Book Club: Did you know that Damascus had a tramway 100 years before Dubai? Sami Moubayed’s fascinating new book ‘The Damascus Tramway’ traces the history of its construction and its importance to the city’s public transport system.

Sami Moubayed is no stranger to Damascene history, rather, the author showcases his foremost authority again on Syria’s glittering past with a captivating new book called ‘The Damascus Tramway.’
Far from the smoke-ridden, congested abyss of Damascus today, the world’s oldest inhabited capital city was once a glittering, eco-friendly, highly modern city, its beating heart – a century-old electric tramway one of only three in the entire Arab world.
Initiated in 1907 the tramway of Damascus consisted of an initial six lines that were established throughout newly developed suburbs, near the historic walls of the ancient city.

Clean transportation was a feature in the sophisticated life of Damascene society over 116 years ago, today through the hustle and bustle of the old Mutanabbi Street, the remains of a railway still exist.
A token of a glittering past that has been replaced by coughing taxis and micro-buses spewing diesel, a hidden track of a few meters represents what Syria was.
Transportation over a century ago was cultured and refined, a fully electrical means of mobility without loud, jittery thuds polluted by smoke, and poisons of car exhausts.
Syria was polished, and elegant under the auspices of the Belgian Tanweer and Traction Company, the central “Al-Marjah” [Martyrs’ Square], was the nucleus of a modern, pacey track, branching out into various parts of the city, with two classes, first and second, with a discount for students.

Moubayed is a historian, and that is clear from his tone, specialising in modern Damascus from the late Ottoman period until the creation of the United Arab Republic in 1958 he emphasises the cultural significance of the railway on Damascene life.  
He told The New Arab in an exclusive interview, “Damascus has always been a conservative society, not backward but introverted, due to centuries of invasions from various empires. Its business class was always open to dealing with foreigners, trading with countries as far as China and Japan. New ideas and inventions would reach the city through these traders, and more would come with young Syrians who left their city in the early twentieth century to study in Istanbul, or in Western capitals like Berlin, Paris, and London. They were exposed to new ways of life and new political ideas, which they brought back home with them and tried to implement, whether in their private lives or through the political parties that they joined in the 1920s and 1930s.”

The historian describes how at its peak in Syria “modern buildings were erected, along the lines of the great big European cities, which housed young Syrians during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. It became trendy to leave one’s old spacious homes in the Old City and reside in these new apartments, with their high ceilings and small balconies. Pretty soon, cars became a must to commute within these new neighbourhoods—cars that ultimately led to the death and dismantling of the Damascus tram, by 1962. “
Many of these new ideas came from technology, such as telegrams, trams, and electricity, the tramway in particular brought instant rewards and connected life like never before.  
Tracks linked districts and became the core of a flourishing Damascus with routes to of Al-Midan, Al-Jisr Al-Abyad, and even the countryside towns of Harasta and Douma in Eastern Ghouta far away from the city itself.

The behemoth trams were unique, serving as a contemporary alternative to horses, donkeys, and horse-drawn carts that were frequented by wealthy Damascene families for special days out and to attend dinner parties.
It was also common practice to rent out donkeys at the horse market, where a service centre would facilitate the exchange, transport was primitive until the tramway came into the system and revolutionised what was normality, developing the city overnight.
Damascenes saw the electric tramway running for the first time in April 1907. Then, the city’s lines were expanded in 1909, and the immigrant line got a second expansion in 1911, in conjunction with the electrification of the Berlin tram lines in Germany.

It began to enlighten Damascus and its streets with electricity in April 1907, and electricity was generated from the waters of the Barada River at an electric plant in Dumar.
The power station received an expansion in 1909, then the company expanded during the era of the French. Then the ownership of the company was transferred to the Syrian government during the era of nationalisation, it became known as the “Damascus Electricity and Tramway Corporation.”
The Damascus tramway preceded the Dubai tramway by a hundred years. It was the third Arab tramway after Alexandria in 1863 and Algiers in 1898.
Mubayed is also a co-founder of the Damascus History Foundation set up in 2017, a non-governmental organization aimed at. preserving the archives of the ancient city of Damascus, his role in preserving Syrian history has not gone unnoticed.

Narine Guiragossian is a Syrian author who runs Narine’s Book Club, a popular workshop and community where the latest publications are reviewed and discussed by a dedicated group of intellectuals and book lovers in Damascus, she reviewed Moubayed’s Damascus tramway at a recent event, telling The New Arab: “His writing style is very articulate, and he has a unique way of communicating with the reader, even if the reader is not a fan of history.  The modernisation of Damascus and the development of the tramway, theatre, and art in the early twenties.”
“Sami [Moubayed] always strives to give us a priceless gem; the Syrian history which is often forgotten. He gives us this history, based on limited resources and testimonies that are very difficult to find.”
“The book talks about personal initiatives that are different from the common impressions of Syria. It shows how these personal efforts do have positive impacts on society. They may not result in huge changes on the country level, but they do play a role in shaping a certain society or community, Nardine continued. “At Narine’s Book Club, I make sure we read diverse books and novels. We read historical books, factual books, biographies, and novels.  Each book discussion is unique. They never look or feel the same. As for the reader’s interest in Syrian history, I would assess it positively. Notably, we had 30+ readers at Sami Moubayed’s discussion.”

The book’s forward is written by the renowned Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf expressed a sombre tone as to how history is viewed in the region: “One of the tragedies of our East is that social and intellectual modernity, which today seems far-fetched, began to circulate generations ago in the veins of its sons and daughters, thanks to creative pioneers who were able to transform this spot.”
“From the world to a true beacon of progress and civilization. This is what Sami Moubayed tells us in his wonderful work on Damascus.”

The New Arab Newspaper