Damascus Eid: Trying to Keep Smiling
By: Anas Zarzar
Published Saturday, August 18, 2012
The Damascus souks are not what they used to be. The political crisis and its economic impact keep many customers away. Shopkeepers scramble to attract them, hoping to sell their merchandise for the Eid al-Fitr holiday which marks the end of Ramadan.
The souks of old Damascus absorb and reflect the many tales of the oldest city in the world, whose people have always worked in trade.
There is the famous heritage site Souk al-Hamidiyeh built by Ottoman Abdul-Hamid I in 1780 and the adjacent Souk al-Tawil built by Medhat Pasha in 1878, who also gives it its popular name.
The merchants consider the end of Ramadan as the beginning of a prosperous season for numerous goods and produce. This year, however, the traditional decorations and signs of celebration which used to fill the souks have been nowhere to be seen.
Abu Mohammed is the 55 year-old owner of the largest antiques and oriental artifacts store in al-Hamidiyeh. He sighs and says that “on the first day of the month, we always used to decorate our stores to attract customers.”
“But signs of joy and celebration were killed by the daily scene of death and blood, not to mention the calls for strikes and threats to close shops and markets. Military confrontations reached the center of Damascus at the beginning of the month of tolerance and love,” he says.
His sales have declined to around a quarter of what they usually are due to foreign tourists staying away.
“My trade depends first and foremost of foreign tourists. The last sales transaction with a tourist who bought something from my store was exactly one year and four months ago. Since then, I have not seen a single tourist in al-Hamidiyeh,” he adds.
The customers situation was not very different in Medhat Pasha Souk. Abu Nizar, the owner of a large flour and baking supplies store, did not gamble. He did not buy in lots of stock for Ramadan.
“My primary business transactions are with small shop owners in the suburbs around Damascus [where most of the fighting has been occurring],” he says, summarizing his reasons.
The popular Marjeh Square is full of shops selling sweets that are usually in demand at the end of the month, in preparation for Eid al-Fitr. But the displays on their shop windows clearly show that recession has hit them too.
Abu Mohammed has been working in the sweets business for more than 45 years. “Never in my life have I seen a situation of recession, stagnation, and scarcity in sales such as I have this season,” he says.
He decided to reduce his prices despite the rising costs of raw materials in varying proportions. “I prefer to sell at a small profit and a price close to the production cost rather than let the merchandise go bad. But there is no one to sell to. It does not feel like a holiday this year,” he laments.
Al-Muhafazah Square is where you would find the currency exchange and money transfer shops. It was exceptionally busy.
A teller tells us it is “because of frequent cuts in the internet, which slow down administrative work and completing customers’ bank transactions.”
The real reason came from one of those customers who had been queueing for more than three hours. “There are no money transfers inside Syria. None of these shops can ensure that the money will arrive safely,” he says.
“Most of the customers I spoke with at the exchange shops today are waiting for relatives to send them money so they can leave Syria. They are running away from the bloodiness they are witnessing,” he elaborates.
In Souk al-Salihiyya and the popular al-Hamra street, both famous for their clothes shops, the whirring of the generators rises to a deafening pitch.
The number of shoppers is acceptable compared to during the first few days of Ramadan, according to Toufic, a shoe shop owner in the center of Salihiyya. “But sales activities are far less than previous seasons,” he is quick to say.
“Those who can actually pay for new clothes in such circumstances, prefer to buy them close to their homes,” he explains.
A quick look at the price tags of the various goods in the windows indicates that shop owners decided to slash prices by more than half to encourage customers.
“The real loss for merchants would be if a large stock of summer products are not sold and remains in the warehouses till next year,” Toufic maintains.
In spite of the non-stop news of shelling, bullets, and death, some of the shoppers are here with their small children.
“I came from Doummar with my family. The fear gripping Damascus has not and will not scare me. I try to put a smile on my children’s faces by buying them new clothes and toys. It might help their mother and I overcome the terror we live every day,” one of them says.
Today, Syrians refuse to succumb to fear of military confrontations. Or maybe they have gotten used to them now they have become a part of their daily lives.
A few days ago, a few meters outside the gates of the Syrian parliament, a gun battle took place in broad daylight between an armed group and the building’s security.
“Everyone in the street stopped and some came out of the shops to watch, as if it was an action movie. In a few minutes, life in the market quickly went back to normal, as if nothing happened,” Hala tell us. She was in the market with her sister and witnessed what happened.
“Nobody in Syria today agrees with the violence and killings committed by all sides of the conflict. I almost cannot believe what is happening in my country. But I will keep holding on to hope, in spite of the killing, slaying, and destruction I see on the satellite channels every day,” she repeats.
A few hundred meters from the busy markets in Salihiyya and Hamra, thousands of Syrians crowd outside the Immigration and Passports Department.
The streets of Damascus are full of strange and painful sights. They are a surreal portrait of Syria today.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.