Tag: Damascus

Another Damascan Friday

23 May 2011

Friday started with the same ominous silence, from my balcony I looked down upon the empty eerie street, what would this day hold I thought to myself… I couldn’t help wondering if Obama’s recent comments condemning Assad for the killing of unarmed demonstrators and demanding that he either ‘reform or get out of the way’ would spur them on.

From my balcony I could see the 50 or so guys given a days work by the government to ‘look out’ for protesters, some sat around smoking, others walked up and down twirling their ‘government issue’ wooden batons. The empty building where they are stationed is away from the public eye but close enough to be on hand if needed.

Across the street a man sits with his legs swinging out of his window, he is also looking down onto the empty market street below, “Good morning” he shouts, I look over stunned for a moment, he is perched between two huge pictures of the President, I smile at him thinking it may not be such a good morning for many of the thousands taking to the streets across Syria today. Though once again as usual, here in central Damascus, we hear and see nothing.

I am now the only guest staying in this 3 storey hotel – so I eat my breakfast alone accompanied only by a couple of goldfish and the cleaner who smokes as she serves breakfast. The news blasts out from the foyer, Friday payers finish and everyone braces themselves for another day of protest, in what has become known as the Arab spring.

Yesterday I met a taxi-driver who was convinced it was well-organised well-funded ‘outsiders’ who were taking to the streets to protest against the government, he told me that the television images of people dying in the Syrian streets were from Iraq not Syria; such is the power of Syria’s state run media.

Later I meet a European lady who is married to a local here in Damascus, she asks if I have seen any ‘action’ since arriving, “No” i reply, “Nothing”, “See” she proclaims “It is being blown all out of proportion by the Western media, they are pushing for change here more than the people themselves”.

But it seems my dentist has finally seen through the smoke and mirrors as she confides in me that she is frustrated and disappointed with the once treasured leader, “We didn’t expect him to behave like this… all this killing” she says sadly.

The awful images of protesters laid out on the floor and being jumped on by soldiers screaming “We’ll give you freedom” shocked the world. When the authorities tried to say it wasn’t filmed in Syria, that it was from Iraq, and that the soldiers seen abusing the protesters were American Special Forces, a 22 year old protester, Ahmad Bayassi, one of those who had been filmed being trampled on and kicked whilst laying on the floor, bravely went back to the spot where it happened and recorded himself there again stating that it was true and showing his identity card to prove that he was from Syria.

A couple of days ago after recording himself the young man was back in the hands of the security services, human rights organisations believed he had been electrocuted and that he had lost consciousness from the torture, there were also reports that he had died – rumour spreads fast in Syria these days. Then, a few days later the man appeared on Syrian state television and announced that “When they said I was tortured and killed I was surprised, no-one has imprisoned me, and I am leading a normal life.”

News starts to filter through via Al Jazeera of 10 or 20 deaths, but Damascus is as peaceful as it was last Friday. The empty streets, the 10 or more empty buses waiting, engines running, the army of baton carrying men sitting, smoking, in the security compound just round the corner, all waiting to see if the protesters dare to show their faces.

The streets feel nervous – people are afraid of being out in case they are wrongly (or rightly) picked-up by the secret police. But, again, no demonstration comes my way, it seems that the protests are happening away from the capital, in the smaller poorer rural towns which have been crippled by poverty, unemployment, and corruption, the parts of Syria that are generally hidden away from tourists.

And soon life returns to normal here in Damascus, the people finally feel safe enough to come out of their homes, and I’m heading out for a pint – My taxi driver is already drunk, sipping away on his 10% alcoholic beer as he speeds along, the car, the driver, and me, swing from side to side to the Arabic music blaring out of his radio as we enter the glitzy old city.

Another Friday is almost over, tomorrow is another day for this troubled country, a day when 60 more families will morn 60 loved ones killed simply for demanding freedom. My cab driver hands me his beer as I get out of the car, I take a swig, hand it back, and walk off into the Damascus night.

Death in the rain

30 April 2011

Thanks to yesterday’s rain and thunder storms a mere 65 were gunned down across Syria, a friend joked that God had saved many young martyrs “They don’t fear bullets here, but they don’t like the rain!”

The guy I’d come to see, the one I was visiting last year hasn’t been picking up his phone, is he avoiding me I wonder… or maybe he got picked-up after yesterdays protests… or even worse he could have been killed – In these dangerous revolutionary times these are all real possibilities.

Out of nowhere a young women grabs me in the street and starts kissing me, I am stunned and pleasantly overwhelmed for a moment, then I recognise her, she is a friend of the guy I’m here to see, “Where is he?” I ask “Maybe he was arrested yesterday” she says, after the protests that followed Friday prayers, we exchange numbers and she promises to help find him and I move on my way.

On the surface life in Damascus hasn’t really changed, people rushing around with their busy day, this isn’t a country at war, not yet anyway, but there is a nervousness when you stop to speak with people, most know that this problem isn’t going to go away.

Later I meet a close friend who has been on the front-line, we exchange horror stories of the deaths we have both witnessed first-hand in this wave of Arabic uprisings, he tells me stories of massacres here in Syria, and I of what I saw in Yemen last month, massacres which, it has to be said, went largely ignored in the Western media.

And is it a coincidence that in both Syria and the Yemen ‘plain-clothed’ snipers fire on the demonstrators from buildings, with both governments claiming that the gunmen are merely civilians, whilst those on the ground believe them to be the secret police or other government agents.

I am told that the Syrian government has been handing out arms to supporters of the president in order to create a loyal army who, with or without orders, are taking to the streets and firing on protesters after Friday payers whilst the army in uniform stand back, keeping their distance.

Today we watched pictures of families from a small town I visited the last time I was here crying over the dead children in their arms, the town was the scene of a massacre last week, my friend tells me that the unofficial death toll here is well over 500 and there are 800 or so people still missing; lifted, kidnapped from the street or their homes.

Despite the supposed lifting of emergency law in Syria people are still disappearing, “So what does the lifting of emergency law mean?” I ask, my friend laughs and tells me that following the lifting of the emergency law the government has told the people they can demonstrate but (like in England) they need to get permission first.

A lawyer friend of his recently went in-person to seek permission to organise a demonstration the day after the emergency law was lifted, to test the governments will, he hasn’t been seen since.

A day of rain

29 April 2011

It was raining when we landed, I sailed straight through an eerily empty passport-control, but then a burly man caught my eye and asked me to put my bag through the x-ray machine for a second time, I could see him wondering why I was here, I obviously stood-out like a sore thumb, but with no big camera inside my bag just a small touristy looking one I was soon on my way and eating hummus and drinking Arak in my old seat with my oldest friend in Syria.

“It’s a different place” he said as we walked home casually greeting groups of plain-clothed cops, “These secret police guys stopped me last week at 3am and asked why I was wandering the streets at such a time” (3am street activity used to be normal here), we pass more plain clothed police, police cars are positioned on street corners, this certainly isn’t the same Syria I left just 4 months ago.

My friend at the hotel greets me, “Are you here for the trouble?” he asks, I smile “Why do you ask?”, I joke that I’m here to get away from the royal wedding, he tells me that the secret police have been making more visits than normal and asking too many questions.

“How long will you stay, where will you go?” “I don’t know” I say… OK OK, it is clear that he is uncomfortable with me staying here, later he confesses that as a friend he doesn’t want to speak against me to the secret police, and he doesn’t want trouble, he never talks about what is happening with Syrians, he wants to keep his nose clean. The hotel always used to be full, now I am one of only 5 guests, he gives me a double-room for the price of a single.

I awake late in the morning to the sound of thunder and hail, it sounds like gunfire, I remember that it is Friday, a proposed ‘day of rage’ in Syria, downstairs everyone watches the demonstrations on the hotel television – it is difficult to imagine that this is the same safe, stable, Syria I left just a few months back, now it seems 10 cities are taking part in the protests.

I join my friend again for morning coffee “Damascus is quiet due to the rain, but outside this sleepy city Syria is shaking” he says, “It is sitting delicately on the edge of an abyss, no-one knows the future, some don’t want to take the risk of change, but most do now” he says, as the rain thunders around us like gunfire.

The prison bus

09 November 2010

I find myself pushing my way through small groups Germans and Americans on tour around the ‘old city’ area of Damascus – foreigners, eyes and mouths wide-open, gobsmacked by wonderful this country is, how friendly it is, and how great the food is, and of course they are right, it is, but step a mile outside the old city (which of course they rarely do) and you see the reality for everyday Syrians living here in the ‘City of Jasmine’.

For the locals life can be very tough, considering the potential for tourism in a country with such a great cultural heritage, with few jobs and little prospects. Whilst at home there is often a lack of public utilities such as regular electricity and water supplies.

Crossing the road, and away from the tourists, I pass the Damascus Central Court to be confronted by a scene that looks like something from a 1950’s American movie. A small crowd had gathered and was pressed up to and staring eagerly through the iron gates, behind which were parked two buses filled with dishevelled men wearing stripy blue pyjama’s.

If I wasn’t in Syria I could describe the scene as being quite funny, but their sullen faces said otherwise. Old and young men alike were being moved from one bus into another, some were “lucky” enough to find seats, the rest were pushed-in until the bus was completely full, with no standing space left. As soon as the doors were shut the bus started to leave, making its way slowly out of the court gates. I gazed around to watch the onlookers straining to see the occupants of the slowly moving jam-packed bus. This whole area was also filled with local and secret police, but they made no attempt to move the watching crowd back and away, this spectacle was seemingly a public example to the people that this is where they will also find themselves if they too cross the blurry red line.

I looked closer at the individual faces of the gathered onlookers, now I could see a great sadness in their eyes, one man close-by cried quietly. As the bus moved slowly in-front of us one of its occupants with his face squeezed hard against the window gave a sad pathetic wave to the man next to me, I realised that within the watching crowd were many relatives of these men, coming to see them for the last time before they are driven away to prison.

This was ‘a daily procedure’ I was told later by a friend. But those men’s faces told a thousand stories as they passed-by. Criminals, political and criminal I guess, but with such a harsh and difficult daily existence here for ordinary poor Syrians one is left to wonder what their crimes were and what really motivated them.

This is my paradise

17 September 2010

As I walk the busy streets I watch workmen move steel girders onto awaiting lorries, all around me impatient drivers blast their car horns, this is the chorus to my daily Arabic life.

In front of me a man hammers a giant mortar and pestle making real hand-made ice-cream; no electric churners here, it’s all so physical. Brightly coloured bags filled with a variety of fresh juices for Ramadan adorn stalls all along the street – an irresistible selection of mango pomegranate tamarind liquorice, and much more.

A cockerel croaks it’s last breath before it’s head is removed swiftly ready for today’s kebab, there is no frozen meat here. A hen looks nervously at me as if it knows it’s inevitable fate, it stands there, un-caged and docile steadfastly refusing to fly away.

The wonderful smell of za’atar turns my mind back to food; its the Damascus smell – a mix of sesame and thyme spices, eaten with fresh olive oil on bread. I find it hard to walk past the 24-hour hummus cafe in the Christian-end of the street; packed with people eating the wonderful creamy chickpea tahini dish with bright coloured pickles and fresh Arabic flat bread.

I indulge in a bowl hoping it may somehow protect me from the poisonous Arak I had the night before. The white cloudy drink had stolen another night from my life, this time I found myself drinking with one of Syria’s most famous and revered writers, this 60 cigarettes a day man talked of his achievement at always writing political dramas for TV and cinema without ever being threatened or questioned by the authorities; for whatever reason he is just left alone. “This is my paradise” he tells me proudly “Here I do what I want and say what I want”.

I try to ask him about ‘The red line’, referring to the invisible line that most “sensible” Syrians know not to cross in order to maintain their ‘freedom’, “There is no red line” the writer tells me laughing, “The red line only exists in the mind, it is there to guide us!” Others have told me that it exists to allow the authorities to pick up who they want when they want, as a means of exerting a little bit of pressure now and again.

I lose myself in the history of these streets, it is like stepping back in time with it’s wonderfully terrible anarchic noise and disordered chaos, this is the life I love and miss so much when I am back home in the West. Time passes quickly when I walk these streets, each journey bringing me something new and often never repeated, the randomness, the shocks, and the surprises I crave in life are here without fail everyday on this dirty noisy Damascan street.

The noise of the street can be crippling and then, suddenly, as the Ramadan breakfast breaks, it becomes quiet with not a soul in sight, and an eerie empty silence envelopes the once bustling street.

Soon, hidden, out of sight, the people will break their fast and eat for the first time in the day, as I slowly wander the empty street alone, arrested by its silent dirty peaceful glory.