I think of Tartous in the past tense. On the surface, I might sound like a staid man who doesn’t appreciate modernization, or at a more basic level, the change of times.
Frankly, as I mentally cover the decades since I was a blithe boy growing up till the present, I fail to see any tangible upgrading to my hometown. We had electricity, water, telephone and excellent roads back then and I daresay that these utilities were more reliable than they are today. The population of Tartous was 10,000 inhabitants in the late 1960’s, give or take a few hundreds, and has skyrocketed to 100,000 presently, give or take a few thousands, mostly due to internal migration from the province and the rest of Syria rather than natural increase.
The extremely high fertility rate of the Syrian population worries me considerably but I’m distressed for completely different reasons. Syria ranks among the top countries in the world as far as its population growth rate is concerned. This certainly needs to be addressed seriously as the present trend is very taxing on any economy, society and culture. However, the absence of intelligent family planning should not necessarily mean a lack of reasonable city and regional planning. While the number of Syrians is increasing rapidly, the collective brain of decision makers and urban planners is shrinking at an even faster rate. The smartest plan they usually come up with is amazingly the most idiotic.
In addition to the established burden of appointing unqualified people for key positions in local governments, we have gone through a substantial period of time when a vast number of professionals, academicians and, we were even led to believe, intellectuals came from foreign academies and institutions of doubtful merit or from local corrupt universities . Many of our peripatetic scholars managed somehow to graduate with doctoral degrees and took over reason, common sense and the public sector. In medicine they’ve probably done more harm than good. At the academic level, they’ve become professors and incubated similar clones and replicas. In architecture and engineering, they plagued the country with a horrendous collection of horrific monuments and nightmarish monstrosities often to the nodding approval of their superiors. Most Syrian cities fell victim to their pale imagination and grotesque creativity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Tartous. The public structures they’ve designed and erected are probably among the ugliest in the world. The building codes they co-authored are moronic to say the least and they often fail to address any future need or trend. The regulations they drafted were advanced as excuses to cover past mistakes and legalize existing violations. It wouldn’t be fair to place all the blame on them, but along with the unapprised decision makers, they are greatly responsible for at least the urban mishaps that have plagued the Syrian city. It’s beyond belief that the present and the future of these cities is a result of narrow minded, yet misguided, social politics with a total absence of a visionary architectural landscape and an urban master plan.
The sense of helplessness and of a deep loss is most overpowering when I visit other Mediterranean cities. I often get the chance to see some old photos of these places and learn that they have indeed improved and have become more livable in every sense. Anyone with a sane mind knows that it’s almost futile to stop growth but it can be regulated in such a way that it becomes more economically feasible to start with a new urban development than to expand on an existing one. Syria is ideal for this type of urban enlargement. Most of the interior is an empty desert. We have already seen in the Arab Gulf countries that this type of environment doesn’t in any way hinder urbanization. The fragile Syrian coast should have been heavily regulated despite the short term nuisances manifested by the sociopolitical inconveniences. Each falling olive tree is endlessly more vital than a new dwelling. Each bygone orange grove is far more valuable than the concrete apartment towers that have replaced it. Polluting industry was brought to the most diverse and delicate ecosystem in the country in order to create new jobs. These factories would have been more productive and less obtrusive had they been constructed in the vast arid region of the interior, away from all existing urban centers. New industrial cities and regions would have emerged and the unemployed Syrian youth could have had the chance to start their professional careers there instead of leaving to the Gulf. Lattakia, Jableh, Banias and Tartous could have remained charming cities by the sea for all to enjoy. They could have managed and survived as traditional fishing towns and tourist attractions. A large commercial port could have been built outside both of Tartous and Lattakia and would have been adequate enough to handle Syria’s economic and commercial needs. Many past surveys have indicated that the ideal location is between Tartous and Arida on the northern border of Lebanon. Both Lattakia and Tartous should have been spared from these environmental atrocities and designated as attractive centers for recreational marinas, no more, no less.
These photos from the 1960’s were taken or preserved by the late Zanco, an Armenian photographer who lived most of his life in Tartous. They are testimony to the beauty and simplicity of bygone days, when all a Tartoussi had to do to enjoy his afternoon was to step out of his house and walk the few meters to the beach. Despite all, this is the only Tartous I have in my heart, that’s the one I miss and long to return to one day. Can it be done? Only in my dreams perhaps. But then again, who am I but an unrealistic dreamer.