In War-Torn Syria, It’s Business as Usual

Blue cloth, stretched like the fabric in which Christo enfolded Berlin’s Reichstag, swaddles a six-story building in central Damascus. Inside, the shell of an old hotel awaits its rebirth. When the Hotel Semiramis opened in 1952, its owners advertised it as “the newest hotel in the world’s oldest city.” Sixty-five years later, within earshot of artillery and mortar fire on Damascus’ outskirts, new owners are betting on a prosperous future for the hotel and the country.

The project to restore the Semiramis, just down the hill from the Ottoman Hejaz Railway Station, is one of many striking anomalies in this seventh year of Syria’s civil war. Armies and militias battle one another across the face of the country. Jihadist fanatics destroy ancient temples in Palmyra. The national army or its opponents, depending on whose story you believe, drop chemical weapons on civilians in a northwestern province. And rivalry between the United States and Russia, both of which have committed air and ground forces here, threatens world war. Yet somehow, business goes on.

Syrian entrepreneur Mazher Nazha explained why his family is refurbishing the Semiramis and a second hotel to be called Hayat (a reference to the Arabic word for life, not the famed hotel chain), despite a war that is exacting a heavy toll on Syrian society: “There are 14 five- or four-star hotels in Damascus. A total of 2,000 rooms. If the war stops, you’ll need more than 2,000 rooms.” His family, Christian merchants who own a travel agency and freight company, has committed $10 million dollars to the Semiramis project in the belief that businesspeople and tourists will fill its rooms in post-war Syria.

I met the Nazha brothers, Mazher and Mounzer, for reasons that had nothing to do with hotels. Early in the Syrian war, a U.N. worker told to me that the United Nations delivered tons of food, containers of medicine and truckloads of schoolbooks to all parts of the country. I asked how it managed to get the aid where it was needed, despite the risks of violent death and kidnapping. He answered, “DHL.”

I’ve sent books, documents and small packages by the German logistics company before. But thousands of tons of supplies to a war zone? Later, I tracked down the owners of the local DHL franchise, who turned out to be the Nazha brothers. Their offices were in an old building near the ultra-modern Four Seasons Hotel.

Mazher Nazha told me his family’s branch of DHL had delivered aid to Iraq in the wake of the 2003 American invasion. “Two billion tons of humanitarian food aid with World Food Program and other agencies went to Iraq,” he said. “1.2 billion tons of it came through Syria, and most of that was through us.” When Syria’s own war erupted in 2011, DHL’s rivals decided to close. The Nazhas had the field to themselves: “We had a 95 percent share for U.N. agencies.” When other firms resumed trading a few years into the war, DHL’s share dropped to 25 percent. In the meantime, the Nazhas built up capital that they needed to invest in Syria because of American sanctions that made spending the money outside the country problematic.

Nazha showed me his plans for the new Semiramis, a space-age luxury palace better suited to Dubai than to old Damascus: “116 rooms and suites, two executive floors, a ballroom, meeting facilities, business services, restaurants, a rooftop pool and a huge sky bar.” He said 300 people could eat, drink and enjoy the view of Damascus from the rooftop terrace.

Resurrecting the Semiramis requires a makeover in public relations as much as engineering. The Armenian Yacoubian engineering firm, which the Nazhas contracted to undertake the reconstruction, built the hotel in 1952. Its modern luxuries, unusual in the Middle East in those days, included radios and telephones in every room, four elevators and an orchestra playing in the Swiss-run dining room. Things began well, as tourists arrived to visit Syria’s legendary antiquities and souqs. Then the hotel, like Syria itself, fell on hard times amid one military coup after another in the 1950s and 1960s, wars with Israel and economic indolence. The hotel was already rickety in 1973 and 1974, when I stayed there with the rest of the foreign press covering Henry Kissinger’s Damascus-Tel Aviv diplomatic shuttle. It was there that I first heard the old saw, uttered by Jeremiah O’Leary of The Washington Star, “Don’t tell my mother I’m a reporter. She thinks I’m a piano player in a brothel.”

Barely two years later, in September 1976, terrorists working for the renegade Palestinian assassin Abu Nidal attacked the hotel and took its guests hostage. Syrian special forces captured the hotel, killing one of the four terrorists. The authorities hanged the other three the next day in front of the hotel. Swift justice may have deterred others from staging terrorist attacks in Syria, but it didn’t help business.

Newer hotels, such as the French Le Meridien and American Sheraton, opened and took the high-end trade. In 1979, Iran’s Islamic Revolution brought poor religious pilgrims whom the government lodged in the deteriorating confines of the now-passé Semiramis. I visited a few times in the 1980s out of nostalgia, and the hotel staff lamented its establishment’s reduced circumstances.

The hotel closed and stayed empty during the war that began in March 2011. Then, suddenly, the scaffold went up and the building disappeared behind its curtain. When it re-emerges, most of its potential guests will be too young to remember the hangings and the Iranian pilgrims. If there is peace, the Nazhas will recoup their investment. If not, their only option may be to compete for the hundreds of U.N. staff members now residing at exorbitant rates in the Four Seasons.

“To rebuild Syria, you need people willing to invest and to work,” Mazher Nazha said. “You don’t have to wait until the end.”

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