I must confess to being blissfully ignorant of Syria and especially Damascus. I had heard before (and probably even used myself), the "road to Damascus experience" as an experience where I suddenly understood everything.
I cannot claim that Brian Stoddart's splendid e-book helped me understand everything about Syria but I am now much more critical when I read news reports of the 2011-12 "happenings", and I am prepared to seek a more balanced view when I read proposed ways to "solve" the current crisis.
The central elements in this book are both the author's personal experiences and his interactions with the inhabitants of this extremely old city. As another reviewer noted, one can smell the bread and coffee in the souks, and I found myself living vicariously through Professor Stoddart's daily peregrinations in the neighbourhood adjacent to "The House" and even in areas beyond. I have long wished to visit the Levant, but I only ever got as close as Libya in 2002, and as I read this book I found myself comparing my walks through Tripoli to those made by Brian Stoddart as he traversed his beloved city by foot or by taxi. I fear my wish will now instead be replaced by reading such close-up and personal interpretations as given in this rather excellent set of essays.
The book makes many contemporary references to the crisis at the time of writing (mid-2012) and one feels a 2nd edition will be needed rather soon to both update the unfolding events and, more importantly, to try to determine the fate of the characters and friends that are central to this initial book. I share the author's anguish at not knowing what has happened to many of his colleagues and friends that we encounter within his narrative, and the saddest part of all is that we may never know the answers unless a political solution is found somewhat "soon". Of course, given the extraordinary age of the city, "soon" represents just a mere blip in historical time and one hopes that the city can continue to survive as it has done for so long already.
This is a very important book and I am so glad I was able to read it.