Life goes on in Damascus, so does the war
DAMASCUS - This ancient Arab capital is famous for its public squares which carry historical names, like the Abbasids, a reference to the Abbasid Caliphate, the third of the Islamic caliphates to succeed Prophet Mohammed.
The irony now, however, is that city officials are having difficulty agreeing on a name for a new square, just outside Damascus, and widely nicknamed the “war square.” People spontaneously began calling it that in the wake of the March 2011 uprising to topple President Bashar Assad.
“Life has become unbearable in Damascus,” said merchant Ghabi Nakazi, 58, reflecting a gloomy public mood, anxious about the war raging just outside the city limits.
“There is no glimpse of hope that matters will be settled soon,” Nakazi sighed. “I’m thinking seriously of going to live abroad. My income is too little, while my spending has considerably increased.”
“In a year’s time, we might find ourselves obliged to sell our houses or personal effects to survive,” he told The Arab Weekly.
Such talk is echoed by many in Damascus, where people vent their frustration with skyrocketing prices, including for public transport, fuel and foodstuffs. One kilogram of widely popular lamb meat costs 3,100 Syrian pounds ($14.65), compared with around 600 pounds ($2.64) before the war, a 500% jump.
The crunch is magnified by the diminishing purchasing power of the Syrian pound. One US dollar is now worth 257 Syrian pounds, compared with the almost stable pre-war value of 46 pounds.
Aside from the pocketbook issues that worry many Syrians, residents of seven upscale Damascus neighbourhoods, some close to the heavily secured presidential palace, said they feel little of the civil war in cities around them. Occasionally, they get a quick taste of it — one or two rockets whizzing overhead, exploding somewhere nearby and sending columns of black smoke that defile the skyline.
“Life is ordinary and business is usual, as if we live on a different planet,” said a Damascus resident, reached by telephone from Jordan. He insisted on anonymity, citing concern over possible police reprisal.
In daytime, Damascus streets bustle with traffic and pedestrians and its shops and restaurants are crowded. At lunchtime, it is possible to have to wait for table at some restaurants if you do not have a reservation.
After nightfall, Damascus is back in action. Music blares from loudspeakers in radiantly lit restaurants and traditional smoke-filled coffee shops across the city. Young Syrians line trendy street cafés, bars and movie theatres.
Damascus is heavily fortified because it houses Assad’s palace, halfway up a green hill, overlooking the city’s squares and a network of modern roads and bridges that sprouted up just before the civil war.
Sometimes, when there has been a tip-off of a potential threat, roadblocks spring up to bring a sudden reminder of the war.
Damascus is home to some 6 million people, double its pre-war population as many of the country’s 6.5 million people displaced by violence in their towns flee for safety in the capital.
But the city is half-encircled by hotspots from its east to southwest. The areas — Moadhamiya, Daraya, Sbeina, Mleiha, Erbin, Douma and Harasta — shelter armed groups fighting the Syrian army in a bid to overthrow Assad.
War changed the Damascene lifestyle. People feel isolated from other parts of the country and do not dare venture outside Damascus at night. The war cut off many districts outside the capital in the wake of reports that several people were killed on deserted roads by highway bandits or militants.
At convenience and drug stores, the shelves are full with a wide range of commodities, just like before, most of it local, with some things from China.
Water supply through the state’s network is continuous. But many residents had to change the reservoirs they keep on their roofs after the water tanks were pierced by gunfire. Power outages have been fixed and electricity has been available around the clock with no interruption since the beginning of April.
In the old quarters of Damascus, Syrian artist Hikmat Dawood reopened his coffee shop in a small corner of Bab Sharqi neighbourhood.
“Sham, as Damascus is widely known in Arabic, is a symbol of our national pride, a living memory for all Syrians. We cannot afford to see the name go away,” Dawood said on the deck of his trendy café, which is crammed with artists, poets, writers and musicians.
The shop is a weekend meeting place to discuss art and issues affecting their daily lives.
Hikmat’s Café is one of several in the area that were refurbished from Ottoman-era houses into modern cafés with large TV screens and local and foreign beverages.
The old quarter of Damascus is a UN World Heritage Site that has existed for more than 5,000 years. Now, it has more than 100 cafés, although most of them are closed owing to the absence of tourists.
In the years that preceded the March 2011 uprising against the Assad regime, some 200 hotels, restaurants, cafés and bars grew up rapidly in the narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets of the ancient city.
“The city is vivacious, charming and refuses to comply with the laws of war,” Dawood said. “I still stay up to the early hours of the morning. I walk around the city at night.”
But most hotels in the old city of Damascus are closed. Near Hikmat’s Café there is an ancient Damascene lane that was named after Douma city, which is controlled by the militant armed group, Jaish al-Islam.
As two children pushed a bicycle on a cobblestone road, Abu George, in his 60s, stood watching. “This city has lived for more than 10,000 years and is still able to move forward,” he said.