DAMASCUS // The road into the heart of the Jebel Aruz settlement, a maze of illegally built housing to the north-west of Damascus, is narrow and broken, often waterlogged and always clogged with traffic.
Built without permission from the city authorities, there was no formal planning process, and the result is a crush of urban mayhem. Buildings have been thrown up at random, sometimes on precarious ledges that look ready to collapse, or so close together that streets have become too narrow for cars. Poverty is rife. Jebel Aruz is home to Arab migrants from the drought-ravaged Jazeera region of western Syria and large numbers of Kurds from the north. Most fled destitution and unemployment, only to find their circumstances little improved in the capital city, where they scratch out a hand-to-mouth existence as labourers, waiters and kitchen hands, members of an expanding urban underclass.
"It's not easy here. We try to work, we try to make lives for ourselves and our families, but it's hard," said Abu Qassim, 32, who recently arrived from the Syrian-Turkish border city of Qamishly. "There were no jobs at home and there aren't really any here. There's no money, there's no future." Illegal construction has long been common in Syria. About 40 per cent of development in Damascus is unauthorised. Syria's central bureau of statistics this year estimated that 50 per cent of the country's population lives in illegal homes.
It is not something limited to the poor. Many middle-class families, including government employees, make their homes in buildings for which no planning permission was ever granted. Technically at least, all could be demolished. The problem is so widespread that since the 1980s the state has adopted a policy of tolerance, ensuring that illegal developments are linked to essential services networks, such as electricity and drinking water, a largely successful effort to prevent their becoming vast Third World-style slums.
More than half of the illegally built homes in Damascus have landline telephones, and one-third are blocks of flats built by companies or entrepreneurs and inhabited by working professionals. Far from all illegal housing dwellers are poor, but it is the illegal settlements that have become a focal point for much of Syria's urban poverty and the social problems that arise as a consequence. "There is a class of people who live beneath the level of basic services; they are the poorer than poor," said Khalid Taja, a Syrian actor who stars in a gritty television serial called Bottom of the City, filmed in Jebel Aruz. "These people have so many problems it's like a disease that dominates their lives.
"They have problems in their villages and then come here and have more problems. Some of them are forced into being criminals, not necessarily serious things, just petty thieves, as a way of surviving. Or some of them will become killers. There can be drug abuse and violence in the domestic situation. People take drugs as an escape from their conditions." Taja, 69, and one of the towering figures in the Syrian film industry, played the role of Abu Rabea'a in the series, an elderly man who took the compensation paid to his daughter after her husband was killed, and bought himself a young bride.
"Abu Rabea'a wasn't born a bad man. He is the result of his circumstances: the situation created him. That's the point," Taja said. "Anyone could be him; everyone who lives at the bottom of the city is a draft project to become a black kind of character." Because illegal areas are unplanned, problems of poverty are frequently perpetuated by the physical space itself. Literacy rates are lower than average in illegal neighbourhoods and, without schools designed into the local infrastructure, children there are less likely to have access to education.
Health services are similarly hamstrung and, at the most basic level, building quality can be substandard as families take dangerous shortcuts trying to keep costs down. Concrete gets over-diluted and reinforced steel is often left out of homes in the poorer areas. Buildings in Damascus do occasionally collapse without warning. The statistics bureau study estimated the average life of an illegally built home in Syria to be 25 years.
The Syrian authorities are working with experts from the European Union and World Bank in an effort to address some of the underlying causes of illegal housing and to prevent any further ghettoisation. Officials have consulted with Hernando do Soto Polar, a Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian economist who has worked extensively on issues of property rights and poverty. Among the solutions being considered is that residents will be allowed to register as the legal owners of their homes. That, in turn, would give legal status to their property as an investment and make it an asset recognised by Syria's rapidly expanding private banking system - potentially giving tens of thousands of people a chance to escape their poverty. Not all properties would be eligible, however.
Increased government financing has also been set aside to mitigate housing shortages, and private construction firms are being encouraged to build less profitable low-cost housing units. Last year for the first time a citywide development master plan was drawn up for Damascus, a strategic blueprint for the city. "It's a complicated matter, but we are seeing some positive steps," said Feras Hadad, a Syrian economic analyst. "In essence the problem is simple: because we didn't have a plan for Damascus, the number of approved buildings did not keep pace with rising demand.
"That pushed the price of legal properties far beyond the reach of most Syrians who were left with no other choice but illegal housing. You don't need permissions or licences, just some bricks and cement. You start by building a single room and then add to it over the years." The problems involved are considerable, however, particularly with a fierce drought driving hundreds of thousands of farmers off their land and into the cities in search of work, an additional burden that urban Syria can ill afford to bear. Efforts to implement solutions are further complicated by an old-fashioned, slow-moving and corrupt system of bureaucracy that is proving resilient to reform attempts.
And there are sensitive political implications to en masse legalisation of illegal properties. Hundreds of thousand of refugees from the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights live in such settlements and granting them property rights could be viewed as undermining the legitimacy of their wish to return to their original homes, a principle they and the Syrian government zealously defend. For many living in Jebel Aruz there is a different quandary. Syria's Kurds do not have citizenship rights, making true home ownership an unrealisable dream.
"An actor's job is not to find the solutions but to shout loudly about the problems, to help bring about change," said Taja, who was himself born into poverty in the Damascus of 1940. "There is a huge community living like this and the people at the bottom always stay at the bottom. They are trapped. They can't get an education, they can't get good jobs - or any job. They can't get away." @Email:email@example.com