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.