mortars and nostalgia for the past

milkman, Damascus old city

milkman, Damascus old city

Sitting outside a restaurant surrounded by olive and evergreen trees. In a nearby church courtyard, a band is practising…trumpets, drums. I’m the only customer here, trying to type out some notes and listen to today’s audio recordings. The restaurant owner is smoking a cigar and throwing comments my way every so often, on the situation here. An explosion. “It’s from the east, from the ‘Free Syrian Army’ he says casually. “There were three mortars today on Bab Touma, and the other day a mortar which killed and injured many,” he adds, referring to the Bab Touma attack I’ve blogged about previously.

This morning, leaving in a hurry to meet someone, I took the narrow lanes that flank the main road linking the Straight Street and Bab Touma. The shops, bookstores, small eateries along this main road are fascinating, but the quiet life that exists in the narrow lanes is more enticing. I’m guessing it’d take an entire day to walk up and down all of them, and that my camera’s battery would conk out before I could photograph all of the beauty in these lanes.

Another blast. The restaurant owner turns to me, and nods his head. “Before this mess, there were so many tourists. Our restaurant was packed. A hundred here,” he says, pointing to the patio, “ a hundred inside, a hundred on the terrace upstairs. I didn’t have time to talk with anyone. Now, look at me, I have time for whiskey and a cigar.”

As we drove to my meeting this morning—leaving from Ban Touma, site of many mortar attacks—the driver narrates the past few days of attacks on Damascus. We pass a road leading east, to Jobar. “There is a war from there,” he says. “The other day, ‘rebels’ sent mortars to us, from Jobar.” Among the dead civilians, he says, were a man, his nearly two year old daughter, and and his wife’s younger brother, an 11 year old, in their home at the time of the shelling. “Every day they are shelling civilians. In the last two days they killed 27 in Damascus.”

The church band of trumpets and drums blasts The Final Countdown. I’m sure they intend no prophecy.

At around 1 pm, I passed by a Western Union and duck in, having e-transferred my own money to my brother (a process in itself…while I could find my bank’s website online, I couldn’t log into online banking… part of the sanctions on Syria. A proxy server solved the issue.) for him to then WU me my own money.

The bureaucracy prevalent in Egypt and elsewhere seems to exist here. Many of those waiting in the WU office, and others around Damascus, had been there since 9 am. As I waited for my own transaction to be processed, a young Palestinian woman, Noor, chatted with me. She studies French literature at university. She was happy when she overheard me using Palestinian dialect. Although I’ve already got one around my neck, she took from her purse a necklace with the map of Palestine on it.

The restaurant owner here insists on treating me. His best whiskey, shisha, a meal. I actually came to this patio to avoid the hospitality of my own hotel owner, but alas, its hospitality anew. I deflect the latter, for want of time to write, but engage with him in light conversation on various aspects of life nowadays. Its a bit difficult to be a fly on the wall here in Syria nowadays when there are so few (non-jihadi) foreigners visiting, a point that has been rammed home by many people I’ve spoken with.

The cab driver this afternoon, returning me to the old city, jumped at the chance to practise his English, echoing what others have said: “There used to be so many tourists here. I used to drive them to tourist sites. Now there are none.” I ask who he’ll vote for in the up-coming elections. “The President, of course.” You support him? “Or course.” What do you like about him? “Because, before these problems, Syria had security, tourists, the economy was good. I didn’t worry about my safety.” …When we arrive at Bab Touma, he returns 300 Lira from my 500 Lira note, though we’d agreed at the beginning the ride would be 400 Lira. I get him to accept, at least, 300 Lira.

The restaurant owner tells me, choked up, “when I see programs on tv on Syrian culture, I cry remembering how it was.” He says from noon, after local Syrians dined here,  tourists would come, till 5 am, when it would finally be as empty as the lane now leading to his restaurant.

more insights into Bab Touma mortar attacks

Two days ago, one of the stream of mortars being fired upon various areas of Damascus hit Bab Touma (Thomas Gate) square, killing 2 and injuring at least 23, according to Sana news. Bab Touma itself is one of the eight gates leading into Damascus’ Old City. It also happens to be a busy area, filled with market stalls, vendors, pedestrians, and shops. And in terms of the greater area, while I haven’t been hurt by the mortars, I’ve heard many in the old city in the past few days, and many have landed within 500 metres or less (20-30 metres) of places I’m staying or have been in Damascus.

DSCN3586 (480x640) DSCN3588 (640x480) DSCN3590 (640x480)

A falafel shop was damaged in this latest Bab Touma mortar attack, and many shops surrounding the open area where the shell landed were damaged to varying degrees.  A shoe store I visited last night in the area wasn’t too badly damaged; the windows had their original layer of thin plastic on them, which kept the closest window from spraying glass into the room where employees were working.  I chatted with the owner, an Armenian, about the attack.  He wasn’t there at the time, but an employee was.

“It was just after 3 pm, the mortar landed there,” he said, pointing to the center of the open area. “Shrapnel flew everywhere, little bits and pieces.” [aside: the other day I got a lesson in mortars. The kind the "rebels" are using, mostly, are home-made. Some have just enough explosives to make them fly, the shell itself--stuffed with bits of metal, nails, anything injurious--causing wider injury to people.]

“The area was packed with people. It happens a lot, a lot, a lot, …all the time. In the last two weeks, around ten mortars have landed in this area. But they weren’t as devastating as he day before yesterday.” I asked his opinion on who was firing these mortars. “I have no idea. But logistically, they had to have come from Jobar.” [Jobar is east of Damascus and is an area from which, I'm told, "rebels" have been launching mortars.]

Across the street, a clothes shop employee pretty much reiterated what I’d just been told.

“We were inside, heard the explosion, went outside and saw the dead lying on the ground. We get these mortars all the time.”

This man was more decided about by whom the mortars were being launched. “From the ‘Free Syrian Army’.”

“This isn’t a revolution,” the first man said. “They’ve come from outside. Do you know how we were living? We had security, work… but, sorry, now…?

A juice vendor who gave me a glass of freshly pressed orange and grapefruit juice some nights ago waved me over to say hello as I walked back to my hotel.  Sitting outside his small booth, he lamented the Syria of more than three years ago.  “This area would be alive until 5 am,” he said, gesturing to “Straight Street” leading from Bab Sharqi (East Gate) to the Hamdiyeh market and on. “There was live music in the hadika there,” he said, pointing to a long grassy patch flanked by the remains of Roman columns. “Tourists came, they loved it. Now, no tourists.  You could walk home or go out in the late hours of night, without fear of mortar attacks or being kidnapped,” he said, echoing what so many have told me.


Easter party, old Damascus.

Although Easter is over, people are still celebrating. My discount, old-city, gorgeous hotel is packed with revelers who apparently didn’t get a chance to party last night. No sleep for the non-partakers. The hospitable hotel owner invited me for a drink, despite me protesting weakly I needed to do some work. So I sat with him, watch another crowd of energized people take to the dance floor, no inhibitions.  Nightclub lighting and fake fog transformed the normally antique-looking dining hall. The party is apparently 120 people; yesterday was  300+.

Loud music, sultry music, silly western pop music, 80s music (no Fatal Eclipse), but a broad mix, which seems to please all. Whistles, cheers, claps.

“I used to have more than that, every night,” my hotel-owner-friend says. “Tourist groups would arrive first, till about 8 pm. Then the locals came, till 3 am. I’d plea with them, ‘please, go home, we need to sleep.’ But they’d stay on. This is Syrian life.”


Easter celebration despite sordid realities, and other snippets from Syria

Christians in Damascus celebrating Easter, Syria, President Assad.

Christians in Damascus celebrating Easter, Syria, President Assad.

Now that I’m here as an independent (vs part of the delegation a large group of people from around the world, which I’ll address in another posting), I’m able to take a servis (shared minibus) or bus, am integrating with the locals. This is always better…chance to interact with people more, to also live more like they do, sweating in the over-stuffed bus stopped in a traffic jam, getting out of a seat to let a woman or elder sit down, watching Damascus roll past through the broad windows of the bus.


I happened upon a mural I’d read about while in Canada, a Gaudi-esque wall of glitter, tiles, bits if recycled glass and other, keys, and other odds and ends. Fortunately, one of the murals’ designers was around and I got to chat with him. He basically said it was a project to brighten the spirits of children who are suffering from this situation here in Syria. To illustrate the psychological suffering that people are enduring, just now another loud blast of mortar, preceded ten minutes earlier, and so on. In fact, I spoke with a friend a little while ago who apologized for not answering his phone when I’d called this morning. “A mortar fell 50 meters away from where I was standing,” he said. There were injuries.

So the mural man and some of his buddies are doing their bit to make their world a better place, at least cheer up some kids. The mural decorates a long stretch of the wall surrounding an elementary school. As it turns out, it’s brightening many people’s spirits.

brief updates from Damascus

This morning I heard the familiar shelling sounds of mortar being fired by “rebels” from the Jobar region (usually, sometime from other east-of -Damascus “rebel”-infiltrated areas) upon the city.  Later, scanning the news I read that one civilian was killed and at least two others injured in the at least seven mortar attacks near Dar al-Salam school and al-Zablatani area (not far from where I am staying, less than 1 km from here). The school is in an area not far from where the Peace Delegation stayed a week ago. Damascenes are living under daily attacks by these unguided but lethal mortars.

Later, I talk with a man from Aleppo. When I asked him about the situation there, he replies, “there’s little food, we’re besieged,” he says, making the same hand-motion of being locked in I make when talking about Gaza. I ask from who. “The ‘rebels’,” he says. He isn’t jovial like the people I’ve been seeing here in Damascus, who are further removed from the atrocities of the “rebels”. I ask if I can conduct a formal interview with him. Shakes his head, “they’d cut my head off it I did.” Ask if he knows people who’ve been decapitated by the “rebels.” Shakes his head yes, “ay, nam.” Yes.


see also:  Eye Witness Reports on Syria

Damascus churches and Patriarch Laham’s message for peace

On Apr 13, the Peace Delegation visited Damascus’ old city’s Zeitoun church where Patriarch Laham spoke on many things, prominent among them peace in Syria.

Being a non-church-goer, but having delved into services here and there, I was greatly moved by the devotion of the congregation, and the musicality of their singers.  Laham’s message was of reconciliation for Syrians, which I in my own way pray will occur.