Damascenes create pockets of normality in midst of Syrian conflict
Locals speak of the need to get on with daily life, in the face of constant fear
A youth rests in a hospital after being wounded by a mortar bomb that landed near Umayyad Mosque in Damascus yesterday. The mortar bomb killed at least four people and 26 were wounded, state media said. Photograph: Reuters/Sana
Friday night is family night at the Malki mall. Nora, her son and his friend get out of the vehicle as her husband Issam hands the key to the valet for parking. The boys, both aged nine, disappear to the children’s recreation area unfazed by the report of outgoing artillery fire from the mountain overlooking the city.
At the packed Mocca-and-More cafe Nora, Issam and I make our way to a booth where four men are waiting.
“We’ve asked for a bigger table,” says a solid man with a stout Cuban cigar. Issam introduces Mahmoud and the other three. “We come every Friday without knowing who else will be here. Sometimes we are four, sometimes a dozen.”
Nora and I slide across the bench and two men draw up chairs. She orders cappuccino and I tea, selected from a handsome box with little compartments containing sachets of mint, lemon, green and black tea. Issam asks, “What about a steak sandwich? They make good ones.” Nothing could be more normal.
Damascenes are hungry for normalcy.
A survivor of Syria’s 2001-2011 free market heyday, the mall, located in the diplomatic quarter, is more modest than the extravagant Cham City Centre in Kafr Sousseh near the foreign ministry.
Mahmoud tips the ash from his Cohiba into a small round ashtray with a narrow neck, specially made for cigars. “We still can afford a few luxuries,” he quips.
As other members of our group arrive, a waiter shows us to a long table in the glassed-in porch crowded with men in suits, women in headscarves and milling children.
“This afternoon Issam found a hotel in the Mezze area where a friend who was kidnapped can stay and walk to his job,” Nora confides.
“As he was putting his suitcase into his car, he was snatched wearing pyjamas on the morning he planned to move from the countryside into town. They were waiting for him in the garage.
“They beat him and demanded millions to free him. Issam finally got him out. But he lost his house and car. He’s terrified and silent.
“I was also afraid at the beginning but I realised that I have to live. I can’t just stay home. We have a shelter in the basement of our building. When the shelling is heavy we go down. We have water, food, everything. Our neighbours play cards there when it’s quiet.”
Nora’s and Issam’s $2 million factory in the countryside was destroyed but they opened a small workshop not far from the mall. “We had 48 families depending on us for work.” Issam says. “We could not let them down. Business is not like before but we are managing.”
Marya’s husband Anis is an architect with no work but he has a US visa and prospects of employment.
“There is no future here for our children,” she says, hugging her daughter Nour, who is quietly getting through her weekly bag of crisps before joining the other children.
She returns after half an hour with a painting, still wet in places, of a map of Syria with the flag at the centre and “I love Syria” written beneath. It is not possible to know if she or Syria will survive this war.
The party breaks up and we go down to a supermarket filled with foreign goods where Issam and Nora fill a cart with cheese, ready-made dishes, cereal and cat food for a stray Nora has adopted. The valet delivers our car and we drive through dark empty streets with nary a checkpoint in sight.