Al-Baramkeh Market: A Political Weather Vane of Syria

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A Syrian man walks past pictures of President Bashar Assad and Lebanese Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah displayed at the entrance of a shop at in central Damascus. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)

By: Asi Abu-Najm

Published Wednesday, February 22, 2012

From gun-concealing garments to Assad photos to Homs maps in shortage, goods at al-Baramkeh market in Damascus increasingly reflect the political realities of an embattled country.

Street vendors spread their merchandise day and night along the wide sidewalk extending across the al-Baramkeh district in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The makeshift market starts at the end of the National Bridge (the President’s Bridge) and stretches all the way to the crossroads in front of the Syrian Arab News Agency.

A passerby can ascertain the current Syrian situation from the types of merchandise being displayed, which change based on what season it is.

In the summer, you can find sunglasses, shoes, summer clothes, and hats. In the winter, you will find leather jackets, ear-muffs, scarfs, hats, wool socks, and boots.

There are also seasonal items that have nothing to do with the weather. For example, you can find back-to-school stuff at the beginning of the school year and red roses on Valentine’s Day.

Sometimes goods that happen to be available in the market, like cheap electric appliances, smuggled canned food, books, and pictures will dominate the market for weeks.

The prices usually are cheaper than at stores and buying from street vendors requires a lot of bargaining and haggling.

Lately, Damascus and its popular markets are in a chaotic state, like the rest of the country. The government is mainly concerned with maintaining security and going after the opposition. It recently has been dedicating its resources to preventing protests.

This chaotic situation has enabled street vendors to take over one of the busiest sidewalks in Damascus until late at night.

The action here is nonstop and the street vendors depend on God, as they say. Also they depend on their shrewdness in discovering what people need and being the first to provide it.

Because of long-term power outages, chargers, rechargeable batteries, night goggles, electrical transformers, heaters, and energy-saving bulbs make up a big part of the available merchandise.

Also non-seasonal electric appliances are abundant, like electric shaving machines, blenders, and mobile phones.

Due to the “patriotic winter” that Syrians are going through, wool hats and scarfs weaved with the colors of the Syrian flag are quite popular.

There are also plenty of white sports shoes from locally manufactured brand names to foreign ones like Merrell. Sports suits and military fatigue shoes are available as well.

Other popular items these days are belts and girdles for the back and abdomen. What is different about them is that they are not made of cotton. They are green or black in color and are designed for concealing guns.

This is made abundantly clear by the “models” that the vendors showcase, consisting of a plastic gun positioned in its hiding place as a demonstration.

On the corner next to the pedestrian tunnel and all along the high fence facing the Union of Syrian Students and the Damascus University branch of the Baath party, there is a photo gallery that includes pictures of President Bashar Assad in his military fatigues and in a formal suit.

There are also pictures of Assad posing casually and printed parts of his speeches or slogans glorifying him. In addition there are photographs of his brother Maher, their late brother Basel, their father Hafez, and family portraits of all sizes.

Of course there are also Hezbollah flags and pictures of the party’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Russian and Chinese flags, pictures of the Russian president and prime minister, and photos of Chinese President Hu Jintao are also available. Shoppers can find photo-shopped pictures of faces, phrases, and slogans that reflect political developments in the country.

Meters away, pictures of political leaders disappear as pictures of George Wassouf, Najwa Karam, Saria al-Sawas, and other popular singers who support the regime emerge. There are also pictures of beautiful, nearly naked women.

On the marble edge of the metal fence which is almost one meter high and wide enough to fit products on it, you can find prayer beads, key chains, cellphone cases, and necklaces with religious symbols or ones painted with the colors of the Syrian flag.

It can be said that this is the corner of the poor pro-Assad crowd par excellence.

Not too far from this corner and on the same marble edge, you can find used books. There are also new ones protected with see-through plastic.

Many of the books here are either English-Arabic or Arabic-English dictionaries that are published in Iran. These are relatively cheaper compared to famous publishing houses like Oxford, Cambridge, and others.

You can also find simplified religious books of a proselytizing nature next to ones like What Do You Know About the Druze?, The Sabean Mandaeans: Reality or Mirage, or The Alawites and the Religious Edicts of Ibn Taymiyyah.

Next to the kiosk by the College of Sharia is the map section, where you can find commercial maps of Syria and the rest of the world.

There is normally a plethora of maps of Syrian provinces. On the fence there are maps of Damascus and its countryside, as well as maps of Idlib, Deraa, al-Suwaida, Hama, and Homs.

There you hear one street vendor say: “This is the last map of Homs today...Is there nothing but Homs these days? I’ve sold a bunch of Homs maps.”

Another one comments: “Perhaps we will find it on the map one day and say here is where Homs used to be.” This provokes yet another vendor to say: “Listen up my friend, Homs will never fall.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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