“Have you seen the TikTok reels?” I groaned at the question a friend posed a few days before I traveled to Damascus. I had caught glimpses of the social media content created by certain traveler-influencer types but had largely avoided them to keep good humor. But as my first visit to my mother’s country in a few years approached, and I contemplated how I would perceive it, I found myself tempted to have a look at what other Westerners saw. They all followed the exact same formula: the titles a variation of “Syria Beyond the Headlines” or “What You Don’t Know About Syria,” a montage of selfies and strangers’ smiles and text extolling the “good food,” “welcoming people,” “amazing sites” and “great partying” Syria has to offer.
I should have known better than to ask for nuance and depth in anything related to the Middle East, particularly bitesize content, but I thought that after Syria survived one of the world’s worst contemporary wars there would be a little more than listicles on my screen. The irony is that my younger self would have reveled in such content. When I was a child growing up in England, few people knew where Syria was, let alone the breadth of its rich and warm culture. All I had wanted people to understand back then — and which I had made great efforts to share with as many U.K. compatriots as I could — was how great, fabulous, wonderful Syria was.
My deep and enduring love for the country, the place that warmly welcomed my small nuclear family in diaspora every summer of my youth, still desperately wants that positive image to glow. But my respect for Syria and its people demands an honesty that is, unfortunately, far less palatable. Today’s Syria is one of extreme duality, despondency and cognitive dissonance. Throughout my two-week visit to Damascus, I oscillated between basking in its enduring beauty and charm and feeling bereft at the steady disintegration of society.
After I crossed the Lebanese border, pink-flowered shrubs lined the highway, a vibrant welcoming carpet for the visitors the government hopes to attract back now the war’s over.
Our taxi driver was slick in concealing the money and cigarettes that slid into heavy handshakes and gregarious greetings with the soldiers manning the border and checkpoints. The “sweeteners” are necessary if you want a smooth and dignified journey, and our driver had been running the route for nearly a decade and knew all the faces and their preferences. “He also likes biscuits,” he said about one man he had handed 10,000 Syrian pounds ($1).
The number of checkpoints in the city has fallen, and the word on the street is that Bashar al-Assad’s government wants to further decrease their presence across the country — along with that of the racketeers who run them. Having won the war, one of the current regime’s tasks is containing the unfettered powers given to military men who became incredibly wealthy thanks to widespread extortion during the conflict.
Damascus, where I stayed throughout my visit, initially appeared to be exactly as it always was, particularly in the middle-to-upper-class neighborhoods of Shaalan, Rawda, Malki and Abu Rumanah. The wide and abundantly tree-lined streets were well paved and clean. The famously over-referenced scent of jasmine flowers wafted along the spring breeze. Several new cafes and eateries have opened in the four years since I last visited and all had a healthy flow of customers, particularly in the evenings.
In a cafe that served nondairy lattes, girls with long hair parted down the middle (on trend) and women in gym clothes with plaster strips on their noses eyed up a Western-style salad bar with prices that would make the 90% of Syria’s population currently living under the poverty line wince. The ancient old town remains as sublime as ever; the renowned Al-Hamidiyah Souk heaved with people, mounds of colorful spices still dazzled the market and locals stood outside Bakdash eating its famous ice cream.
As someone who has long been passionately in love with the city, it was wonderful to witness such loveliness still, despite more than a decade of warfare. And if you stay on a particular route and don’t speak to anyone living in the city — which I can only assume was the experience of those TikTokers — then Damascus can absolutely feel as serene and as beautiful as my childhood memories, as if the war never came there.
But those were particular areas, ones that stayed largely out of the reach of bombs and missiles and artillery fire, and where the scars of conflict weren’t obviously apparent. When I went further afield and took a 10-minute drive out of the center to areas that had been relentlessly pummeled by warplanes, it was another world, where the apocalyptic scenes made it hard to believe life could possibly still exist.
Across the highway, a drive made bumpy by the grooves worn by tanks positioned there during some of the worst sieges, was a different reality. In districts dotted around the circumference of the city center, entire neighborhoods were leveled. Buildings lay crumbled like biscuits in a heap, graveyards of concrete as far as the eye could see. Those still standing were skeletal, piles of mangled steel gathered at their base.
“My shop used to be there.” My friend who took me on the drive pointed out a spot to me. “My friends used to live there,” he continued, gesturing at an empty space. At every corner, he drew my attention to people and places that no longer existed. That such destruction has occurred is nothing new, nor a surprising consequence of war. That is, after all, what weapons are made for. They destroy, they blast, they rip, they scatter, they ruin. But the severity of the contrast between areas that are mere minutes apart was a jarring injury.
Some of the areas looked like a movie set, a Hollywood backdrop for a war epic where you have clearly defined good and bad guys to cheer on or boo. Yet despite all obvious attempts to do the same in Syria, defining its heroes and villains is a far harder mission, because everyone’s son is required for military conscription, and practically every family lost something or someone in the war. Whether for or against, exiled or remaining, incarcerated in a cell or imprisoned in the country, the damage has not discriminated — except in favor of those with a lot of money.
At an upmarket restaurant-bar I visited in the old town one evening, where wine and Western food filled the menu, I noticed a 10% reconstruction tax added to our bill. Money is needed to repair the billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure damage and this levy is one of several sources of funds for the purpose. But even if we assume the money isn’t siphoned away, “reconstruction” won’t include people’s homes or businesses, which will remain the responsibility of individuals. Given the economic challenges facing Syria’s population, it is unlikely that most will be able to rebuild. Indeed, the economic toll is so high that some Syrians in towns in Daraa and Sweida provinces have recently taken to the streets in protest again, despite knowing all too well the grim consequences of publicly criticizing the regime.
The demonstrations that began last week came after the government ended fuel subsidies, dealing another heavy blow to an already pummeled population.
Daraa was the heartland of the uprising of 2011 and it paid a heavy price for showing the audacity to ask for choice and liberty. What will be the impact of demanding a less negotiable economic survival? So far, the government response to the protests has been muted, but Syrians are aware of how quickly a spark can turn into a blaze. Could the country take any more conflict?
The bombings and shelling may have abated, but today’s “postwar” Syria is awash with psychological weapons and injuries. People cannot fathom their present let alone see any future. The spiraling costs and currency devaluations have squeezed every ounce of life out of anyone who managed to survive the past 12 years. Any hope and relief that was felt at the end of fighting has evaporated with the soaring prices and electricity shortages that followed. Without active clashes to blame, what “after” is there to hope and pray for?
I had visited Damascus a few times during the years of active fighting, and there was fear and anxiety and devastation, of course, but there was always a horizon that people looked to hopefully. “When the crisis ends,” people would say with anticipation. But in the Damascus I just visited, people’s outlook was fogged up by the absence of possibility. The war has officially ended, but it landed like a sack of salt — bitter, heavy and of limited use. None of the problems that sparked the initial uprising has been resolved and so many more problems have been created. The economy is in tatters and the political future remains bleak, even following the recent normalization with neighboring Arab countries.
The currency continues to rapidly lose its value, a depreciation that has been drastically hastened by the imposition of the Caesar Act sanctions by the U.S. in 2019. Prices of basic goods change weekly, and people are gripped by a constant panic over how to afford food, clothing and utilities.
For context, the Syrian pound’s pre-war exchange rate was 47 to $1. During the first decade of the crisis, that declined to 1,000 to $1. But the real kicker came long after the Free Syria Army, the Islamists, the Islamic State group, the Russians, the Iranians, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and a few others entered the fighting fray. It was the introduction of the dollar weapon by way of sanctions that sent Syria’s currency into free-fall. In early June this year, official government rates were at 6,000 to $1, while black-market exchanges (if you dare) traded at 9,000. A month later in July, the Syrian pound continued its plunge, trading at 11,000 on the parallel market, with the Central Bank of Syria officially devaluing the currency to 9,900. And there is little sign of any slowdown. Pricing goods is a nightmare: Restaurants update their prices every week and merchants perform mathematical gymnastics every time they do business. Every day, I heard someone balk and sigh at the latest price of a kilo of tomatoes or a bag of bread. Whoever the supposed targets are, the poison of sanctions is being ingested by the Syrian population.
There are two parallel markets operating in Syria. The government offers highly subsidized rates for certain basic goods like gas, sugar, bread and oil. These goods are rationed per household using so-called smart cards introduced a few years ago, and are then bartered for much-needed cash as salaries devalue in the face of a nose-diving currency. The alternative free-market supply keeps soaring, driving many to despair.
Speaking of currency, another mind-bending rule in Syria relates to dealing with the dollar. Every Syrian who enters the country is obliged to exchange $100 at the government-prescribed exchange rate, which is ordinarily around a third less than the market rate. But thereafter, no one in the country is allowed to handle or deal in the American currency. To do so risks up to seven years of jail time and police regularly carry out entrapment raids on those who exchange dollars, as well as their customers. This prohibition is both in retaliation for the U.S. sanctions and a way of buffeting the Syrian pound, which would have otherwise disappeared into a Lebanese-style oblivion. But the effect on the population is more isolation, more corruption, more leaving, more loss.
Electricity, which was once upon a time a 24-hour presence in Damascus, even at the height of the war, is also controlled. The most well-to-do areas get three hours on, three hours off, while the most impoverished, which were typically locales of government opposition during the crisis, can expect about one hour of electricity for every six or seven off. The reasons for the electricity shortages are many and varied. Many of Syria’s power plants were among the billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure destroyed during the war, though Damascenes I spoke to often remarked ruefully how it was strange to have less electricity than when the fighting was fiercest. The U.S.-Kurdish occupation of the oil-rich territory in northeastern Syria has also been blamed for taking the fuel necessary to power the energy plants that remain. It may also be that Iran has reduced its traditionally cheap fuel offerings to Syria, or maybe the sanctions have done their work and limited the materials available. All the reasons are plausible and relevant, but tellingly, I overheard many say they felt that the cuts were a form of government coercion and punishment — in case the population hadn’t had its fill. They often noted how it was always the areas where opposition and dissent had been the fiercest that got the least amount of electricity, while middle-class pro-regime areas were getting the most, and of course those with “wasta” — connections, money, influence — could count on 24 hours by virtue of miraculously hooked-up cables.
This vocal skepticism and disappointment with the country’s political system was surprisingly apparent. I have been visiting the country since the 1980s, at the height of its fear-mongering police-state repression, when I often heard clicks on the landline and when you silently mouthed Hafez al-Assad’s name even if it was to praise him. I was surprised to hear such widespread antipathy and dissatisfaction with the system at large, from top to bottom, particularly when one considers what happened to recent attempts to question and upend it. I would have thought the terror inflicted during the war would have silenced and suppressed the population afresh. But I saw a different, and perhaps no less worrying consequence of the recurrent catastrophes: people’s dejected acceptance. I suppose it isn’t any wonder, after everything that Syrians, and the world, saw done to them, and the few consequences that followed.
One of the biggest recurring laments I heard about the squeeze on Syrian society was the effect on food and eating. Preserving, cooking, eating and feeding are mainstay pursuits and sources of delight in Syrian households, where the Western world’s consumerism has not yet taken proper effect. The electricity cuts mean a lot of the food that used to be kept throughout the seasons cannot be. There are no leftovers without risk of mold, and only the basic foods are bought. A general sadness overcame some members of my family while recalling the rich flavor of meat compared to the dull offerings available today — if they can afford to buy them. Vegetarianism is unintentionally becoming the dominant style of eating. Pulses and potatoes are having their moment and Syria’s versatile cuisine is adapting once again.
The once comfortably hospitable middle class has been overtaken by a self-conscious frugality. Add to this the rationing of petrol and the effect on social life is substantial. Occasions and invites lessen, the contact between people falls off and communities lose strength. When I or someone from my family visits Damascus, it brings a reunion of relatives who otherwise rarely see one another.
The war may be officially over, but its specter remains strong, particularly with ongoing compulsory military service. Nobody — whatever political side they are on — wants to risk the mental and physical health of their sons. More and more men continue to leave the country, further fracturing the already fragile remains of family life in the country. While men look for opportunities abroad, short-term tactics to delay conscription include enrolling in higher education but failing as often as is practicable without getting kicked off the course. On the flip side, relatives explained that if you do want to pass your exams, you should expect to pay bribes to teachers, who rarely show up to class. Exile and failure are the aspirations of today’s young Syrian men. One possible positive byproduct of the exodus of men is more women filling the universities and jobs across all industries, but their responsibilities, which now straddle the financial as well as the domestic spheres, have multiplied.
There is a general understanding that staying in Syria means having little chance of thriving, and therefore more families fracture, as offspring and partners drain out of the country. Mothers’ hearts continue to break as they realize that they’ve raised their children to become exiled from them. They, in turn, wonder where they will end up. In a society that is predicated on the familial contract of “I take care of you when you are young so that you take care of me when I am old,” how do the dynamics of caring — giving and receiving — shift and alter?
Another notable societal metamorphosis is the greater intermingling of citizens from different parts of the country. At least 6 million Syrians are internally displaced and many have resettled wherever was safest and afforded shelter, often several governorates away from their point of origin. The previously siloed provinces have burst into each other, meaning those from the countryside have mixed with the city folk, merchants with agriculturists and northerners with southerners in ways that were very limited in the prewar era.
This homogenization was brought to life clearly on two distinct occasions: in the Rose Hammam and at a comedy night by the stand-up group Styria. Equally talented for very different reasons, the staff at the hammam and the comedians I watched on stage were the most diverse Syrians I’ve ever seen in one space before. Homs, Daraa, Latakia, Tartous, Damascus — all intermixed, shoulder to shoulder, dealing with their daily life however they can. At Styria’s weekly shows, men and women from all over the country perform their skits to a raucous room, relieving their tension and, as the organizer told me, “Helping them heal.”
And what of the famous TikTok partying scene? I admit to attending one such establishment. At midnight in the MonkeyBar, a small crowd had begun to fill the place. By 1 a.m., the music got people dancing and, by 2 a.m., the party was underway and had a few hours left in it. The revelers are from a particular sliver of society, of course: young, well-to-do, employed and/or visitors from abroad. They take the opportunity to party when they can, knowing well the fleetingness of life. I don’t begrudge them their joy, I only wished social media could encompass other realities alongside theirs.
From cafes to bars, family to friends, souk to shops — my encounters with every single person I knew or had just met were extremely positive and friendly. I felt so much of the renowned Syrian warmth and hospitality that had always entranced me. My experience stood in stark contrast to the complaints I heard from family members about retreating affection and care among people. Perhaps my out-of-towner perception skewed my experience, or perhaps I had only really seen the surface of life in the city. Of all the worries I have for Syrians’ future, the loss of their famous sociability and generosity is my biggest.
“People are still kind,” a Syrian friend who had been working for an INGO in the country throughout the war told me during a walk on my last day in Damascus. “Despite everything I’ve seen, there is still warmth in their hearts,” he assured me. I live in hope that he is right.
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