Saturday, June 9, 2012

Damascus: East of Somewhere, West of Nowhere

5066873753 99e8fb8c11 z

Disclaimer: the following post touches on politics of the region. We try to restrict as much as possible posts with political views as this is not the intent of this travel blog. The views are not in any way supported by myself or the interviewer. The interview answers are preserved here for the sake of giving you, the reader, the ability to witness a local merchant's take on the situation.


Lightning crackled and flashed as the torrential fury poured down onto the streets of Damascus. Here in this pall of solitude my hosts and I sat, lights dim, watching the furious rains rage outside. We gazed as the wretchedness let up momentarily which, shortly thereafter, abruptly followed with another outpour that hurled at the top of its lungs. Incessant rain. Brutal rain. What once stood desiccated now lay drenched and bloated as the downpour severely flooded the narrow, dusty roads that wound like mazes into the city’s dark unknowns.

    The rain steadily let up and my host, a kind woman wearing a white headscarf raised her cup of chai tea and nodded at me. I obliged with a smile and lifted my cup; we took a sip. 


    ‘These sanctions,’ she said a moment later, looking out coldly at the hazy landscape outside her veranda doors. ‘They are killing us, we are the ones suffering. These others at the UN are putting sanctions on the people of Syria; the price of bread has gone up, the price of tomatoes has gone up, everything costs five times more.’
    ‘Did they ask for UN permission before invading Iraq?’ said Abu Bakr, her husband, sitting next to her, ‘It’s a media circus, they went into Iraq without UN approval, and why?’ He rubbed his index and thumb together. ‘Because of oil. We have no oil. Maybe just a little, but not like Iraq or Libya.’
    ‘Our young can go out and have fun,’  said Sharifa. ‘We have many modern cafes, lounges, even bars and clubs. What do you think will happen if things change? What do you think? Fundamentalists will come. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan, fundamentalists everywhere. If they come here, they will close down all these places for our young. And if they can’t close them down, what will they do? Bomb them?’
    ‘Our freedom and lifestyle will not be the same,’ said Abu Bakr. ‘We are fighting for our lifestyles too.’
    ‘And look at the poor innocents getting caught in the cross-fire,’ said Sharifa. ‘Even the French knew how complicated Syria was back in my parent’s days. Have they so quickly forgotten?’


    Sharifa was referring to the Sykes-Picot period of the early nineteen hundreds which handed rule of Syria over to France under the French Mandate, and would have seen the country carved into five different States based on its numerous religious and ethnic groups.


    After a few more exchanges I looked at my watch, I had a meeting to catch downtown, so I thanked the husband and wife and bid them goodbye, then stepped out into the musky street. The sweet scent of flowers from a nearby park pervaded the air and soon the clouds scattered, allowing the baking sun to return and exhale upon the city a heat which would quickly dry any last vestige of humidity. I looked around. The hillock upon which my host’s apartment building stood gave me an unfettered view of an aged scenery.


    The city of Damascus was of a yellowish-gray which drew its color from the rocky landscape.  The plain, rectangular houses and buildings – mostly affairs of necessity rather than luxury – intertwined to form the city’s network of streets and alleys which sprawled out in confused clusters. Car horns mounted on decrepit cars constantly blared in the distance, breaking the dole and injecting it with the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life; but don’t get me wrong, Damascus was a dichotomy of wealth and poverty, possessing both in clear abundance, and you would readily see expensive German makes as you would the local bang-ups which dangerously careened through the narrow byways, ignoring traffic rules meant for anyone but them.  The roads within the city looked rundown in some parts, but relatively well-kept in the upper class areas and near the various tourist sites, such as the Al Hamidiyya market. Unlike other cities of Arabia I visited, where transportation consisted of rag-tag microbuses that had seen better days, Damascus’s public transit was a welcome relief: the old microbuses were there, but not without their modern, air-conditioned counterparts too.

     Let me remind you, such is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, a true pandemonium to the senses; beautiful, yet weathered;  elderly, yet youthful; seven cities, one built on top of another – six civilizations beneath us come and gone.  I needn’t tell you how many prophets of all religions trekked its streets; and looking at the buildings, you’d think many had endured the test of time only for the privilege to personally tell you their story. The roofs in the poorer areas looked rather peculiar, messy if you will, with numerous satellites dishes and antennas which look dated jutting up like a field of round, rusted flowers.

     I took a deep breath, gone was the smell of the park as I inhaled the city’s perfume of petrol and dust. I walked down the street towards the park, in the middle of which towered a water reservoir; a big, white ball of metal with stains running down its stalk which, if anything, resembled a large mushroom with a growth of moss that threatened to swallow the entire base. I walked into the small corner store facing the park. Six customers congregated next to the register in no specific order. I called out for a pack of cigarettes. The cashier nodded at me, handed me the pack, and cashed me out first. That’s the way it is. This isn’t a first-come first-served culture, you need to impose yourself or you will forever be waiting at the back of lines.

    Outside, I pulled out a cigarette as a military truck rumbled by. I watched it disappear down the road’s bend.
    ‘Light?’ said a voice behind me.
    I turned around. A young soldier in full fatigues carrying a semi-automatic approached me. He looked plump and smiled widely as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver zippo, then flicked it open.
    I leaned closer to the flame, lit up, and thanked him.
    You see, that’s the problem with this place.
    We hear all these things on the news, but the truth often hangs on a coat-hanger, in the hidden closet, of a remote house, with no registered owner. The people of Damascus do hear about the horrors going on out there, but from this vantage point it all seems to be news seeping in from a foreign country, one very different than their own. Perhaps it’s the work of the media, or perhaps it’s confusion densely layered in from the top down.
Worse yet, like twins conjoined at birth, the surgery to separate sides can hurt both. And it’s a shame, having come this far in history, that a glorious people cannot peacefully share this archaeological Eden.
    I looked the guard over, he was waving at another army truck passing by.
    I shook my head as I took a drag.
    Syria isn’t easy. Proof lay in the six cities beneath me. She’s given the world too much to be suffering like this.

    I do hope she finds her peace, I really do.