Conversations: Selling Military Antiques in Wartime

GHOUTA, SYRIA – Eastern Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs was once a main Syrian agricultural and industrial hub home to some 2 million people. But since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the region, just eight miles (13 km) outside the capital, has become the scene of some of the worst destruction and violence, forcing most of its residents to flee.

In the conflict’s early months, peaceful protests in Ghouta’s administrative center, Douma, were met with government force. In September 2011, one of the first armed opposition groups established itself in the area, and by early 2013, most of Eastern Ghouta was controlled by armed Syrian opposition groups, the largest of them being the Army of Islam, or Jaish al-Islam.

Today, conditions are grim in Ghouta, where the government’s indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling have resulted largely in civilian deaths. The Violation Documentation Center estimates that at least 6,160 people were killed in Douma alone, and a report byAmnesty International last August found that government air attacks on the area are “indiscriminate and disproportionate.”

Matters are made worse by a regime- and rebel-maintained siege that has left Ghouta’s remaining population struggling for food, medicine and services. The government began to restrict civilian movement and cutting off water and electricity in late 2012. Non-state armed groups also restrict civilians’ mobility, and have heavily inflated food prices. Most of Ghouta’s infrastructure has been destroyed by airstrikes, including at least 10 medical facilities.

But amid the rubble and wreckage in Douma, a place where most people are only willing to buy the basic necessities, a small, family-run, antique shop still stands.

Despite the warring factions, airstrikes and siege, 26-year-old Abu Abdo opens his family’s antique shop every day. The shop displays vintage swords, daggers and china sets, some more than 1,000 years old. The shop owner spoke with Syria Deeply about his decision to remain in his wartorn hometown and keep his family’s business running, despite no longer being able to sell anything. Abandoning his family’s trade, he told Syria Deeply, would be a form of death itself.

Syria Deeply: What made you stay in Douma, despite the war and siege?

Abu Abdo: I have a wife and two children, and we live in a small house in the center of Douma. All my friends and relatives have left. They all advised me to leave Ghouta, and either move to Damascus, or try to seek asylum in Europe. I refused to leave Eastern Ghouta in order to preserve my shop. I have not left because this place is who I am. It is my soul.

This shop is more than 70 years old, and I inherited the shop from my father 15 years ago. I have been working in this place since I was seven, and my father worked here, too.

Syria Deeply: Douma has been hit by several heavy attacks, many of them targeting civilian areas, in recent years. Has your shop ever come under fire? How do you protect your antiques?

Abu Abdo: We have been robbed and bombed, but I couldn’t leave my shop, I’ve practiced my trade here for more than 17 years.

A shell hit our building and damaged the second floor of the shop, so we moved all of our valuable pieces into storage for safekeeping. Every day, I still place a 100-year-old hookah bowl with four antique swords atop it, across the street on the sidewalk. But I am more careful when the Syrian regime bombs the city.

Document Photo 1

A 100-year-old hookah bowl with four ancient swards on display in front of Abu Abdo’s shop. Eastern Ghouta, June, 2016. (Syria Deeply)

Syria Deeply: How is business at the shop these days? Are people in Eastern Ghouta willing or able to buy antiques?

Abu Abdo: People are suffering, and their priority right now is to provide food for their families. Due to the tight blockade imposed on Eastern Ghouta, people have changed a lot, and nobody is able to buy or possess such expensive items anymore. People pass by and enjoy looking at the pieces we showcase, but we almost never sell anything. I even had to sell some land I own to cover my family’s daily expenses, as well as my shop’s expenses.

Document Photo 2 

Antique metalware on display in front of Abu Abdo’s shop. Eastern Ghouta, June, 2016. (Syria Deeply)

Before the revolution, I would sell 10 pairs of china bowls a year, and each pair used to sell for around $500. Now, we almost never sell, and when we do, the pair goes for no more than 2,000 Syrian pounds, which is between $4 and $5.

Document Photo 3

A display cabinet containing antique coffee pots, Chinaware and vases. Eastern Ghouta, June, 2016. (Syria Deeply)

Syria Deeply: Can you tell us about your most prized items?

Abu Abdo: This sword is French. It has a French stamp and a picture of Napoleon Bonaparte. Before the revolution, its price was around 100,000 Syrian pounds, which was equal to $2,000. Now it can sell for no more than $100.

Document Photo 4

Abu Abdo showing the camera the French sword with an engraved image of Napoleon Bonapart. Eastern Ghouta, June, 2016. (Syria Deeply)

This Islamic sword is 300 years old. Historically, it was used by mounted infantry, and people used to call it “The Jewel.” It is worth around 100,000 Syrian pounds. This other sword is also French, made in 1920. We call it Kala or Bala. Before the revolution, its market price was about $500, but now I am selling it for $100.

Document Photo 5

Abu Abdo holds a sword with Islamic engravings. Eastern Ghouta, June, 2016. (Syria Deeply)

This dagger is called “Karda,” and was used by fighters in Africa. It was made in Persia in 1199, and so it is more than 800 years old. Its price before the revolution was between $3,000 and $4,000, but now it sells for a 100,000 Syrian pounds, which is around $200.

Document Photo 6

Abu Abdo holds a dagger called “Karda”. Eastern Ghouta, June, 2016. (Syria Deeply)

These drawers and dressers are 300 years old, and these are old china plates and kettles. This wooden box inlaid with shells is more than 200 years old. Historically, only rich people were able to own such expensive pieces.

Document Photo 7

An antique dresser on display in Abu Abdo’s shop. Eastern Ghouta, June, 2016. (Syria Deeply)

Syria Deeply: What do you think the future holds for antique trading in Ghouta?

Abu Abdo: I have not lost hope. I love my work. A little museum will open soon in Douma, and I will be one of those in charge of it. We will try to collect all of the locally available, valuable antique pieces, and keep them in the museum. It will be the first of its kind in Eastern Ghouta.

Al-Basel Tadrous is an independent reporter and journalist from Syria.

This article originally appeared on Syria Deeply, and you can find the original here. For weekly updates about the war in Syria, you can sign up to the Syria Deeply email list.

Image: PHOTO: Antique decorative objects hang on the wall in Abu Abdo's shop. Eastern Ghouta, June, 2016. Syria Deeply