"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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?"
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
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.
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
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
"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
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,
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
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
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
"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
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