There used to be around 2,000 small businesses operating here in the historic part of the city and now some of the sellers, who used to sit in the marketplace calling out for customers, have become renovators. They work with shovels and hammers and try to salvage anything of use or saleable from out of the ruined buildings. Business owners claim what they can.
“In the past our goods were like spoiled children,” says one worker here, Ahmad Menem, who is pulling some torn rugs out from under collapsed walls. “We used to hang them on the walls and clean them before selling them!”
This is a voluntary effort, funded by local businesspeople, explains Muda al-Khabaz, who is one of the coordinators of the homegrown reconstruction efforts. Each shop owner pays a minimum of US$20. Those who can pay more toward the work.
“We heard them say that this market won’t ever be busy again, not even in a thousand years,” says al-Khabaz, who comes from a long line of vendors who have plied their trade in Bab Al Saray. “But now, after just seven weeks of work, it is clear to us that the heart of the city will beat again.”
Another of the participants in the reconstruction campaign, Saleh al-Obeidi, leads us out of the market and onto a wider street that separates commercial and residential areas in this neighbourhood. There’s a very unpleasant smell.
It’s the smell of decomposing bodies, al-Obeidi explains.
We cover our noses and mouths and we feel as though we are roaming a morgue. Clouds of dust rise out of one narrow, twisted alleyway. The sound of drills and machinery are inescapable down some of these alleys. On others there’s a strange stillness and that disgusting smell.