Damascenes have long told themselves that their city is where all journeys, all religions and all civilizations begin and end. We who live there now also know that Damascus will be where the final battle for control of Syria will be fought.
Rebel forces are gathered just a few kilometers from the stone walls of the Old City, and inside the walls for almost a year now we have lived with the terrifying sounds of war, the scream of fighter jets, gun battles raging and shells flying overhead. War on our doorstep.
For me the only journeys I ever take these days are around the souks and alleyways of my neighborhood. On these walks I am not only trying to get a sense of the situation, but also a bit of the reassurance that comes from seeing the market busy with shoppers and children heading off to school. I drop in on friends and get updates on the crisis. Often it’s only gossip and rumor, but there are few other reliable sources of information. I check to see what food is in the market and at what price, as there have been days when fresh food and bread have been scarce. Those are the things on my mind as I slam the heavy metal door of my house and head out into the warren of passageways tucked in a corner of the Old City between the ancient gates of Bab Touma and Bab Salam.
Outside my door all is quiet. The street cleaner has collected the rubbish and the cats have retired for a morning nap in the shade of satellite dishes on the wonky roofs. A hose pipe peeks out from behind a door and a woman sprays water over the dusty cobbles. The alley here is no wider than an arm’s length. It doglegs a couple of times, ambles down a few stone steps and underneath an archway, past a small local mosque with a pretty courtyard dotted with potted plants. Despite most of the neighborhood being Muslim, few seem to visit this Mosque. Another couple of steps and another arch and then I see the first sign that life here is not as it used to be: there’s a checkpoint, not military but civilian.
The Old City can conveniently be portioned up along sectarian lines. It’s an over-simplification, but there are small yet distinct Christian, Shia and Jewish neighborhoods. And the current regime gets much of its support from some of these ethnic minorities, so the groups have raised armed militias to protect themselves.
As I pass by I raise a hand and greet them with a polite salam alehkum. A walkietalkie crackles, they return my greeting equally politely, alekum wa salam. Another few meters and I pass another checkpoint and repeat the pleasantries.
I round the corner and my mind wanders back to last summer when the city first erupted in violence. The sound of explosions and gunfire could be heard in every corner of the city. The streets were deserted and few shops opened and those that did had little fresh food. For a few days the rubbish was not collected, but when things did calm down and return to a kind of normality, the shuttered shop I am now passing didn’t re-open. It was much later that I learned the owner had been killed, caught in a crossfire outside the city. Everyday when I pass I picture him sitting on his wooden stool, drinking tea and chatting with whoever was passing.
From my quiet residential quarter I enter the busy souk of Qamaria, a main street that dissects the Old City from the imposing Umayyad Mosque in the west to Bab Touma in the east. Qamaria is vine-covered in the summer, and all year round has ancient mosques , bath houses, boutique hotels and an eclectic mix of shops selling everything from bootleg DVDs to Byzantine icons.
A friend calls me over to drink coffee in his shop. Others drop in and join us but the mood is somber, repeating the news headlines, quoting the rising death toll, complaining about the lack of business, the plummeting value of the Syrian pound. One dollar goes for 120 Syrian pounds on the black market now; two years ago it was 50. Opinions differ but all agree that the crisis has a long way to go before things will improve. I say good bye and head back out into the street.
Shopping in the Old City can be somewhat of an adventure—no supermarkets or shopping malls here. Although the famous souk Hamadiyya was originally fashioned on the shopping arcades of 19th century Europe, the shops here tend to specialize, and it’s not uncommon for the man selling fruit not to bother selling vegetables and obviously the butcher doesn’t sell chicken. So popping out for staples can involve heading in all directions, coffee from here, dairy from there, no such thing as a weekly or monthly shop and with long and unpredictable cuts in the electricity, keeping a well stocked freezer is hardly practical.
I stop at a small general store to buy bread. I ask the price and he tells me it’s 100 Syrian Pounds (less than a dollar). But it’s not fresh so if I don’t want to come back tomorrow, he can let me have it for half price. Bread is an essential element of Syrian cuisine. Most Syrians buy it from the government subsidized bakeries but this now involves a lengthy queue, standing in line for six hours or more and no guarantee of getting any bread at all. In the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, the word for bread means life, but in Syria people have been killed in bombing raids while waiting for bread.
The street now is very busy, women with shopping bags, courting couples, students with books under their arms, kids clearly skipping school. But amongst the inconspicuous normality there are the conspicuous, camouflage clad soldiers who move in and out of the throng. A volley of artillery fire echoes overheard, but nobody looks up. It’s some way off and the sound is as common now as the call to prayer.
Another friend invites me in for tea, once again the conversation familiar and pessimistic. The boy pouring the tea tells us he had a dream last night that his house was hit by a bomb. Everybody else, including me, chips in with stories of their own similar nightmares. I turn down the offer for yet more tea and leave.
I climb the steps beside the Norfra Café busy with young and old puffing on waterpipes, the smell of fruit tobacco hanging in the air, alongside the grand Umayyad Mosque, beneath the Jesus minaret where, according to legend, Jesus will appear come on the day of judgment. Another volley of cannon fire sounds and I pass a row of closed shops, the tourists long since gone. I turn left into the gold market and on into Bozoriya, the spice souk, where an old Bedouin is sitting on the ground with a basket of dried figs for sale in a wicker basket, a waiter rushes past with a tray of food, lunch destined for a market trader. There are no Styrofoam takeaway boxes; trade here has carried on in much the same way for centuries.
There’s another checkpoint as I turn into Madhat Pasha, the Biblical Straight Street that the Romans called Via Recta, where I buy some olives and a spicy cheese called Shinklish. Further along I stop at a shop selling vegetables. An old woman is complaining about the price of tomatoes; the vendor gives in and gives her a discount. The price has doubled in less than a week.
Food and family is the heart of Syrian society. It has been said that Damascene food cannot be cooked half heartedly and that you must put all of your soul into it. I pass my favorite restaurant, Khawali, which serves traditional Arabic food. It has been closed now for some time, the heart and soul of this city slowly eroding.
My shopping trip has netted me: Bread, for 100 syp. Cheese, at 200 syp per kilo. Olives
at 150 syp per kilo.
I arrive back in my alley and now it’s a hive of activity, a small boy weaves past me carrying a tray of eggs, a couple of girls are playing hop-scotch and laughing hysterically, a Mother is shouting for her son to go and run errands, a large dollop of yogurt is splashed on the floor—an errand not quite completed successfully. The smells of cooking still waft through the air, but as life goes on, the thick black smoke rising from behind the city walls tells us again that war is on the doorstep.