Under the constant shadow of explosions, citizens try their best to lead normal lives
Commerce is frozen and people hoard money. But life in the capital goes on
Children sit in the street as a baby drinks milk in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus. Photograph: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
The war grumbles and growls from the suburbs and occasionally intrudes with deadly mortar strikes and car bombs, demanding attention and disrupting Damascenes’ daily lives. Wide boulevards and narrow streets are jammed with cars, hooting impatiently; sidewalks sport generators, clacking. Vendors hawk leather goods, cigarette lighters, chewing gum and sweets.
The call to prayer issues from minarets of myriad mosques and resonates through canyons formed by high-rise buildings. Garbage lorries roar, ambulances wail, motorcycles snarl and mount the pavement, weaving among pedestrians. Police and troops keep a close eye on all vehicles, fearful of suicide bombers. The city is a cacophony. Brash and blustering throughout the day, quieter after dark at five, but in an instant brutal and bloody, day and night. No one is safe.
Damascenes walk. Women in high-heels, boys in trainers, men in shoes with long pointy toes. Bicycles are in fashion. Cars forming long lines are funnelled by barricades through checkpoints manned by armed, generally polite soldiers. It can take 45 minutes to arrive at a destination that can be reached on foot in 15. Taxis have doubled and tripled fares.
On Baghdad Street, not far from the central bank, a bomb-crumpled, fire-blackened building is the only physical evidence of this war I have seen in the inner city. Cars queue for petrol. Imported fuel is in short supply. The northeast, where Syria’s oil wells are located, is occupied by rebels and radical jihadis who refine crude in backyard stills to sell in Turkey. New oil millionaires bank their profits abroad.
Under wives’ feet
Souq al-Hamidiya, the city’s central market roofed with corrugated iron plates, shafts of sun streaming from holes, is almost empty of customers, although most merchants sit waiting for a miracle. They have nothing to do at home but get under their wives’ feet.
Strolling on the main cobbled route laid down in Roman times, women study buffont wedding dresses, garnished with feathers, glitter and lace, and peer at gleaming gold necklaces, bangles, and earrings but do not buy. Hussam says a relative who recently became engaged gave his fiancée only a ring, although it is customary to present several pieces of jewellery. Syrians hoard money: they don’t know what to expect.
From the door of a shop a salesman coaxes, “Come, be my first customer this month, I’ll give you a discount.” A bargain is normally reserved for the first client of the day. Two headscarved women sit in the Bakdash ice cream parlour drinking thick Turkish coffee.
Behind the huge telecommunications headquarters a short stroll from the souq, hundreds of serious shoppers converge on second-hand clothing stalls and shops, as they make their way to the produce market past a repeatedly bombed police station, guarded by soldiers sheltering behind sandbags. The sharp tang of defrosting fish hangs in the air. Crates of eggs are sandwiched between fruit stalls, sides of mutton and pale plucked chickens from the countryside. Women carry armfuls of bread rounds bagged in plastic. Food is plentiful but expensive. Money is tight.
Children spill into the streets from morning school and make their way home. Scholars carrying files of architectural drawings and bags of books stride purposefully toward Damascus university, ignoring the hollow crackle of an outgoing artillery shell fired from a mountain military base into Hajjar al-Aswad or Yarmouk, two of the few still rebel-jihadi-held suburbs of this crowded city, its population depleted by the exodus from Syria but swollen by an influx from battleground towns.
At a shop on a corner, men, women and children are eating small plates of a sweet made with cheese and bathed in warm sugar syrup. Ten minutes further uphill, customers of the Havana Cafe sip tea and smoke water pipes, chat with friends, play backgammon, and watch the world walk by through grimy windows. War does not rob Damascenes of simple pleasures.