A Facade Of Normal Life In Syria's Capital

Jul 15, 2011
Originally published on July 15, 2011 12:29 pm

The uprising in Syria is now in its fifth month, and the fierce government crackdown on protesters shows no sign of abating. The provincial capitals, Dera'a, Hama and Homs, have become symbols of the movement to oust the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian capital, Damascus, a regime stronghold, is the center of pro-government rallies, but residents say the city has changed dramatically since the uprising began.

"I can feel it is a city of ghosts," says Nisreen, a young woman who does not give her last name.

A year ago, the old city of Damascus would have been packed with European tourists on the winding cobblestone streets; now the hotels are empty. The restaurants are, too.

Roula Dodocha opens the heavy wooden door of her boutique hotel to an empty courtyard and a disastrous tourist season.

"For the foreigner, this is a big risk to come," Dodocha says.

Just a few months ago, it was almost impossible to get a table at the Z Bar; there was a long wait for parties announced on Facebook. The trendy, open-air restaurant overlooking Damascus was a hot spot for the young.

Now, patrons sip mixed drinks under the stars and the crystal chandeliers, but the velvet couches are half full, the conversations dominated by one subject. Many know people who have been arrested, beaten or killed.

This is the "new normal" in Damascus, and the crowds are starting to come back now, says owner Hassan Saloom.

"People are getting to know how to deal with this situation, to go on living," he says. "Life is going on. This is life."

But life is tough as the economy dramatically slows. Almost everyone has been affected by the unrest, though Damascus is far from the protest battle zones.

Hushed Opposition Conversations

On the outside, at public events, there is a facade of normal life. A loud wedding party is the cover for a hushed conversation with two sisters who do not want their names used. They describe the internal life of the city.

"You walk in the streets, you can smell the fear among the people," the older sister says. "You look in their eyes and they are scared. They look at you, they think, 'Who are you? Who are you with?' "

Do you support the regime or the revolution? In Damascus, it's a dangerous question. The answer has driven the younger sister to the streets for late-night rallies. She explains that this is a historic moment for Syria, but for her safety, she never protests in her own neighborhood.

"The last Friday, there were like 21 locations in Damascus and the outskirts of Damascus," the younger sister says. It's harder to protest in Damascus than in any other place, she says: "Very tight security, let alone the other unofficial guards, let's say — where they just carry whatever weapons they want. They can wreak havoc."

Two people were killed in Damascus demonstrations last week, but the protests are spreading. "People are dropping fear rapidly," she says.

"The fact remains, security is shooting for no reason," she says. "They think they can scare the people, which works for a while, but then the people are courageous again."

On Wednesday night, security forces arrested 30 celebrities, actors, journalists and writers after they staged an anti-government rally in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan.

'I Came Here To Protest'

Where some choose to protest is also surprising.

Syrian blogger Marcell Shewaro chose to protest at the "National Dialogue" this week. The meeting was proposed by Syria's president to find a solution to the crisis. Shewaro agreed to participate as a delegate. The meeting was boycotted by opposition figures and rejected by street protesters — many of them Shewaro's friends.

"Even my friend, my closest friend, they don't want me to be here," she says. "I told them, there's people protesting in the streets; I came here to protest. People are being arrested, people [are dying] all the days, and that's not OK. We should stop it."

The 27-year-old said she will continue the campaign against the government crackdown on her blog.

"A year ago, if you write something against the government, you will go to the prison for three years or five years," she says. "Now, we are going for 10 days, and 10 days is, wow, [an] achievement. I'm going to put 10 days for my freedom."

For Shewaro, it's a small price to pay in a city that is stirring as the government tries to contain the protests everywhere else.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The uprising in Syria shows no sign of slowing down. It's now in its fifth month. And neither does the government's fierce crackdown on protestors. That's not slowing down either. Many of the biggest demonstrations and the most violent clashes have been in Syria's outlying cities. The capital city Damascus has seen fewer demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. But residents say the city has changed dramatically since the uprising began. NPR's Deborah Amos was in Damascus earlier this week and filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEBORAH AMOS: Just a few months ago, it was almost impossible to get a table at the Z Bar. There was a long wait for parties announced on Facebook. This trendy open-air restaurant overlooking Damascus was a hot spot for the young.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LOUISE KELLY: (Singing) Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains...

AMOS: On this night, guests sipped mixed drinks under the stars and the crystal chandeliers, but the velvet couches were half full, the conversation dominated by one subject. Many know people who've been arrested, beaten or killed. Still, the crowds are starting to come back now, says owner Hassan Saloom.

HASSAN SALOOM: People are getting to know how to deal with this situation, to go on living. Life is going on. This is life.

AMOS: Roula Dodoch opens the heavy wooden door of her boutique hotel to an empty courtyard and a disastrous tourist season.

ROULA DODOCH: Yes, of course. For the foreigner, this is a big risk to come.

AMOS: So what are you doing?

DODOCH: Having sheesha, chatting, so...

AMOS: Unidentified Woman #1: You walk in the streets, you can smell the fear among the people. You look in their eyes and they are scared. They look at you, they think, who are you? Who are you with?

AMOS: Unidentified Woman #2: The last Friday there were like 21 locations in Damascus and on the outskirts of Damascus.

AMOS: Is it harder to protest in Damascus than it is any other place?

INSKEEP: Certainly, very tight security, let alone the other unofficial guards, let's say. Where they just carry whatever weapons they want. They can wreck(ph) havoc.

AMOS: Two were killed in Damascus last week, but the protests are spreading, she says. On Wednesday night, security forces arrested 30 well-respected artists who staged an anti-government rally.

LOUISE KELLY: Now, yeah. I mean, because it is spreading way more than before. People are dropping fear rapidly, which is a good sign.

AMOS: And where some choose to protest is surprising.

MARCELL SHAWHARO: Marcell Shawharo. I am a blogger, Syrian blogger.

AMOS: Shawharo chose to protest at the national dialogue this week. The meeting was proposed by Syria's president to find a solution to the crisis. Shawharo was a delegate. The meeting was boycotted by opposition figures, rejected by street protesters - many of them Shawharo's friends.

SHAWHARO: Even my friend, my closest friend, they don't want me to be here. I told them, there's people protesting the in the streets. I came here to protest. People are being arrested, people are being - dying all the days, and that's not okay. We should stop it.

AMOS: The 27-year-old said she'll continue the campaign on her blog.

SHAWHARO: A year ago, if you write something against the government you will go to this prison for three years or five years. Now we are going for 10 days, and 10 days is, wow, achievement. I'm going to put 10 days for my freedom.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.