers would attend every Monday at 10 p.m. Soon it expanded to include poets and musicians from different parts of the world. The Egyptian vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm attended the evenings twice and read some of his verses. The Syrian Kurdish musician Said Yousef, who was honored in Sweden with state stamps with his name on them, played the bouzouk there one night.
Bayt al-Qasid attracted the young and old, Arab and foreigners. Damascus, at the time, was a destination for Europeans who wanted to study Arabic. There was no better place for them to practice their skills and translate poetry than the poetry corner Roula and Lukman built.
By Lukman’s estimate, 33 languages and dialects were spoken during the life of Bayt al-Qasid. One night, he recounted, a poet from the Tuareg tribe came. The Tuareg are ethnic Berbers (who self-identify as Imazighen) who inhabit Algeria, Mali, and Niger. The men traditionally cover their faces, and the women rule the tribes. Out of excitement at the crowd’s applause, the Tuareg poet removed his veil and showed his face.
Another night, in 2008, Lukman spotted a famous face, a popular singer from northeast Syria. Omar Souleyman was in Damascus to obtain a visa before leaving for a European tour. He sang traditional pop songs from the region. Lukman invited him to sing at the Al Fardoss; within minutes, the crowd was on its feet, dancing.
There was only one occasion when Bayt al-Qasid got in trouble. A poet read in Kurdish, a language considered taboo by the Assad regime, which had deprived Kurds of their rights and, since 1960, didn’t even count them as citizens. Roula was summoned, and a mukhabarat officer was dispatched to sit and monitor the poetry readings every Monday at Al Fardoss. After a few weeks, the man in the leather jacket who drank soft drinks at the bar loved the atmosphere so much, he started enjoying the readings and switched to whisky. He’d unofficially defected to Roula’s free Syria.
In addition to the poetry readings, cultural debates were held once a month on Wednesday evenings where Syrian intellectuals and writers were invited to share and discuss their work. At the first session, Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa was interviewed by the late intellectual Hassan Abbas, who died in exile in March 2021 after being forced to leave Syria for his political views. The Wednesday evenings also hosted Omar Amiralay, Oussama Mohammad, Drama Director Haitham Hakki, as well as many others in Syria. Although the debates primarily focused on arts, there were always hidden questions about freedom and change.
By March 2011, silence and fear gave way to chants for the downfall of the regime and hope that all of Syria would come to resemble a version of Bayt al-Qasid. At the same time, Roula moved her office to the first floor of Al Fardoss, and the entrance was turned into a café bar that welcomed people from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m. each day. The timing was perfect for the many Damascenes looking to find the right place to meet and discuss what was happening in the country and, more pressingly, what should happen. Roula was there during the day, roaming among the guests, many of whom were her close friends.
Anwar al-Bunni, a lawyer who spent years in prison, and Mazen Darwish, a human rights activist, were among her customers in those heady days of revolution. Both are now in exile and pushing for European investigations into war crimes in Syria. Activists, such as Omar Aziz who initiated the idea behind local councils, the seeds for self-governance, which started in opposition-controlled areas, were also patrons of the café bar. Aziz later died in prison, but all found refuge at the Fardoss café, escaping the close watch of the regime.
Foreigners descended again, too. Among the journalists who came was French correspondent Gilles Jacquier, who was invited by the regime to cover the incipient war in 2012. Jacquier’s visa was granted by Soeur Agnies Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun and a strong defender of the Assad dynasty. One morning, Roula recalled, Jacquier told her he was being forced to go to Homs with Soeur Agnies, lest his visa be revoked. He’d just gone to the rebel-held area of the governorate and didn’t want a regime escort in the loyalist area. Nonetheless, he went with the escort. That day, a mortar struck the building he was in, killing Jacquier. The regime claims it was the rebels; Jacquier’s family say it was the regime.
Damascus, meanwhile, was growing more restrictive. The clientele of Al Fardoss changed to include displaced Syrians who’d lost their homes from the bombings in Homs, Yarmouk, and Zabadani. The owner of the hotel invested in a rooftop bar and installed a Jacuzzi there to entertain what remained of the middle class in Damascus, itself a segment of the population fleeing for other parts of Syria, or other countries, as the war expanded, creeping right up into the capital and its outlying areas. In 2014, one could drink champagne on the Al Fardoss roof while watching the mortars falling over the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
In 2012, Lukman and his family fled to Beirut, then Turkey, before settling as refugees in France. While in exile, he ran a few evenings similar to the Bayt al-Qasid in Damascus, but the feeling of the original was never replicated. In Troyes, where many Syrian artists, writers, and intellectuals reside, Lukman found a bar where he plans to start Bayt al-Qasid in France. Most of the Damascus crowd are also in exile.
In 2016, Roula, too, decided to leave. Most of her friends had already gone. Damascus had become emptied of its life and cultural vibrance, an impossible place to live. So, she went to Beirut, where she continues her political activism empowering refugee women through her work with the organization Woman Now for Development as well as securing education for refugee children with the Kayany Foundation. She still believes change is inevitable in Syria, but she doesn’t expect to witness it in her lifetime.