Damascus: The Everyday Life of Crisis

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The busy streets that surround the administrative part of the city make one question whether the country’s troubles have had any impact on the capital. Poster reads: "Looking to the future... [looking] forward... to Syria. We love Syria, strong and proud." (Photo: Haytham al-Moussawi)

By: Ernest Khoury

Published Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fatigue is visible everywhere in the Syrian capital of Damascus. High prices, power outages, and even sectarianism have invaded the lives of its residents.

Damascus – Looking at Damascus and its surrounding area from afar is different from getting up close with its people and listening to their conversations and concerns.

Depending on where one visits in Damascus, people may be inclined to believe that the capital is calm. The busy streets and the seven gates that surround the administrative part of the city – even on the weekend (Friday and Saturday) – make one question whether the country’s troubles have had any impact on the capital.

However, moving around in taxis, questioning cab drivers, and talking to the city’s exhausted residents will surely correct any misconceptions one might have.

Many Damascenes are wondering whether is it possible to survive the crisis, which is close to a year in the making, regardless of the outcome.

Assuming that central Damascus remains far from the street battles and scores of dead and wounded; Assuming the demonstrations are suppressed and the opposition’s activities completely subside in the flash point neighborhood of al-Midan; Assuming there isn’t a car bombing like the one that hit Kafar Sousseh in early January; Assuming all of this were to happen; the question remains, how will Syrians live with the high prices, financial scarcity, power outages, and economic disruption in most sectors? How will the approximately six million residents of Damascus live until it is all over?

There are very few Damascene neighborhoods that show signs of the crisis, but they do exist. At least so it appears. The Bab Touma area, the Bab Sharqi, and al-Qishleh neighborhoods are such places.

The busy streets in these areas are the same as they were before 15 March 2011, when the uprising erupted. Perhaps the only difference is the security presence during the night and at dawn, which visitors did not notice before the uprising.

In the mainly Christian Bab Touma district, there are no longer any flash demonstrations or anti-regime night demonstrations that used to take place earlier in the uprising.

Concerns over bread-and-butter issues however are very present in loyalist Bab Touma. If suddenly you hear someone screaming, for a split second, you might think a fight is about to break out, only to discover that it is nothing but a hysterical reaction by a person that is purchasing mate (tea-like plant that is turned into a beverage).

A small box of mate, which many Syrians drink regularly, now costs anywhere between US$2.00 and $2.60. This is four to five times the normal price before the uprising.

The price of mate is just an indicator of most prices, which have gone up between 30 and 100 percent. In some places, even locally grown produce such as lettuce has quadrupled in price.

Prices generally have increased considerably and there are many reasons for this. Merchants and importers sometimes horde items, waiting for their price to increase before releasing it to the market.

In addition, sanctions on the financial sector have also begun to bite, putting pressure on prices. Not to mention, the rise in fuel prices, which also contribute to overall inflation.

And while you might think that the situation in Bab Touma is relatively manageable compared to other areas, the power continues to go out.

But the three-hour daily power outages in Bab Touma are not as bad as those in other parts of Damascus and its surroundings, where outages last as long as 15 hours.

In a cab ride from Bab Touma to Sahnaya in the province of Damascus countryside, this reporter tests his luck to see if the driver is willing to express his views on the ongoing crisis. The driver is from Jabal al-Zawiya, an area known for its militancy and protests.

The man is calm for the most part, but gets carried away when he describes the massacres, theft, and looting committed in his area by criminals that he says have nothing to do with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the regular army.

“I will not participate in the referendum on the constitution,” our driver says, without revealing the reason behind his decision. Is he committed to the call by the opposition to boycott the referendum? Or is it that the demands of daily life do not allow him the “luxury” of going to a polling station to practice “his right and national duty.”

This is the slogan printed on thousands of banners, urging participation in the referendum and reminding locals that it is “Syria’s constitution.” The campaign is not signed by any specific party.

The taxi driver is like many Syrians who prefer to keep their opinions to themselves until the outcome of the crisis becomes clearer. There is even a new expression that many taxi drivers resort to when asked about their opinion: “I see it as you see it.”

Others however cannot wait to hear a word from you so they can vent their anger, whether it is against the opposition or the regime, but always in a measured tone.

They usually choose phrases that do nothing to dissipate your sense of ambiguity. They’ll saluting the army for instance, and it’s up to you to decide whether they mean the FSA or the regular army. After all, they don’t want to create problems with customers or get in trouble with the security forces.

Another taxi driver has no problem admitting that since he completed his service in the police force, where he volunteered 10 years ago, he has been working as a driver “in violation of the law,” because his “government salary is not enough.”

Asking a taxi driver how he’s doing is always accompanied now by another question that does not surprise the driver and that is: “Where are you from?”

Of course the question is asked in bad faith and is usually followed by a long-winded discussion of the percentages and distribution of sects and denominations between “us” and “them” in this area or that province.

This is a sure sign that Lebanese-style sectarianism, has finally found its way into Syria.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Sectarianism NOT "found its way into Syria." He was instigated by NATO/GCC "opposition". UNLIKE Lebanon, in Syria regime was NOT promoting sectarianism, the sectarian foes of regime (and lackeys of NATO/GCC) were.

"This is a sure sign that Lebanese-style sectarianism, has finally found its way into Syria."

This article would have done great without the last sentence, because it implies sectarianism was absent in Syria while it was widespread in neighboring Lebanon...

Demographically speaking, Lebanon and Syria are one and these same in terms of sectarian conflict lines..

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