The fighting has stopped in Damascus. But despite the look of normality, this is a city of black-market deals, shortages and deep pessimism.
Silence fills the Damascus sky – no war planes, no explosions. The fighting in and around the Syrian capital ended in May 2018 when the Syrian army drove out jihadist groups the Army of Islam, the Legion of Mercy and Isis. It was the culmination of seven years of violence, seven years of constant fighting by the insurgents to reach the centre of the city, the heart of the country. The military battle for Damascus is over but a different war continues.
At an old Damascene manor converted into a café, with high ceilings and colourful tiled floors, a young waitress brings two cups of dark tea in small glasses. Syrians love strong tea with a lot of sugar but the colour somehow remains dark and intense. Before the war, waiting tables was a man’s job. But today there are not many young men around to wait tables. They are conscripted into the army, have fled Syria to avoid military service – or have been killed.
“My friend Samer, who is a very proud Syrian, did not know what to do with his life after eight years in the military,” a well-known Syrian journalist tells MONOCLE over our steaming tea. “Turning to his Facebook friends, Samer asked: ‘Stay in Syria or emigrate?’ In 24 hours he received 200 answers. All advised him to leave. This is what is happening in Damascus and I think a lot about Samer’s situation.”
The journalist doesn’t want his name published because “the security services are everywhere and the control is even stricter than before 2011. We thought that with the end of the fighting in Ghouta [on the outskirts of Damascus], things would improve,” he says. “But this has not been the case. There is no future.”
The civil war came to the suburbs of Damascus but even with government forces now back in control, the city is struggling to regain a feeling of normality. Many Syrians still try to escape abroad but many more have flocked to Damascus after fighting drove them from their towns and villages. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees estimates that some 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, are displaced within Syria, the biggest internally displaced population in the world. The UN also says that more than 80 per cent of Syrians live in poverty.
“Even during the days of the most intense violence, things were better than now,” says Missak Baghbudarian, director of the National Orchestra, from his small office in the conservatory. The sound of students playing piano and violin drifts into his room, the walls of which are covered with pictures of concerts and friends, and postcards from all over the world.
To make ends meet, Baghbudarian has had to take on two other jobs: teaching at the Higher Institute of Music and working at the NGO Bukra Elna (Arabic for “the future is ours”), which helps children overcome the effects of war through music. “A significant number of students and professors left the country at the beginning of the war for political motivations but now the economy, the lack of educational opportunities and the fear of military service is driving people to leave,” says Baghbudarian, who talks in a mixture of English and Italian, a language he learnt during his six years of training in Florence and Milan. “Right now we have a violinist and a trombonist fighting in Idlib.”
Idlib sits 350km from the capital on the border with Turkey and is the new frontline in the war. People in Damascus follow television reports of how the Syrian and Russian armies are bombing the territory that’s under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. It’s a far cry from the shelling that shook Damascus most days from 2011 to 2018. It’s been seven years since the war was at the gates of Damascus.
“Idlib is not the end,” says Dr Yamal Mahmoud, a professor of political science at the University of Damascus. “After Idlib the fighting will shift east of the Euphrates, where the Americans are deployed next to the Kurds.”
Mahmoud has been meeting his friends every afternoon since 1983 at Al Rawda Café, near Hamra Street, the city’s main commercial artery. Among the backgammon tiles, water pipe smoke and the sound of dice being thrown, Mahmoud’s table often becomes an outdoor parliament. “The war will not end soon,” he says. “I think it is increasingly clear that the goal is not to topple Bashar Al Assad, it is to destroy Syria.”
This café represents all the different ethnic groups and sects, something not easy to find in Damascus. Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Arabs, Kurds… as it was in the past. The capital is still a mixed city where cohabitation is possible in a country with very deep sectarian and ethnic wounds. While rebuilding areas destroyed by the war will take time, rebuilding the trust between sects and ethnic groups will take generations.
Since Al Rawda opened in the 1930s, this café has been a focal point for artists, intellectuals and politicians. The large open-air courtyard is packed and waitresses weave through it all like tight-rope walkers. Young people, couples and elderly men share the space and stories. Every day the same people sit at the same tables.
“Pro and anti-Assad, we all share the same tables,” says Mahmoud. “Even opposition figures Michel Kilo and Jamal Suleyman [used to come here] but they have left the country. But there is no end in sight to the economic sanctions so we have a war economy led by smuggling. Today you can find everything in Damascus but at exorbitant prices.”
In the cafés the price of a water pipe has risen from SYP35 to SYP1,000, and a glass of tea from SYP20 to SYP500. One dollar was worth SYP50 in 2011 but now it’s worth more than SYP500. Mahmoud looks to the old Lada and Dacia taxis jostling with modern SUVs. He explains that the queue for subsidised fuel – rationed to 100 litres per car per month – now lasts for hours. The stations selling unsubsidised petrol are empty but only because most people can’t afford the free-market price. International controls have tried to block less-expensive petrol arriving from Iran.
It’s hard to find optimistic voices in Damascus but Nader Al Shaar is one of them. This professional money trader in Merjeh Square waits for the offensive in Idlib to end because, he says, “after this military operation the country will rise”.
His office, empty today, was one of the busiest places in the city in 2015 when Syrians changed all their money to escape to Europe. “The security situation has improved a lot and the refugees are beginning to return and bring money with them,” says Shaar hopefully, as he puffs on his water pipe.
“I admit that the number-one concern now is the wallet but I think that whoever has something saved has a great opportunity to buy land – especially in the areas most affected by the fighting, where prices have sunk a lot. The time will come to invest in reconstruction, which so far hasn’t happened.”
Close to the Bab Sharqi Gate, through the maze of alleys in the Christian quarter, is The Backyard. This is one of the bars where DJs play every night. Yara Muhrez, a 32-year-old lawyer from Latakia in northwestern Syria, is one of the club’s techno stars. When the party gets going, Damascus looks like any other capital in the world.
“When the war started, the parties and techno sessions stopped, so many of us went to Beirut,” she says before her show. “But when we saw the war dragging on for so long, we decided to return to Damascus and restart the music. We’ve been doing weekly techno sessions since the summer of 2016. It didn’t matter how much death there was on one side because there was always life on the other. Life is based on contradictions – contradictions are beautiful.” Then, beer bottle in hand, she jumps on stage.
At first she plays quiet rhythms that evoke a dreamlike atmosphere on the ground floor of this old Damascene mansion converted into a nightclub. Patrons file in slowly, mostly wealthy people who have no problem spending the monthly salary of a civil servant in one night. The rhythms grow dark and intense. The lights go out and the darkness takes over so that those present, in their own way, can also escape from the reality that surrounds them.
Reporting in Syria:
In part of Syria under the control of the government, journalists only can work with the authorisation of the Ministry of Information. Mikel Ayestaran has travelled more than 15 times to Syria since the war started. He reported in Damascus for four days, the maximum time allowed on a press visa. A minder from the Ministry accompanied him to all interviews. Ayestaran covers conflict in the region. Access for photographer Yamam Al Shaar was also tricky.