Blog Archive

Blog Archive – January, 2012

“Lost in Damascus—at year’s end”

January 02, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Mass arrests, fuel shortages, power cuts; and now: suicide bombings! Has Damascus reached a point of no return?

It took a long time coming, for a place renowned as the world’s oldest continually inhabited city. But by 2010  Damascus was once again an international crossroads. On my visit barely a year ago, foreigners moved through every corner of the city—the cobbled quarters of Bab Touma, the open avenue of Mezza, the clustered neighborhood stretching up Muhajirin onto Damascus mountain.

Thousands of young idealists crowded classes at the city’s renowned language institutes and Islamic academies, and huddled with Qur’anic teachers. As young as 16, joining others into their 60s, they came from Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Turkey, Italy and Russia, from across Europe in fact. Even an occasional American and Australian too.

Syrian Arabic had become the preferred form of Arabic language instruction and Damascus boasted the best institutes that by now had more students than they could handle.

Besides the students, hopeful travel agents foresaw a soaring future in tourism; expatiates were moving into the capital’s burgeoning private sector; there were now good schools for their Brazilian, Canadian and French-born children. Women and men who had married Syrians abroad were settling here. Syrian children from California and Sussex were with grandparents in Syria for the summer. Amended laws regarding banking and military service attracted those it had once send away cursing the country. Opportunities in Syria seemed unlimited… if you had a foreign bank account, parents with a spacious apartment, a viable business partner, or a study grant.

Those thousands of young people here last year reminded me of Kathmandu in the 1970s. Huddling in street cafes, they offer advice on visa extensions, on cheap rooms in quaint stone houses, ice cream specialties, cheap authentic eateries, and bus schedules to enchanting ancient Christian monasteries in the hills and roman ruins across the desert.

On weekends, many of these students fled the capital to spend a night in Aleppo, or the desert city of Tadmoor. A Danish lad grabbed his knapsack and joined his girlfriend from Moscow for a weekend in Beirut. (They could be back for their university classes by Sunday.) Bruce, from Virginia, never hid his history as a U.S. marine in Iraq before he began language studies here; he was a hard worker in class, his pleasures confined to weekend cruising bars and discos they were open until two a.m. in the old city.

Local youths mingled freely with foreign students and tourists -- in the universities, in cafes and discos. Fear of shared secrets seemed absent. Indeed Syrian lads in particular roamed the campus and cafes in search of work as language tutors, an occasional lucky one finding a European girlfriend among them, even a fiancé. 

The pleasures of restaurants and discos were not limited to foreigners, for by this time, the children of an expanding middleclass could afford an occasional night out. Thursday evenings, thousands crowded into the old city.

Not to forget the tourists. Jumbo buses carried them from city to city, and maneuvered the narrow lanes of the old town. They filled charming hotels—European alongside Arabs from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Kuwait whose favorite summer vacation spot was Syria, with its open, tolerant atmosphere.

Damascus’ many centers of art, music and theater were supplemented by the foreign embassies. From Pakistani to Spanish, Russian, British and American, they ran language classes for Syrians, and schools for the children of expatriates and wealthy locals. Most notably the embassies sponsored cultural events. A Spanish theater group this week, a film festival at the Dutch cultural center, a jazz band, an art exhibition. They featured Syrians as well as their own artists. There was plenty to enrich one’s creative life in the city every evening and in the daytime too.

That’s all in the past. Many embassies have closed. Hardly a foreign-sponsored event can be found now; language classes at culture centers have halted. Graduate students and unemployed actors who depended on part-time work tutoring foreign students are miserable; they miss these stipends and their foreign peers who made their lives bearable and hopeful.

On the surface, Damascus may appear normal. But say the young, and their parents: “We just don’t feel like going out now”; “We stay at home”; “We watch news, share rumors about roundups and checkpoints, search for gaz tanks and diesel fuel for winter”; “We phone relatives in besieged cities”;  “We escape into the glamorous Turkish TV dramas.”

Damascus has become a city of endless rallies, widely distributed by state TV. One resident says, “We show the world we are one, that we are strong”; another admits “We go to the rallies not only to defend our nation, but to burn off nervous energy”, and others who became protestors “because I was pulled from a bus and jailed for 40 days… for doing nothing”.

Everyone is nervous nowadays, seeing the news, watching friends depart, hearing nothing from detained relatives. Damascus is today a weary city..waiting for no one is sure what… and when.


[ “Lost in Damascus—at year’s end” ]

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