DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The engraved plaque at the entranceway on a dark backstreet of downtown Damascus reads in English, "You welcome to Kertaj Hotel, with Arabic hospitality."
It has proven very hospitable for more than a dozen families from among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians uprooted from their homes in war-torn parts of the country. The families have lived for months in the Kertaj, some for almost a year, crammed with their children in the rooms.
Once total strangers hailing from far-flung parts of the countryside around Damascus, they have created a sort of communal family in the hotel's cramped quarters. They all live on the third floor, and the wives cook together in the kitchen of the restaurant on the top floor, to which the owner has given them free rein. Their kids play together, dashing around the hallways and up and down the narrow staircase. The husbands — those who still have jobs — come back in the evening and play backgammon together in the restaurant, where the TV is.
In a gesture of support, the owner has cut room rates in half for them, to around $5 a day.
"This is the amazing thing, the camaraderie we have here," said Abu Rami, who moved in 11 months ago with his wife and five children. As he passed through the lobby, he greeted the receptionist, and one of his neighbors' little girls playing the stairs called out to him: "Uncle, tell my mama I'm down here."
"In this hotel," Abu Rami added, "it's like we're living in an old-time 'hara.'"
"Hara" simply means an alley in Arabic, but it evokes far more than that. It harkens back to Medieval Arab cities, made up of tight mazes of tiny alleyways. In each alley, the neighbors knew each other for generations, and their lives were intermingled. Every night, they would close the gate at the alley entrance to keep out thieves. Few people still live that way, but the "hara" still raises feelings of warmth, intimacy and safety.
The atmosphere has been recreated in the four stories of the Kertaj.
"These people are closer than family to me now. I don't even see my siblings anymore, but these people I see every day," said a government employee who fled fighting around his home outside Damascus in September. His 10 brothers and sisters are dispersed around various parts of the capital or fled abroad.
"Our wives are all now best friends and spend all their time together," he said. "You know how women are, they're social creatures. They need each other."
Part of the restaurant has been sectioned off for the women if they want privacy — though often they are mingled with the men in the main part.
He and other residents spoke on condition they remain anonymous or be identified only by their nicknames and that some details of their experiences not be cited, fearing reprisals against themselves, relatives or neighbors.
Nearly 5 million people around this country of 23 million have been driven from their homes as regime forces and rebels battle in the 2 ½-year civil war. Around 2 million of those have fled abroad. The rest are scattered inside Syria, taking refuge wherever seems safe. Hundreds of thousands are in Damascus, though the exact number is not known. Those who can afford it rent apartments. Others stay in government shelters in schools or other facilities. Some of the poorest camp out in highway medians of the capital.
The Kertaj is one of a number of cheap hotels full of displaced families around Damascus' Marjeh Square. In the late 19th century, Marjeh, just outside the old medieval quarters, was a main square of the newly rising modern capital, surrounded by Ottoman administration buildings. A pillar in the square commemorates the Ottomans' opening of the Middle East's first telegraph line, from Damascus to Medina. The heart of the city has since moved on to sparkling new neighborhoods, and Marjeh has declined into a faded glory, lined with cheap electronics shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
The hotel is cramped, but it's clean and neat. Plastic flowers decorate corners of the lobby, and a chintzy chandelier illuminates the deep purple wallpaper, wood paneling and mirrors. In the lobby and restaurant, the deceased father of the owner — posing in a dignified suit — looks down from black-velvet portraits on the wall.
The 15 families' basic stories are the same: They abandoned homes, carrying what they could, to escape daily shelling, gunbattles and sniping in rebel-held areas. But each has their personal trauma. Some have had spouses or siblings arrested or kidnapped, others have survived shelling on their homes.
Abu Rami said a man was shot to death in the garden of his apartment building in Jobar, on Damascus' eastern edge.
"We were gone by nightfall," he said. "We didn't flee because of shelling or shooting, we fled out of sheer terror."
Abu Rami knew of the Kertaj because it's near his job downtown — a studio that designs signs for stores. He's lucky, he can continue working, unlike others whose jobs are inaccessible because of fighting. "It's saved me the commute," he said with a smile.
Displacement brings strange coincidences, as communities dispersed by the upheaval wash up in unexpected places.
One Friday a few months ago, Abu Rami went with his son for prayers at a mosque a few blocks from the hotel. To his surprise, the cleric delivering the sermon was his own local sheik from Jobar. The sheik had fled his home as well and the mosque had taken him in.
"We saw each other and both just broke down in tears of joy," he said. "You know how it is, when you see someone familiar, from your old life."
Nearby in the restaurant, one of the women — dressed like the others in a black conservative headscarf — watches her daughter play on the floor. The 18-month-old girl was born a few months before the woman's husband disappeared. Soon after, she brought her six children here. Alone, she struggles to get by.
"Where am I supposed to get diapers and formula for her?" she said, motioning at her toddler. "The only bright point is this place. Everyone in the hotel helps me where they can."
The bonds built in the close quarters run deep, even with the transient life. The government employee tells of how one of his daughters played every day with a girl whose family stayed for several months at the Kertaj.
Then the family moved on. "She was shattered, weeping so much we almost had to take her to the hospital."
His daughter, in her early teens, smiled shyly from behind the kitchen counter where she was washing tea glasses.
"Now they still talk every day by phone," he said. "We hosted the family here at the hotel once for dinner, and they stayed the night with us in our room. It was like a family reunion."