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.