DAMASCUS, Syria — Rima Jourieh begins her inspections early, when the click of her heels on cobblestone echoes through the narrow alleyways of Old Damascus.
Clipboard in hand, she passes carpet merchants beating the dust off their wares and little boys skipping home with fresh milk. Elderly Christian women pause to kiss the doors of historic churches en route to the bakery. Some Muslims have risen even earlier for the dawn prayer in the eighth-century Umayyid Mosque, a revered site in Islam.
This is the rhythm of life in the Old City, and it's Jourieh's job to make sure it isn't interrupted by the building frenzy that's quickly turning the district into a warren of boutique hotels, upscale restaurants and trendy cafes.
As head of the district's municipal works, Jourieh oversees the dozens of restoration projects that are under way in the Old City as part of a government campaign to boost tourism and show the world a softer side of Syria.
While American travelers might not consider Syria a top destination, other Westerners as well as Arab tourists are coming in growing numbers. In 2005, the last year figures were available, more than 3 million tourists entered Syria, generating more than $2 billion.
"Western tourists from Europe and America regard this whole region as one. They don't distinguish between one state and the other. If there are tensions in Iraq or Lebanon, it must mean Syria is also unsafe," said Zoheir al Shihabi, a travel agent.
"As for the Arab tourists, one man's loss is another's gain. Because of the trouble now in Lebanon, Arab tourists are coming to Syria instead."
Like the Old City itself, Jourieh's work is a jumble of past and present, and balancing the two is getting harder by the day. Her heart sinks when yet another centuries-old home becomes a hookah bar, and she speaks for many residents when she says it isn't just investors' money that's at stake as the Old Quarter eases into the 21st century.
"This is Damascus," Jourieh said on a recent afternoon, gesturing to the beautifully restored tiled courtyard where she sipped lemonade with colleagues. "Without Old Damascus, what is Damascus? What is Syria?"
Old Damascus, or the Old City, is a walled-in maze of ancient homes, religious sites, an imposing citadel and vibrant markets. Behind ornate wooden doors lie crumbling examples of traditional Damascene architecture with stone fountains anchoring open-air, tiled courtyards.
The cost of a home here has tripled in the past two years; it now costs around $500,000 to buy and restore a traditional home, plus another $80,000 for renovation permits. Jourieh said that more than 100 homes already had been licensed as restaurants.
"The alley has flourished," said Ahmed Qassem, a leather craftsman whose father bought the family's home 69 years ago. "Now, strangers come to the quarter, wedding parties are held, and artists and tourists come. The residents of the quarter are happy now that there are projects and job opportunities for the young people."
Not all locals are so enthusiastic, however. One of Syria's largest banks recently became the first to offer home loans for foreigners, partly an effort to fuel the lucrative buying spree in the Old Quarter. As a result, some longtime Syrian residents are being pushed out of their neighborhood.
"The changes are creating a lot of congestion, cars and disorder," said Amal Khoury, a Syrian housewife whose traditional Damascene home is on the market. "The house is falling on top of our heads and we don't have enough money to repair it."
Restoring a home means navigating a maze of government bureaucracy and choosing the right workshops among fiercely competitive stonemasons, carpenters, painters and ironsmiths. By law, each project must win approval from a team of specialists that includes engineers, an architect and an archaeologist.
For preservationists such as Jourieh, details are the key to faithful restorations. She has rules for whether wooden ceiling beams should run horizontally or vertically, the type of marble to be used in fountains, how high owners can build and how deep they can dig under their properties.
After receiving reports that some investors were paying off inspectors to bend the rules, the municipal office decided to rotate its inspection staff and crack down on graft.
Guilty owners, meanwhile, receive stern reminders that preservation comes before profit in the Old City.
"Some of them are very good and some of them are big disasters, but what can I do?" said Mazen Farzly, an architectural engineer who frequently accompanies Jourieh on inspections. "They have the money, the permission and ways around the rules."
Jourieh served as an apprentice on a restoration project in her college years and was appointed head of the municipality four months ago, the first woman in the job. She's a civil engineer with 15 years of field experience that earned her a reputation as a tough-as-nails inspector who favors surprise spot checks and isn't above leveling a construction site if it doesn't meet her exacting standards.
"That's how I lost my third floor," recalled Aida Dalati, a Syrian-American clothing designer from San Francisco who just finished restoring a home that she and her husband bought in 2004. "Sometimes there are miscommunications between workers with sixth-grade educations and the female engineers. The workers got sassy with her one day. She came back with eight guys with sledgehammers and my third floor was gone in a couple of hours."
That was just one bump in the long road that Dalati and her Syrian-Danish husband, Gihad Ghaibeh, a yachtsman and sculptor, encountered in their yearlong journey to turn their stunning old home into a rental property they'll market to Western travelers who don't want to stay in conventional hotels.
Dalati chronicled the restoration process in a blog at http://www.beitalkamar.com.
The couple invested in the Old Quarter before the prices soared, but say they've still sunk nearly half a million dollars into the project to make sure they do justice to the local flavor.
"Castles, textiles and food. That's what we're about," Dalati said. "I'm after getting Americans to feel comfortable here."
Dalati witnessed firsthand the age-old rivalries among the Old City's handicraftsmen. If she favored one workshop over another, for example, the competitors would stake out the project site and besiege the municipal office with reports of violations. Another obstacle, Dalati said, was selling traditional Syrian artisans her vision for "a fusion of American folk art with Arab styles." Some workmen were appalled when she requested light-colored wood instead of the customary dark.
"It's the Flintstones vs. Microsoft," Dalati said, exasperated.
This test of wills is increasingly familiar at the 200-year-old Kahwaji workshop, home to the Old City's most sought-after carpenters. The shop belongs to 74-year-old Mustafa Kahwaji and his sons, all self-described purists when it comes to restoration. Their workload has quadrupled with the new investments, but they've also refused projects that the carpenters deem inaccurate or harmful to what they call "the harmony" of the Old Quarter.
"There's a lot of restoration going on, but it's all restaurants, restaurants, restaurants," Kahwaji complained. "I don't want the feel of old Damascus to change. The new must be fused with the old."
(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)