Opening the Oxford and Cambridge English bookshop in the Syrian city of Homs in 2015 as the war in that country raged on was a risky business venture – not least because of its potential to provoke radical jihadis who thrive on anti-foreign feeling and ignorance.
Husband and wife Ghassan Jansiz (44) and Marwa al-Sabouni (35), architects trained at the university here, were not deterred. Sitting at the desk in the back of the narrow shop, Jansiz says his wife had the idea of opening a bookshop in 2012 when she could not find books she needed for her PhD thesis.
They contacted several publishers in Britain – Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Wiley – in order to obtain a wide range of educational books for children and university students. Boxes of books fill the aisle between full shelves and spill out on to the floor.
"We pay for the books in foreign currency," says Jansiz. Payments go from Homs to Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, then to the US and the UK. The books, ordered in small consignments to avoid official interference, are shipped via Cairo or Beirut or the Syrian port of Latakia.
Shipments take three months, and tariffs are paid on entry to Syria. He says the road trip from Latakia to Homs costs more than shipment from the UK to Latakia.
After the long journeys and the red tape required to bring the books to Homs, the shop takes a profit of only 10 per cent rather than the normal foreign mark up of 40-50 per cent. Prices are remarkably low: $1 for an illustrated children’s book and $10-20 for fat maths or architectural texts. “Students buy many books so prices must be reasonable for them to afford essential texts,” Jansiz remarks.
At the start of the war, the Syrian pound was 55 to the dollar; today the official rate is 500 to the dollar. Salaries have not been raised to meet the fall in the value of the pound, and expensive books are priced out of the reach of children and students.
During our conversation, several customers come to browse or collect books they have ordered. A woman arrives with a child in a push chair that blocks the entrance, forcing two girls to wait. Jansiz says the bookshop is good business although his main income comes from architecture.
I met Jansiz and Sabouni more than a year ago. Jansiz gave me a tour around the ancient souq – or market – in Homs' Old City. At that time he headed the souq's reconstruction, commissioned by the UN Development Programme as a pilot project designed to restart commerce at the heart of the area and encourage residents of the Old City to return and rebuild damaged homes.
The city suffered heavy bombardment by Syrian army forces in an offensive against rebel-held areas in 2012.
A year ago, wreckage and rubble were being cleared from the souq, roofing pierced by shrapnel and bullets was brought down, and Jansiz’s team, all from Homs, had begun laying black stone tiles in a couple of streets in the souq.
After my tour with Jansiz, I went to the bookshop where Sabouni held forth on the need to reconstitute Syria’s traditional buildings and preserve the country’s splendid historical and cultural assets: Ottoman bath houses, medieval mosques, handsome mansions and arcades of narrow shops.
Before travelling to Homs I had read her book, The Battle for Home, published in April 2016 by Thames and Hudson. This battle is, she said, to save Syria's built heritage from interfering officials, big business, big-name architects wedded to modern fashions in building, and owners of graceful old houses determined to replace them with inhospitable blocks of flats.
When I asked where she had learned her fluent English, she replied simply: “Self taught”. Jansiz understands English but speaks it haltingly.
Sabouni believes Syria's civil war was partly caused by the division and alienation of ethnic and religious communities while living in ghettoes in antisocial blocks of flats rather than comfortable family homes. In her book she goes into some detail about Baba Amr, the earliest Homs battleground between rebels and the Syrian army. She contends the way the city is reconstructed could determine whether Homs regains political stability.
Her book and articles have made her a jet-setting campaigner for the cause of rebuilding Homs “from the ground up” to suit the needs and visions of the city’s inhabitants, making them feel at ease and at home.
‘I am the babysitter’
On this visit, Jansiz says his wife is now in Britain where she spoke at the Festival of the Future City in Bristol before moving on to London to take part in BBC and CNN interviews and to Oxford for another event. Next month, she will travel to Geneva and in February 2018 to Seattle in the United States. She previously went to the World Economic Forum focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, held annually at the Dead Sea in Jordan. "What about the children?" I ask Jansiz. "I am the babysitter," he replies with a shrug. Their daughter Naya is 12 and son Ayk is nine.
Jansiz and Sabouni remained at home throughout the worst days of the fighting in Homs while family and friends departed for Turkey and Egypt. The couple rarely left home for two years. Their architectural office, where they designed commercial and home interiors, was destroyed in 2012.
"We stayed in Syria to rebuild the city according to original plans, rebuild like it is Palmyra," says Jansiz, referring to the 2,000-year-old city treasured by the Department of Archaeology. The couple would like Unesco to declare the whole of Homs's Old City a world heritage site.
The couple are conducting simultaneous crusades. The bookshop is a success. Residents of Homs are eager to buy and read books providing them with English, the global lingua franca.
Preserving Homs’s – and Syria’s – built heritage is a more challenging endeavour. In May, Jansiz quit as chief architect on the souq project because both UN and local officials had deviated from the plan to preserve its character. Nevertheless, neither Jansiz nor Sabouni has declared defeat in the battle for home.