The park was busier than usual with people enjoying a drink in the summer night heat. The public consumption of alcohol is a rare sight in Islamic countries but this a “modern” Muslim state. Many of the people in the park are international students, here to learn the mighty Arabic language, some come on the one month programmes whilst others are here for a year as part of their degree. Such an influx has cultural effects on places like Syria and has certainly helped the Christian quarter in the old city blossom by night.
I join Ahmed a guy from the Golan and his friends drinking beer, he introduces me to his friend also called Ahmed, I tell them of being witness to a near fight the previous night and how impressed I was at how quickly the police responded. A drunken teenage American student had made the mistake of saying “I’m an American” in an arrogant way so as to belittle a local he was arguing with, it was then things turned nasty, or would have done if the police hadn’t arrived.
Of course the police sided with the American; such is the protection we westerners can take for granted in this tightly controlled society, no-one should offend a foreigner let alone hit one – even if they deserve it!
“We have no problem with Americans as long as they come here respectfully”. Ahmed comes from a seaside town called Tartus but now lives in Damascus because the job prospects are better. After graduating in engineering he now has a supervisor job at a DVD factory. “Really” he says, “I was so surprised that a country like Syria could have the technology to make DVDs”, me too I reply, adding that “I thought all this stuff was imported from china”… Is Syria so cheap that it can compete with the Chinese workforce?
I ask why the traffic police are so corrupt. Ahmed is quick to point out that their salary is only 200 dollars a month, and that taking bribes for minor road traffic offences can double or triple their salary. But if corruption starts at police level where or when does it end?
My questions seem to irritate Ahmed. He tells me Syrian society cannot be judged like a developed western democracy. “And by the way” he is quick to add, “We are not interested in having your democracy here either. We don’t see your democracy as real. It is a lie. Your government does what it wants or as it is told by those in the big financial corporations pulling the strings. Do you think you are anymore free then me?” He asks. “You protest against an illegal war in Iraq and your government still takes you into it. Is that democracy?”
“Before the war I had a naïve notion that I wanted to be free. I was drinking alcohol with my friends and looking to the West for answers wanting to be a democracy, but since the Iraq invasion we have one and half million Iraqi refugees fleeing this new democracy in Iraq for safety here in Syria – what you call a ‘dictatorship’.”
“Our president isn’t brutal like Saddam he is loved by the people here. Since he took power from his father 8 years ago he has given a number of freedoms. Talking openly with foreigners could never happen 10 years ago. And remember this is an Islamic society and I am a Muslim who no longer drinks but I don’t stop you drinking with me in this park. I can sit with you and treat you as my guest. What freedom do you want? Here we cannot scream ‘fuck the leader’ in the streets. So what? But here you can walk the streets at 3 am safely. Can you do that in London? Here we don’t have homeless roaming the streets helpless. What kind of freedom is that?”
“Before the war with Iraq many people believed in this democracy idea but when we see the chaos there now we are happy with what we have. Our leader has never had so much support from his people. He is genuinely loved by them.”
Around us I watch as Syrians drinking openly in the park and nearby bars. At 5am the call for prayer from the mosques will hail a new day in this peculiar modern Islamic state.