A Damascene hotel haven that attracts locals fleeing the fighting
THE SULTAN is a small, family-run hotel in central Damascus near the old Hijaz railway station. Opened in 1976, the moderately priced hotel initially attracted the custom of archaeologists en route to excavations in northern Syria. British crime writer Agatha Christie stayed here with her husband, Max Mallowan, who travelled through Damascus to Iraq’s ancient sites.
Archaeologists gave way to tourists who left books in Japanese, German, Italian, Polish, French and English in the hotel’s small lending library beside the reception desk where Nabil and Hussam welcome guests and surf satellite channels for news.
A German colleague and I are the only foreigners in the hotel, here to witness today’s conflict rather than visit ancient monuments. The Sultan’s other clients are Syrians driven from their homes by warfare, or provincials in the capital on personal business or work.
The Sultan’s stairwell echoes with the footfalls of running children. Their shrill voices counterpoint the dull thuds of explosions on the outskirts of the city. The four girls and skinny boy belong to a Palestinian couple who fled fighting in the Tadamon district and are staying until they find a flat in a safe area.
The husband, who does the shopping, fills the Sultan’s refrigerator with meat and vegetables cooked by his headscarf-wearing wife in hotel pots and pans for the Iftar that breaks the Ramadan fast. Management and staff grumble about the takeover of the kitchen and dining room, where the walls faced in golden metal and tables are covered in hand-woven cloths.
After their meal, the Palestinians settle on divans in front of the television in the salon to watch Ramadan soaps, cartoons and black-and-white Egyptian films from the 1960s.
News hinders digestion.
An elderly Iraqi man with hollow eyes and his grey son from the Qabboun township keep to themselves but Maisa, a divorced librarian from Qudsaya with a girl aged 12 and a boy aged 11 is willing to tell their story.
“The [rebel] Free Army was in our neighbourhood. Some were from Qudsaya, others from different villages,” she said. “They attacked the Syrian army, made explosions, hit some checkpoints. The reaction of the army was huge and in the middle of the night. The bombs were very loud. The kids were frightened. Snipers were on rooftops; they killed people who were not involved in the fight. Shops closed.
“A bullet came into our house through a window. I felt threatened and left. This is the fourth time I come to the hotel.
“The president must go. We must have a new election and a new president. This is the idea of most people. But outsiders must stop supporting both sides with money and weapons.”
Her ex-husband comes every evening with cooked food.