by Rana Asfour
First published in 2014 and now in its third (and revised) edition, 'My House in Damascus' is part memoir about British writer and author Diana Darke's time in the Middle East, particularly Syria and also part memoir about her beloved Bait Baroudi - 'The House of the Gunpowder Seller' - a house she bought in 2005 and then restored within the walls of the Old City of Damascus making her one of the few foreigners to do so.
Of course, come 2011 and the sense of peace and belonging that Darke had found in Bait Baroudi came to a shattering end with the Syrian's march against their ruler Bashar Al Assad. Suddenly her oasis of tranquility was no more, her friendships with those closest to her were tested, and her ownership of the house compromised.
With her house now in use as a refuge for displaced friends, her links with Syria are deep and ongoing. She has been back six times since the crises began, most recently to retake her house from war profiteers and remains actively committed to helping Syrians achieve a better future.
Noteworthy to mention that this is not by any means a book about politics although, as is expected, it is far from being devoid of it either. However as one follows the writer's daily experiences with the mixed communities in her neighbourhood (Christian, Sunni, Shi'a) one feels uniquely privileged to receive a first person account of the conditions that the general population of Syria have to deal with as the various political Syrian and non-Syrian factions clash for power, as they leave a trail of blood in their wake.
Diane Darke is a fluent Arabic speaker and as such her choice of various Arabic proverbs and sayings are spot on and reflect a writer who is not only well versed in the Arabic language but also mindful of the region's traditions and rich political, religious and cultural history. That said, the historical record that Darke provides regarding the Syrian cities and their inhabitants is one of the most accurate accounts I've come across in a while. Yet, even they are kept brief. The book is written 'with the pace of a novel and the colour of the best travel writing' as described by the Times Literary Supplement.
The author does a superb job seamlessly bringing together the past and the present to give a fuller and 'clearer understanding of why the country remains locked in conflict and why most ordinary Syrians are caught between a repressive government and a splintering opposition, now overshadowed by a monster called ISIS'.
Diane Darke graduated in Arabic from Oxford University and started her career working for the British Government's General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham. She went on to specialise in the Middle East for over 35 years, living and working in a range of Arab countries as an Arabic translator and consultant for both public and private sectors. Along the way she authored 16 travel guides to the region, including Bradt's Syria, Eastern Turkey and Oman. She is recognised as a fully independent Middle East specialist, and has written for the BBC website, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Financial Times and has been a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent.
For more on the author, visit her website HERE.