Now that I’m here as an independent (vs part of the Peace delegation–a 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…a 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 friends are doing their bit to make their city 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.
A group of four youths, two guys, two head-scarf-wearing girls (I mention this only because they are Sunni Muslim and support their president, contrary to media claims), indulge in conversation, starting with talking about the mural and how much they like it,and moving on to the troubles in Syria, what they hope for (same message as most I’ve heard from: we want our country to go back to the way it was; we don’t want these “terrorists” here; we love our president). One asks me to pose with him for a photo.
A friend is trying to help me solve a banking problem; because of the sanctions on Syria, international bank cards don’t work here (nor can one even log onto online banking!). Meaning it’s not just me affected, but anyone who has family outside trying to send money to them in Syria. We end up at a Western Union to ask some questions. There’s a long line of people waiting to get inside and receive money from family abroad. “Many people can’t work because of the situation here,” I’m told. “Many have lost their jobs, were formerly working in areas now controlled or attacked by ‘rebels’. And even for those who do work, like me, life has gotten more expensive; our salaries aren’t enough now.”
A hot bus ride later and I’m back in the old city, weaving along the cobbled roads of the Souk al-Hamidiyah (Hamidiyah market), dodging carts and cars and bikes and motorbikes, and people who don’t walk the north American way. It’s always overwhelming walking these market lanes, sensory overload. Everything you want and need is here, and I’m told people come from all over Damascus and beyond to get their market fix. Exiting onto the Via Rector, the long road which eventually leads to Bab Sharqi (East Gate), I enter daylight and a slight breeze, and more pedestrian, car, truck, bike traffic. Doves murmur, caged birds (finches, mainly, but also budgies) sing. Reminiscent of Gaza, large, ornamental rugs typical in most homes are slung over balconies and roof edges to air out, and laundry flutters in the breeze. Sandwich vendors, shops selling wooden utensils, an internet cafe, sweets vendors, cell phone shops, tourist shops (not getting much, any?, business these days). And many churches, some mosques, and old homes now cafes and/or restaurants. Yesterday, after some meetings, I had a bit of time to wander up and down the narrow passages between the ancient homes of the old City, a fascinating way to spend half hour, or several hours.
In spite of having almost no business to speak of, the hotel owner and his staff have been exceedingly generous with me, calling me over for coffee, breakfast, a drink whenever they see me outside of my room. Although they’d insisted I join the party yesterday at the hotel, I was invited to a different Easter celebration, in another area of the old city. These Christians know how to party. (that said, it was a Muslim friend who invited me) Decked out in sultry clothing to match their sultry dance, the women of varying ages spent most of the afternoon dancing, but men and kids joined them. I joined in with my rendition of Dabke, which they were doing in a circling line. They, dancing since they could walk, have an innate ability to move. Adjectives jumped into my head as I watched them. Confident. Sexy. Alive. Defiant. Proud.
A feast of food and drink, and hours of wedding-singer (Arab-style) music (romantic, dabke, patriotic). At one point the entire room was clapping, most dancing, most singing along, to the singer’s song on Syria, including loud outbreaks of “Bashar al-Assad” cheered over and over, flags waving.
A young woman from the “rebel”-ravaged, historic, Christian-majority city of Maaloula, stood to sing a song (whose words I didn’t catch but was told it was about Syria), with amazing vibrato. I chatted with her later and she echoed what I’d already read while in Canada: the “rebels” came and occupied the village, killed many people, decapitated many, destroyed many things, desecrated holy places, threw statues on the ground, they terrorized us.”
Before coming here, I have to admit I thought I’d find empty streets and people with withered, drawn, tired faces. And surely this is true in areas like Aleppo or the outskirts of Damascus and elsewhere.
But I wasn’t expecting such a vibrancy, nor such genuine and enthusiastic and emphatic support for their president. I remain open to hearing opposing views, but thus far have gotten the sense—and been flat-out told—that those views have gotten fewer and fewer over the past three years of the“rebels” atrocities.
One of the atrocities I’d read multiple accounts of is the kidnapping and torture of Syrian civilians, for money usually. Many end in decapitations, others are freed if huge ransoms are paid.
A man I’d spoken with this morning just now elaborated on his situation. He was kidnapped by one of the “rebel” factions and held for 46 days. “For 6 days they kept my arms tied above me. They attached clamps to my body and shocked me, poured water over me, and shocked me.” His lips tremble as he recounts this in quick bursts. I asked which faction it was. “They’re all the same, there’s no difference.” I asked whether they were Syrian or foreign. “Both. The guys the took me were Syrian, from Aleppo. 35 men surrounded me and kidnapped me, in broad daylight.” He was released at the sum of 8 million Lira.
On a related note, recent news: 4 French journalists abducted in Syria freed, safe
Meanwhile, reports of the mortar attacks “rebels” fired this morning and today confirm my worries, having heard the blasts this morning:
Two citizens were killed and another 23 wounded due to terrorist attack with a mortar round launched on Bab Touma neighborhood in Damascus.
A source at the Police Command said that a mortar shell landed in the vicinity of Bab Touma Square near al-Thaqafi Mosque, killing two citizens and wounding 23.
…two civilians were killed and 36 were injured in three terrorist mortar attacks on the area surrounding Dar al-Salam school and al-Salhiyeh neighborhood in Damascus.
Meanwhile, one civilian was injured in terrorist mortar attacks in al-Zablatani area.Damascus Police Command source told SANA that terrorists fired 5 mortar shells on al-Khazen and al-Dawamneh squares in Souk al-Hal in the area, causing the injury of a civilian and material damage to the cars parked in the place.
These areas are within 500 metres and one kilometer, respectively, from where I’m staying.