I awoke in sleepy old Damascus with nothing much on my mind, so I went downstairs and was greeted by the receptionist who told me that the American’s had killed Osama Bin Laden. I sat at a table, opened my laptop to learn from my Facebook friends that it was also my birthday… I celebrated silently alone, just me and a boiled egg at breakfast in Damascus, thinking to myself that maybe I’ll have a birthday drink later with (now that I have finally managed to track him down) the guy I’ve come all the way to Syria see.
After breakfast I made a visit to my religious dentist but I couldn’t give her the chocolates I had brought for her because I suddenly noticed that they contained whisky. What a shame I thought, and decided to keep them for myself seeing as I’d just learnt that it was my birthday.
She was surprised to see me, I told her I would travel a long way for my dentist… Then I had to admit that my flight here was cheaper than the quote I was given in London for root canal treatment and a new front tooth – A tooth I lost a couple of months ago in Yemen. My dentist smiled and said quietly “I hope you never mentioned my name to security at the airport when you entered”, I suddenly get the disturbing feeling that my sheer presence here means trouble for locals; only those active in the protests seem willing to see me.
My dentist talks about ‘the situation’ with mixed views saying it is difficult to know what is going on, on one-hand the Syrian news tells its side of the story, and on the other there are, she believed, ‘exaggerated’ reports from BBC / CNN etc. But whilst she needles away at the abscesses in my head releasing globs of horrible poisonous puss she says she believes that only the president can sort this mess out. I ask her if it is too late for reforms, that the protests are like snowballs rolling down a hill, that the momentum is building for a complete change. “But change to what?” she asks, “Why break everything, you should make change through slow reforms… these protesters have no plan or idea of what they want after this”.
Later that night I ventured deep into a Palestinian refugee camp past fading posters of Yasser Arafat on the walls to meet the guy I’d come to Syria to see, “Are we safe meeting here?” I ask as we embrace – it’s been 5 months since I last saw him, “Yes it is safe they cannot come in here” he replies. Once in his home on the 4th floor of an anonymous building I hug and kiss his kids and hand out sweets and chocolates to everyone but hold back the special gift I had brought for my friend, I figured that as a good old-school communist he would be bound to appreciate the lovely royal wedding mug that I suddenly waved in-front of his bemused face, “And….. we can drink whisky from it” I excitedly proclaim as I pull out a couple of sneaky bottles of scotch from deep inside my bag.
During the evening I noticed his attention switching between from our conversation about the demonstrations and the unfolding situation in Syria to his computer and the several Facebook group-chats he has simultaneously open, he tells me his local group decide at 4am whether or not a protest is planned for that day and where and what time they will meet. Facebook has revolutionised the revolution, as well as reminding me that it was my birthday.
We drink whisky together from the royal mug and my friend tells me that the protests are taking a step forward soon, to daily activity rather then just on Friday’s. The clear motive now for all on the streets is the removal of the president and the Ba’athist regime, such thoughts were unimaginable last year when I was sitting here with the same man, yet now, everything seems almost inevitable “Though it may take a year” he says, “They have great force and we have nothing”. This time last year there was no organised opposition in Syria to speak of, just small factions from across the political spectrum, now there is a united opposition with one united goal.
My friend tells me a very sad, but all too familiar, story of a close friend of his just 22 years old, shot in the head and killed just a few days ago. The ‘secret police’ have even called him recently to say that they know he is helping to organise the protests and that when they find him they will kill him. But, unshaken, he continues – after the first protest in Syria on the 6th march he and his 14 year old son were imprisoned for 2 days, now he doesn’t take his kids.
Can we meet tomorrow I ask, “Depends if we are protesting, I will know at 4am” he replies. “What about work?” I ask. “Work?”, he laughs, “There isn’t any work, that is why we’re protesting, and even if there was there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to do the work, our whole time is taken up with the revolution and the removal of the president”. I kiss the kids as I leave, the youngest chants the slogan heard on every protest, “We need a new government, down with Bashar Assad!” It has been a good birthday.
In the dark night I pass through the former tourist hotspot of ‘Old Damascus’ where the once full bars and hotels are now completely emptied of foreigners, I notice new touched-up portraits of the president, though I’m not sure if the new ‘photo-shopped’ revamped image can save him or his regime now.
The old billboards selling washing powder have gone, the new ones show the Syrian flag on one half and a chaotic image on the other with words written in Arabic script pronouncing that ‘It is your destiny choose between reform or ruin’.