Tourists and Terrorists
Residents of Syria's capital stare into the abyss.
"Everything is fine."
RIF DIMASHQ — If you go to Damascus and ask a taxi driver to take you to the suburb of Harasta, you will not find it. Nor will you find Jobar. You will not find al-Hajar al-Aswad, either. Nor Qaddam. You will find half of Douma, three quarters of Daraya. Zamalka you will not find.
What you will find in place of these villages in the Damascus countryside, which the Syrian army reclaimed from the rebels in August and September, is the rubble of war. Rows of four- and five- and six-story buildings razed to their foundations. Symmetrical heaps of broken masonry, neatly setting off the original real estate lots -- and then whole oceans of stone, with jagged waves. Electricity poles shattered at the trunk like felled trees, their tangle of wires branching in the dirt. Cars flattened as at the junk yard. Buses riddled with bullets. Apartment buildings with their fronts sheared off, so that you get an axial view of the floors, furniture and tenants gone missing.
"Everything is fine."
RIF DIMASHQ — If you go to Damascus and ask a taxi driver to take you to the suburb of Harasta, you will not find it. Nor will you find Jobar. You will not find al-Hajar al-Aswad, either. Nor Qaddam. You will find half of Douma, three quarters of Daraya. Zamalka you will not find.
What you will find in place of these villages in the Damascus countryside, which the Syrian army reclaimed from the rebels in August and September, is the rubble of war. Rows of four- and five- and six-story buildings razed to their foundations. Symmetrical heaps of broken masonry, neatly setting off the original real estate lots — and then whole oceans of stone, with jagged waves. Electricity poles shattered at the trunk like felled trees, their tangle of wires branching in the dirt. Cars flattened as at the junk yard. Buses riddled with bullets. Apartment buildings with their fronts sheared off, so that you get an axial view of the floors, furniture and tenants gone missing.
The Damascus outskirts are not entirely unpeopled, however. I’m in the cab with Khalid, driving from Douma, the half-destroyed district northeast of the capital city, south along the smooth, deserted Hafez al-Assad highway. "Jobar," Khalid points left across the highway to hulks of buildings heavily shelled yet erect amid the ruins. "We cannot go in. If we go in, they will kill us."
"Both sides, the jaysh al-suri and the jaysh al-hur," the Syrian government army and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a collection of anti-government fighters and army defectors. "They are in there" — I peer down the narrow, empty streets as we drive slowly past — "but they fight at night."
Night-fighting goes on among the alleyways and rooftops and oblique angles of Zamalka and Ain Terma, too. But not in Jaramana, a town southeast of Damascus that appears entirely unscathed, where people fill the streets and merchants hawk their wares. Even the drabness remains undisturbed. The only sign that something is rotten is the garbage that remains uncollected by the curbs. "Why no damages?" I ask.
"They support Assad."
"Why do they support Assad and their neighbors don’t?"
"Bee-khafuu," They are scared. That they are mostly Christian and Druze might also have something to do with it. The Assads are Alawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, and the minorities have largely stuck together, fearful of a takeover by the Sunni majority.
Returning north, we see a white-haired man trudging across the grassless median. He tells us he is going home. Where is home? "Zamalka." How are you? "Mneeh," fine. How is everything? "Kil shee mneeh," everything is fine. Are they any problems? "Maa fee mashakil," there are no problems. We say our goodbyes.
"Kil shee mneeh," Khalid repeats, as we drive off. He points to one of Zamalka’s leveled buildings, lifts his hands, palms to the ground, and brings them down. "Bee-khaf," He is afraid.
He has good reason to be afraid. Within minutes, we see a security officer leading a man in handcuffs across the highway. The officer turns to us with the snarl of a carnivore who has caught his prey. The detained has the look of one upon whom the reason why his wrists are hurting is slowly dawning. "Harasta," Khalid points to the ghost town — once the scene of thousands-strong protests — on the right. "Jaysh," he looks out the window at the army quarters on our left. A giant billboard image of President Bashar al-Assad looms over the sandbagged gate.
Passing a row of flattened structures, Khalid says, "kanabil foraghieh." He sucks in and brings his palms together. "Suction bombs?" He nods his head. It is difficult to verify the claim, and I know of no reports that make the allegation. But implosive or explosive, the weapons — including aerial and artillery fire — have done their job well.
Khalid is young, short, dark, bearded, Sunni, illiterate, and fearless. "B-khaaf aleik," I am afraid for you, he tells me.
Do you support Assad? "No." Why not? "He killed 10 of my friends." Do you know the rebels? "They are my friends." Before the war started, did you like Assad? "Yes. Very much." Why did you change? "He killed my friends." Why don’t you join the rebels? "Maa bhebb el asliha," I don’t like weapons. What kind of government do you want? "Muslim."
I ask Khalid to take me to his hometown in the countryside. "Mish mumkin," not possible. Why not? "Shabbiha bil hawajaz," Pro-government militias control the checkpoints in town. "They will kill you when they see your American passport."
In contrast to the feared shabbiha, the army is more restrained — toward foreigners, that is. Driving through the southern suburbs of Adem al-Ass, Lawan, and Kfar Sousah, we come to the town of Daraya, where 400 bodies were found in late August in what appeared to be the worst single massacre by regime forces in the country’s then-17-month civil war. The dead have long since been buried in mass graves, a few men in earth-colored tunics now move along the dusty streets, and a shop or two is open. Many of the buildings bear the scars of war — walls pocked by machine-gun fire and ridden with the grapefruit-sized concavities caused by mortars, former tenants dead, imprisoned, or displaced. Revolutionary graffiti, trumpeting, for example, "We want justice and equality," covers all walls, much of it spray-painted over by the government troops stationed in town.
A mound of rubble at the end of one street forces a detour. The alternative route leads across rocky terrain to a checkpoint. Khalid hands his identity card through the window. At the sight of my American passport, the soldier asks me to step out of the car.
"Shuu amtamal hawn?" What are you doing here?
"Inta mujrim?" Are you a criminal?
"Laa. Anna istez bil jamiaat amreekeeyeh bil beyrut," No. I’m a professor at American University of Beirut.
"Andak fard?" Do you have a gun? He waves his Kalashnikov at me.
"Laa," I laugh, pulling out my cell phone and wallet.
He lets me go. We ride on, through the southern suburbs of Damascus. The shelled facades and blackened graffiti and gray, listless aspect of the town of Nahr al-Ayshi are grimly familiar by now. In Sbeineh, checkpoints choke the traffic on the main street. Tanks stationed every 500 meters have made the median their own. Their muzzles point at a 45-degree angle toward the residential buildings opposite. Soldiers sit protected from the sun under tarpaulins, resting before the night’s inevitable skirmishes.
We slow as we reach al-Hajar al-Aswad, a key front in the army’s counteroffensive against the rebels in August and September. The destruction here is on the near-total scale of Harasta, Jobar, and Zamalka to the north and Qaddam the next town over: Districts where the water and electricity have been cut off, most residents have fled, and scattered rebels remain to harass army units at stations and checkpoints nearby. But a few people can be seen trickling about in this city that before the war was the 13th-largest in Syria, with 96,000 residents. Three elderly women in black abayas edge along the shaded side of the road. No cars block their way — only a pile of ruins. A couple of men huddle among themselves on a corner. A young man sits on the curb, smoking. An apartment building missing its front wall exposes an elderly man on the third floor hauling away a large wooden board from the wreckage of his apartment.
Resignation is the keynote here: a victor-or-vanquished calculus concedes little to those who lose. Even the buildings look resigned — to ruination, and to the post-battle plundering that Khalid says regime forces regularly carry out in the districts they’ve subdued.
"Why are you here?"
DAMASCUS — Let it be said that security agents in Damascus are a polite lot — again, toward foreigners — which is more than can be said for their American counterparts. Even when plainclothes agents stop your taxi at a checkpoint on your first day in town and, finding you are American, arrange for two muscular men to climb into the backseat beside you, the handguns in the small of their backs pressing against the plush, and escort you to your hotel, where the agents, having sped ahead in their own vehicle, place you under guard for five hours while they conduct a background check, they are always ready to observe the formalities of procedure and the niceties of etiquette.
"Baddak cigarra?" one of the agents asks, cupping the cigarette as he lights it for me in the manager’s office he’s just commandeered. "Please, sit down. It is routine."
"If you are clean, nobody in Syria can touch you," his colleague assures me, as he inspects the socks that come tumbling out of my backpack.
The concierge, wishing to persuade me of their good intentions, contrasts it with the way American security agents treat Syrians. "You know, my friend went to America, and at the airport they held him four days! And they . . . examined him on the inside!"
I was more worried that they would find certain notes jotted down in one of my two notepads. "Aha!" the agent exclaims on finding one of them. He flips back the sky blue cover and riffles through the pages — they’re blank. The other one is in the top pocket of my backpack, which he now unzips. I grab the flask on top and hold it up. "Whiskey?" I offer with a smile. Not so easily distracted, he and his fellow agent reach out for the books they’ve just uncovered and scan the pages for coded notes. I quickly flip the second notepad into the main compartment and push it deep in the mass of underwear they’ve just sorted through.
"Qadeem," Old, an agent observes of the tattered Hemingway volume in his hands, as he tries to make sense of the inscription, "For Daddy Father’s Day 1951 from Mommy & Leslye."
The other agent asks me why I highlighted a passage on Homs, considered the capital of the revolution, in the Syrian guidebook he’s holding. "Siyaha," tourism, I tell him. "Jeet a sureeya ashra marrat," I’ve been to Syria 10 times. What I don’t tell him is that when I came last October, I rode my motorcycle to Hama and Homs, where I interviewed activists and documented evidence of the regime’s lethal response to the demonstrations that had been rocking the country since March. Discovery is only a Google search away.
"Why are you here?" the agent asks.
I repeat what I told him through the window at the checkpoint when he first pulled me over. I am a professor at American University of Beirut, I said. I want to buy books and maybe some paintings. Both agents squint at me. The concierge, his beautiful blue eyes opened wide, bursts out: "You are not scared? We are scared!"
Indeed, there is a sense that the war is fast encroaching on the capital city. In July, thousands of rebels infiltrated Damascus from the surrounding countryside in a bid to seize the capital. After initially capturing half a dozen districts and killing four high-ranking government ministers in a bombing, the rebels were forced to retreat following a fierce counterattack. But bombings claimed by rebels have not stopped, and in late September insurgents detonated bombs at a building occupied by pro-government militias.
Nor has the fighting around the city’s perimeter let up. Intermittently, night and day, you can hear the clatter of gunshots and the rumble of tank fire. If the morning after a particularly strident night you ask people where the fighting was, they’ll say no one knows. The sound of war is like a circle whose circumference is everywhere and whose center is nowhere.
Since the Battle of Damascus, the city has witnessed a security crackdown. Checkpoints have sprung up every half-mile, and the sight of red dirt spilling from sandbags and IDs held out the window, of Kalashnikov-toting soldiers and aviator-wearing shabbiha — emulators of that icon of visored toughness and commander of the Republic Guard, Maher al-Assad, whose image around the capital is (almost) as ubiquitous as that of his brother, Bashar — has grown as familiar as the sound of honking horns. Traffic jams, like unemployment, are widespread. Countryside refugees sleep in city parks. The hive of markets, once buzzing with tourists, is now swarming with soldiers. Spicy aromas from the Old City mingle with the spinning blades of a helicopter.
The economy is at an all-time low, with international sanctions slashing state oil revenues and tourism nonexistent. Before protests began in March 2011, the Syrian currency traded at a stable rate of 47 pounds to the dollar. Now it is at 68 pounds to the dollar. With desperation increasing and security forces’ attention elsewhere, crime is on the rise, adding to peoples’ fears.
Paranoia is on the rise, too, with good reason. Intelligence agents can be listening in anywhere, even on street corners. I discovered this firsthand one night when I fell into conversation outside a juice bar with a man whose red-haired ponytail, T-shirt, and jeans gave him away as a Westerner. Dave is telling me his story — he’s an English convert to Islam who’s been teaching English in Damascus for 12 years — when he asks, "Do you know this guy?" I look around at the man who has sidled up to me for the past several minutes. The man — small, grave, and obtrusively alert — quickly turns his head but does not move.
But that came later — I’m still back at the hotel, waiting for my background check to clear. I’m seated at a table in the lobby with the two heavies who rode with me in the cab, while their superiors make endless phone calls in the manager’s office and periodically emerge to cast suspicious glances at me. The guards — Alawites like the president — identify themselves as "security" and bristle at the mention of shabbiha. Widely mistranslated as ghosts, shabbiha comes from shabaha: to hang, insult, bind, harass, or to take something from someone by force or by trickery. It now connotes pro-Assad thugs hired by the government to terrorize dissidents.
One of them is convinced I’m going down. "Inta mason," he tells me. Mason? On a sheet of paper he draws an unfinished pyramid with an eye at the apex. I recognize the Great Seal of the United States, which some believe is symbolically related to the Freemasons. Conspiracy theory is what you get when communal reality breaks down. In places like Syria and the broader Middle East, if you throw in a history of covert American interventions in the region, state censorship, war’s capacity to distort truth, a jigger of Orwellianism, and a Dan Brown movie or two, getting mistaken for one of the Illuminati — or their geopolitical equivalent, the CIA — is something you take in stride.
The sun will set before I destroy my guard’s illusion. In the meantime, his partner — tall, gangly, silent, and bored — opens and closes his pocket knife while staring at me with a fixed grin and a poker stare. I decide to make the best of it. Together, we discuss the topic of universal interest among men, prompted thereto by the sight of beautiful women on TV, as well as the sight of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, about whom jokes that would not bear making in polite company are made.
But my guard will hold onto at least one illusion. I ask him if there are problems in Syria. "Maa fee mashakil," There are no problems, he says. Then, "Fee shway mashakil," There are a few problems. What do you think of the rebels? "Mosalaheen! Jihadeeyeen!" Bandits! Jihadists! He makes a backhand slicing motion, worthy of Roger Federer but meant to signify decapitation. "I kill them! I kill them!" But my guard has a whimsical side, too, identifying himself at one point as "Ribal" (in the car he called himself "Bashar") and his partner as "Jack and Rose," which I suppose is the name of a movie. For he is fond of movies, especially war movies, his favorites being, he tells me, Sparta and Troy.
Meanwhile, he-of-the-knife’s phone keeps ringing. It is his wife calling to say that dinner is ready and asking when he will be home. But he cuts off the ringer, for he is working now, and his wife and two children must endure, as he must endure, as we all must endure, the wait.
And so we watch the news. The Syrian state channel is showing montages of bearded rebels shooting their weapons; civilian corpses — charred, bloodied, mangled — retrieved from ruins; and government soldiers fighting valiantly, to a background of martial music. Next is a series of lurid political cartoons: an image of two Arabs in traditional headdress and robe hugging while one stabs the other in the back; an Arab, similarly garbed and labeled Syria, having his eyes pecked out by two buzzards identified as Israel and USA, with a third buzzard swooping in marked KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia); a picture of Uncle Sam, with an oversized, hooked nose and an Israeli flag pinned to his lapel, plunging a knife into a bleeding map labeled Syria.
The storylines are easy to decipher: a laundry list of images portraying Syria as besieged by Islamic radicals (foreign and domestic) and foreign powers carrying out their nefarious designs. Debunking the narratives is more difficult. It is true that some foreign jihadists have infiltrated the country, and the FSA certainly counts fundamentalists among its ranks. It is also true that many of the rebels’ supporters — including Khalid, my taxi driver — favor some form of Islamic government. But the opposition, both armed and unarmed, is too varied to be reduced to Islamists, and the Islamists themselves too diverse to be tarred as radical Wahhabis.
It is false that the rebels drew first blood. It cannot be repeated enough that the Syrian uprising began with peaceful protests before giving way, following months of violent repression, to armed rebellion.
The rebels receive outside assistance, though foreign powers are not the guiding force in the rebellion that Syrian state media would have you believe. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supplying the rebels with small arms, transporting them into Syria via Turkey with that country’s tacit support. The United States draws the line at arms but supplies the rebels with medical and communications equipment. Technically, Israel and Syria have been in a state of war since 1948, and Israel’s identification with the United States is total, but Israel has no hand in the hostilities. The Syrian government, too, has its regional backers: Iran and Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamic militant group and political party based in Lebanon.
Two versions of the narrative of battle-by-proxy are common. One version sees the war as an extension of the contest between the two great alignments in the Middle East: the Arab Gulf countries versus Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. In this latest flare-up, the Sunnis are trying to blunt what the Jordanian monarch once called the "Shiite crescent," the thinking goes. A second version, favored by some adherents of the global left, interprets the war as a conflict between Western imperialism and the "Resistance axis" of states opposed to Israel and the United States.
But a third version of this narrative is also popular among anti-Assad Syrians frustrated by international inaction: It’s not that the West is seeking to overthrow a bastion of post-colonial autonomy; rather, the West secretly prefers Assad lest Islamists take the helm and threaten regional stability. "Why does America do nothing?" a Syrian worker in Beirut once asked me. Scoffing at the veto-blockers at the United Nations, he said, "If America wanted to, it could crush China and Russia," slamming his hand down in the air, "and do what it wants in Syria!" It is not clear what he wanted the United States to do — supply the rebels with heavy weapons, or create a no-fly zone as NATO did in Libya. He then answered his own question: "America wants Assad."
A related argument is that Assad is covert partners with Israel. As a protester in Homs told me last year, "Assad pretends to be the enemy of Israel. But under the table, they are friends." In return for keeping peace on the border — Israel’s quietest frontier for almost three decades — the Syrian regime gets to pose as head of the resistance.
Yet all three narratives share the defect of minimizing the local nature of what is, first and last, an internecine conflict. The primary stakeholders — those with their lives, lands, fortunes, and futures at issue, from Damascus to Deir ez-Ezzor, Hama to Homs — are the Syrians themselves.
"Welcome to Syria!" The security agent approaches the table with an outstretched hand, congratulating me on the end of my five-hour ordeal. His colleague returns my passport, wallet, and backpack: "Is everything there? Is anything missing? Are you sure? Check." "The visa was not clear," the agent explains as we walk to the reception desk. I thank him for his professionalism and tell him that I find Syrians to be among the most courteous people I have ever met. I meant it: The fact that even someone of dubious education like Ribal/Bashar can distinguish between the American government, which he hates, and the American people and their popular culture, which he loves, is testament to a sophistication all too lacking across the Atlantic.
"That is why they are trying to destroy Syria!" the concierge exclaims. "They are trying to destroy our … our beauty!" Who "they" are is clear, if unstated. This is an expression of the popular theory, stoked by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the United States is sowing division within Arab countries in order to keep them weak — part of its New Order for the Middle East. As the concierge explained, when the officers first questioned me, "We are afraid of you."
But lately Damascenes are more afraid of the rebels closing in from the countryside, especially given the recent spate of bomb attacks inside the capital. Adding to the fear is the relentless depiction of terrorists on national news channels and the national news website. Fliers advertising a second, Arabic-only website, Syria Now, described as "popular and official," are pasted all over town. A scrolling banner on the website announces a steady drumbeat of victories:
"A number of mercenaries were crushed, including ‘Abu al-Qasim, the Libyan’ and ‘the Saudi monster," in Aleppo … Destroying the most dangerous terrorists in Arbeen in the Damascus countryside … Arresting a group planting explosives …"
With this as their lens, it is no surprise that many in the capital view the conflict as a war on terrorism. Thus at the Garden of Paradise restaurant, housed in the Old City in a traditional Damascene home, with walls of alternating bands of black and white stone and an open courtyard with a flowing fountain, my elderly waiter, leaning in close, gives me the scoop.
"Fee kteer terourists," There are many tourists, he murmurs.
I look around the empty restaurant. "Maa bshouf kteer tourists," I don’t see many tourists.
"Walaa! Fee kteer terrorists!"
The terrorists having driven out their paronyms, Bassem, a portly, middle-aged man sipping arak and smoking Marlboros at the bar of the Cham Palace Hotel, is delighted to meet me. "Oh, you’re from Texas? I lived in Tampa five years!" An electrical engineer, he now lives in Mezzeh, one of the most modern and expensive neighborhoods in Damascus. Reaching for a carrot slice, he ventures an explanation of the war: "There are gangers. How do you say? — Gangs. Like in Los Angeles. Yes, I swear!" he insists.
I glance over my shoulder at the TV, which is tuned to a foreign news network. "I no longer watch TV. It’s too depressing." I ask him if he thinks Assad has made mistakes in fighting the gangs. He lowers his voice: "Probably," he admits, reminding me of Khalid’s claim that the killing of his friends turned him against the regime. Asked what he most desires for Syria, Bassem says, simply, "peace."
"Pray for me. I’m scared."
BAB TOUMA, Damascus — Fear of terrorism vies with the desire for peace for many in Damascus these days, including a bread-maker in the Street Called Straight, as it is rendered in the Bible, the Roman avenue visited by St. Paul in the Old City. Tossing another khibiz marqooq, a spongy type of flatbread, onto the stack, he says there are "moujrimin," criminals, in the country, and he cannot understand why Syrians are fighting. "We are brothers. Why fight? They are majnounin," crazy. He shakes his head, takes a sip of the herbal drink mate, and flops another doughy pancake onto the saj, a large, convex, disc-shaped griddle powered by gas and used for cooking bread and meat.
That he is Sunni and supports Assad, at least ostensibly, gives the lie to those casting the war in terms of a purely Sunni-Shiite conflict. That he is from the capital, and Khalid, his Sunni co-religionist, is from the outskirts, suggests, but does not prove, more of a city-country split to the war. That most of Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two largest cities, remain loyal to Assad while much of the countryside — excluding coastal and mountain strongholds — tilts the other way reinforces this classic fault-line.
Peace is certainly the wish of Mina, who has his own reasons to fear the fall of Assad. Black oversized pants belted tight around his narrow hips, he comes up to me in the vaulted, subterranean Chapel of St. Ananias while I’m still on my knees to tell me his story. "Hi. I’m Mina. I’m from Egypt. I’m Coptic." He came to Syria to work 10 years ago. Fighting drove him from the countryside to Damascus five months ago. He sweeps the two small rooms and dusts the three or four icons, but with "no tourism, no money," his wages cover only food. Rent costs 2500 SYP ($37) a month, and he is two months behind. "I’m scared." Asked why he doesn’t return home, he replies, "I can’t go to Egypt — Muslim Brotherhood." He shakes his head vigorously. "Muslim Brotherhood — I can’t." Many Syrian Christians (as in Egypt, roughly 10 percent of the population) share the same fear that an Islamic government will spell an end to their protection.
Old bills newly placed in his palm, Mina says, as we ascend the stairs of the house where Ananias baptized Saul, "I think God sent you to me." Then, as I’m crossing the courtyard for the alleyway, he calls out: "Pray for me. I’m scared."
Dave is not scared — he’s confident. At night Dave and I pick our way through Bab Touma, a Christian borough of the Old City now dotted with sandbags and soldiers, to a lounge bar opened five months ago by two Frenchmen. "They got a good price on the place and expected business to rebound," Dave explains. But first we must shoot the breeze with the young men gathered five-strong on a bench outside the entrance to his old neighborhood. "I know everybody here," Dave says. Next, "We have to stop in this hammam and say hello."
In the antechamber to the baths, we take tea with the manager, his assistant, his friend, a customer, his son. Then, back out on the alleyway, encountering two soldiers seated in a vaulted cove, Dave approaches them and begins talking to one of the soldiers. I shake hands with the other soldier, whose grip is like a vise and whose face is half in the dark. I tell him we’re headed to a bar. He tells me he doesn’t drink. After a pause, the Kalashnikov cradled in his arms perfectly still, he asks, "Quayyes?" Cool? "Super quayyes," I assure him.
We’re at the empty lounge bar now, and the bartender’s drawing a mug of Amstel and describing the gauntlet of checkpoints — both army and rebel — she must pass through to get to her home in Homs. "I tried to go to Baba Amr once, and I had to stop at checkpoints where the rebels were, and they didn’t want to let me in. They were like, ‘What do you want here?’ and I was like, ‘I want to see the ruins!’" A district in Homs, Baba Amr was the site of a major attack in February by Syrian government forces to regain control over the city. Ten days of operations resulted in the deaths of about 700 people in the city, according to the Local Coordination Committees, anti-Assad groups that have planned and monitored events on the ground within their own communities since the start of the uprising.
The bartender works a second job teaching business English to cover the $250 monthly rent on her apartment here in Bab Touma, named after St. Thomas, a one-time resident. She tells us that the Christians in the neighborhood are arming themselves. Indeed, bearing out the Christians’ worst fears, a bomb exploded this past Sunday outside a police station in Bab Touma, killing 10 people and wounding 15 others. War has struck at the "Gate of St. Thomas."
The DJ, spinning electro in the lavender light, mentions that we have only one life to live. Dave raises his chin from the empty vodka shot: "Two! I’m Muslim." "One! I believe in logic," the bartender rejoins, pushing aside a dyed-red bang.
"Without family there is no home."
CAMP YARMOUK — Mohammed, a Palestinian who’s lived and worked in Italy for the past 15 years and is now going home for a couple of days to Camp Yarmouk, believes in the "vita bene." He was just in the Lebanese city of Saida, visiting his wife and two of their boys, whom he sees every four months. The other three boys live with him and his second wife in Italy. "You know, Muslims can have four wives." This I know, but when this slight, energetic man says that she is 85 years old, I begin to think — "For the visa," he admits.
He is coming home to this district in the south of Damascus, where he retains the apartment he and his wife lived in before emigrating in search of work, for the first time in eight months. As for the violence that’s seeping into the camp, he hopes for the best.
"Al-mukhayyam," — the Camp — Mohammed says through the window of the taxi. The driver shakes his head and drives off. We hail a second cab. "Al-mukhayyam." Same response. "It’s salaat," Friday prayers, Mohammed explains. "They think there might be problems when the people come out of the mosques."
Not without reason. Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk has experienced a number of deadly incidents this year. According to Ma’an news agency, in July, the abduction and killing of 13 fighters from the Palestinian Liberation Army – a Palestinian refugee militia dedicated to fighting Israel but effectively integrated into the Syrian army — from the Nayrab camp in Aleppo sparked large protests in Yarmouk. The Syrian army opened fire at protesters, killing at least four, and for the first time clashes between the regime army and the FSA broke out inside the camp.
Yarmouk is surrounded by the restive neighborhoods of al-Hajar al-Aswad, al-Qaddam, al-Midan, al-Tadamon, and al-Zahra. The running gun battles there sometimes spill into the camp, as rebels fire then take cover among the alleyways of Yarmouk, Mohammad explains, after we manage to board a cab. Clashes also occur up and down Street 30, the border Yarmouk shares with its insurgent neighbors. Walking along this traffic-less street, Mohammad and I look up at the rows of shelled buildings and down at the garbage piling by the curb, which he ascribes to a decline in public services.
The position of Palestinian refugees in Syria is a delicate one. While Palestinian youth activists demonstrate against Assad both inside and outside the camps, the aging political leadership either strives to appear neutral or actively supports the regime. Ma’an reported that, following the deadly July protest, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi described Palestinians in Syria as "guests" and sarcastically told them to "leave Syria for one of the Arab democracies" if they had problems with the political leadership in Damascus.
Makdissi need not worry about Mohammed. "We don’t want war, just vita bene," he explains. "The Palestinians love Assad. Where did the Palestinians go? To Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon. But Assad treats us the best. In Lebanon I can’t buy a house. In Syria I can buy quattro casa, quattro maquina!"
We’re walking down the camp’s other main street now. Mohammed spots more evidence of waning government control: Vendors have set up stalls on the sidewalk and store owners now stack their goods in front. Pedestrians vie with narguileh, sandals, cushions, and lingerie on one side and cell phones, chewing gum, DVDs, and screwdrivers on the other. "This never happened before the war," he says, shaking his head. Neither did crime. Now, he tells me, thieves come into the mukhayyam and kick down doors and rob ground-floor apartments and hold up taxi drivers — "For what? Five hundred lira?!"
Mohammed points to the crowd of veiled women outside a bakery as we make our way through the maze of narrow streets: "No bread." But you have cigarra, I say, nodding at a parti-colored mosaic of cigarette packs displayed in a wooden case. "Cigarra, droga, hashish," he laughs.
Mohammed goes up to a small boy in a white tunic playing in the street and hugs him; it is his nephew. We climb the stairs to his brother’s house. I am introduced to his mother, his two brothers, someone’s wife, another nephew. The men sit down in the living room. Coffee is brought in on a tray. Abdullah and Marwan complain to their brother that he never calls or emails. Mohammed pleads hardships in Italy. It’s family time, and we’re watching coverage of the war when Marwan puts the TV on mute, listens, says "marwaha," helicopter, and again later, "rsas," gunshots. They are coming from outside the camp, and we resume watching the news.
After a while Marwan and I go out on the balcony, where he pushes aside the canvas sun screen so we can enjoy the view. Cement block walls stare at us a few meters away. Clothes are set out to dry on lines stretching the balconies. Potted plants here and there add color. Bunched electrical cables jerry-loop from rooftop to rooftop. The cries of boys playing foosball echo down the alleyways. Closely built homes, catching the sunlight on their upper parts, afford shade to the streets.
I point to the long breadline at the corner and ask Marwan if it’s true that the shortage is caused by the war. "No. We have bread. The long lines are because of the refugees," he says. "Before the war, there were half a million people here. Now, one million." Marwan’s estimate is off — the number is closer to 120,000 and 240,000, respectively. But his proportion is correct: The influx of the displaced has doubled Yarmouk’s population, as refugees from the 1948 naqba, or "catastrophe" of Palestinian exodus following Israel’s creation, host the refugees of 2012. With unemployment rampant inside the camp, and outside it, everyone is living off savings. Marwan, a plasterer like his brother Mohammed, says he hasn’t worked in a year and a half. I ask him, if Assad falls, will things go badly for the Palestinians? "No!" he stresses. "We love all Syrians."
"Ready?" Mohammed asks me, getting up from the couch. We depart and eventually make it back to his home. He opens the door on a large living room with the kitchen and two bedrooms off to the side. A framed black and white photograph of his grandfather hangs on the wall. The furniture is amply upholstered, ornately carved, lavender-flowered, and frozen in time. He leads me up to the roof to take in the view. The uneven roofline breaks up spaces for the eyes to navigate but not to roam. Three and a half plastic chairs are splayed about. A charcoal grill shows mostly powder in the grate. "Maa fee bayt balla ayleh," Without family there is no home, he sighs, looking about.
Nour has a home. It used to be in Damascus, now it’s in Beirut. A Syrian Palestinian, she was just visiting her family outside Yarmouk and is sharing a taxi with me back to Beirut, where she’ll rejoin her Lebanese husband. She is standing outside the immigration office at the Syrian border now, her infant daughter Lana on her shoulder and her Palestinian passport in her hand. Buses, mini-vans, trucks, cars, money changers, coffee vendors, officers, drivers, and passengers crowd the parking lot.
"Bhebb el asaad," I like the Assads, Nour tells me. "Life for Palestinians is better in Syria than in Lebanon." Asked what the Syrian rebels are fighting for, she says she doesn’t know. "We have food, we have a house, we have work." A light rain has begun to fall. She covers Lana’s head with her passport. "I guess they want more."
* * *
Nour’s temporary confusion of her own Palestinian point of view with that of the Syrian insurgents is telling. For what the opposition wants, other than to topple the regime, is difficult to guess — their politics are hardly monolithic. And it is difficult for loyalist Syrians to imagine a political universe free from the Assad family that has ruled the country for over 40 years — other than the one identified by state media with radical Islam. Even the "justice and equality" cried out for in the Daraya graffiti remain, for many on both sides of the divide, abstractions, though ones paid for in blood.
But a protester I met in Homs last year had a vivid understanding of these two terms. Asked how he envisioned settling political differences in a post-Assad world, he answered, "We talk, we don’t" — then, cocking his thumb and forefinger, he mimicked the spraying of machine-gun fire. And a Syrian worker in Beirut recently explained to me what the process of talking consisted of. "For example, if you run for president and you receive 51 votes, and another guy receives 61 votes, and a third guy receives 101 votes, the third guy wins and you two leave." He called the process "intikhabat," elections.
On my last trip to Syria one year ago, no one I spoke to could predict when the conflict would end, but all were confident their side would win. These days, even that certitude has crumbled. "What’s going to happen?" I ask Bassem at the bar. His countenance grows somber, his dark eyes widen. "No one knows. Not even Assad and Obama know. We have entered the unknown."
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