War-weary Syrians survive by selling their valuables

Friday 19/02/2016
Some of the mother-of-pearl inlaid wood objects are more than 100 years old.

Damascus - The middle-aged lady walked into the antiques shop in Damascus’s old Al-Hamidiyah souk, car­rying a bag in which she had tucked a few decorative brass and silver objects, a chaplet and a piece of old jewellery. After bar­gaining for half an hour with the shop owner, she left almost tearful, closely holding her precious pos­sessions.

“He did not want to pay the price that these pieces deserve,” she said pointing at the shop owner, who obviously tried to take advantage of her desperate need for cash. “All our savings are gone. I even sold my wedding ring. We’ve only got these old objects left that my husband in­herited from his parents,” said the woman, who requested anonymity.

The woman, like a large majority of middle-class Syrians faced with severe economic strain after five years of a civil war, is trying any way she can to survive. The Syrian pound’s devaluation and skyrock­eting food prices forced many to sell prized possessions, including furniture, antique objects and jew­ellery.

Oum Shadi sold her mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden vintage chairs to pay for the perilous journey of her sons, who joined the crowds of Syrian migrants flocking to Europe through Turkey. “Some of these fur­niture (pieces) were 50 to 100 years old. I got 2 million Syrian pounds ($9,000) for them, although their real value is no less than $15,000,” she said.

“I also had to part with remarka­ble silver-encrusted copper objects, which were made by Jewish arti­sans more than 70 years ago.”

Antiques shops, overflowing with old oriental furniture and brass­ware in Al-Hamidiyah souk that attracted tourists and antique col­lectors before the war, are hardly selling any goods. It is the other way round.

“Every day people are coming in offering to sell their valuable pos­sessions. Some bring the items with them and others show us pictures on their mobile phones of the ob­jects they want to sell,” said shop owner Ragheb Shalati.

“The items include crystal vases, decorative opaline objects, copper and silver ware, rugs, century-old carpets, furniture; anything that they can sell to get cash.”

While many engage in tough bar­gaining to get the best price, others settle for any amount. “The latter are clearly ignorant of the value of the items they are offering for sale, which proves that these items have been stolen and for that reason I just refuse to buy them despite the attractive price,” Shalati said.

Sultan al-Sabini, who owns an an­tiques shop next door, pointed out that people have different reasons for disposing of their prized posses­sions. “For many, they need cash to buy food and pay rent while others have either decided to leave the country or they fear their belong­ings might be stolen or destroyed, so they prefer to sell them,” he said.

“In some instances, we go to their houses to check on the items, espe­cially when these include big furni­ture pieces.”

According to Syria’s Consumer Protection Society, the purchasing power of individuals is 80% less than it was prior to the outbreak of the war in 2011. Food prices have risen to the point they exceed the average Syrian’s ability to pay for bread. In Damascus, where prices have been more stable than in the rest of the country, the average rate of food inflation is 300%. In other places, inflation exceeds 600%.

At 60 years of age, Abou Abdo learned a new profession. For the past few years, he has been making a living as an antique broker, roam­ing the streets and calling on peo­ple who have valuables they want to sell. “I usually take photos of the items, which I then propose to po­tential buyers and antiques shops. I get a percentage only when the deal is closed,” he said.

“The war in Syria is also robbing the people of their memories as they often have to part with posses­sions of a sentimental value,” said Mohamad Abou Salem, who was displaced from his home in rural Damascus to Jaramana, a relatively safe suburb of the capital.

“I have lost my house and my shop in the war without shedding a tear,” Abou Salem said. “But when I had to sell the carpet, which was a gift that my mother gave me 25 years ago for my wedding, it broke my heart. It was a 60-year-old piece.”

Jaramana has seen the rise of a thriving market for second-hand goods, including all types of house­hold items and electronic devices, many believed to be stolen.

Second-hand trade flourished before the war with the arrival of Iraqi refugees in Syria. Demand for cheaper used items increased with the influx of war-displaced Syrians.

“In the past three years, the mar­ket in Jaramana was flooded with used items, which were purchased by displaced families who arrived here without any of their posses­sions,” said a salesman, who re­quested anonymity.

“Supply is as high as demand. Many people sell all their belong­ings to raise enough money to af­ford to travel to Europe. They just don’t want to leave anything be­hind,” he added.