Life in Damascus bubble contrasts sharply with warzone outside

The diplomatic quarter of Abu Rummaneh is a world away from the rest of Syria’s capital

Syrian vendors prepare sweets ahead of celebrations of Eid al-Fitr at the al-Jazmatia market in the al-Midan neighbourhood of Damascus. Photograph: Youssef Basawi/EPA

Syrian vendors prepare sweets ahead of celebrations of Eid al-Fitr at the al-Jazmatia market in the al-Midan neighbourhood of Damascus. Photograph: Youssef Basawi/EPA

 

A white stretch limo pulls into the portico of the four-star Dama Rose Hotel, where a bride in full regalia is escorted into the gleaming marble lobby by her photographer, a slightly dishevelled groom in tow.

The bride – handsome, heavily made up and imperious – searches for members of her party among the throng of guests and visitors. She is the second bride of the evening.

In a hall on the lower level, tables arrayed in flounced white damask are covered with dishes of cold and hot Syrian specialities. War is no obstacle to lavish weddings.

The most popular time to get married is Friday through Saturday, when Damascus is alive with hooting, jostling cars and its restaurants are packed, even if many can afford only tea and a shisha water pipe.

Dama Rose and the nearby five-star Four Seasons, where diplomats and UN personnel stay in a heavily guarded compound, are located in an air-conditioned bubble in Abu Rummaneh, the diplomatic quarter where Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has his private residence. People who have offices and homes there do not suffer power cuts that dominate lives outside the bubble.

Ten minutes’ walk from Abu Rummaneh, at the two-star Sultan Hotel near the university, electricity is fickle. Days of 40-41 degrees Celsius have affected pavements, interiors and exteriors of buildings, clothing – cooking everything, making it impossible to escape the heat.

When greeting each other, friends joke, “How is your electricity?”, rather than “How is your health?”

Nevertheless, civil servants, shopkeepers and bankers go to work, while soldiers continue to check cars at scores of checkpoints.

Regular cuts

There have been regular cuts. A guest from Aleppo says that in his city there is no electricity or water.

In the evening I walk to the Old City to meet Heike near the Roman arch on the Street Called Straight, visited by St Paul. A group of children on tour with a young man from their church arrange themselves for photos beside the arch as the wooden doors slam closed on the few open shops.

Heike and I make our way down narrow alleyways to Naana (“mint”), one of the many good restaurants located in a traditional Damascene house. There are only a few tables taken with young people eating hummus, eggplant puree and salads, and smoking shisha. “We’re early,” remarks Heike, as the waiter brings our order.

Heike is a German grandmother who has lived for decades in an Ottoman house with a shaded courtyard.

“Life is very difficult,” she says. “I may have two hours of electricity a day. Enough to charge my battery lamps. I buy fresh vegetables from the shops every day and eat salads. Most of my friends have left.”

No one is buying handicrafts from the shop she has near Bab al-Sharqi (the East Gate). Before the war, she had 1,000 women involved in her internationally acclaimed project called “Anat”; now she can trace only 25.

After our meal, we walk down the generator-lit Champs Elysees of the Old City where young people, who cannot afford to eat at Naana (where our meal cost $8) gather and consume snacks and ice cream.

Heike suggests a tour of the city in her spotless four-wheel drive, which she has not taken out for 10 days. “I bought the car because many of the women who worked for me lived in inaccessible villages. Now I walk everywhere.”

The prices of petrol and food have quadrupled since the war began and the value of the Syrian currency has plunged from 55 to 305 to the dollar.

We pass parks filled with people enjoying the slightly cooler, softer night air. The city is quiet, relaxed.

“Some people even sleep in the parks because their homes are too hot,” Heike says.

Damascus wakes to the overhead growl of warplanes, the flat metallic report of exploding mortars, and dull thud of bombs landing – which even Dama Rose guests hear if they stand on their balconies.

Penniless refugees

Only those visiting embassies, with hotel reservations and $1,000, or tickets to fly out of Beirut’s international airport, secure visas. Still thousands cross the border daily, most go to the airport. Syria is losing its people.