A Tourist In Damascus

by Paolo Martino

Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso
Oct 10 2012

Damascus. When I get there, in December 2011, the uprising against
Bashar Al Assad has been going on for ten months. In the city, under
the ever-present eye of the dictator, everything seems calm, though at
the same time absent and precarious. Even for the historical Armenian
community, once again prey to its destiny of chronic lack of safety.

The thirteenth episode of “From the Caucasus to Beirut”

“Reason for visit?” The cigarette is burning slowly on the neck of the
ashtray. “Tourism”. The customs officer tilts the passport, studying
its filigree reflections. “Where are you staying and for how long?”.

With his chest thrown out, Bashar al Assad towers in a portrait over
the officer’s shoulders. “At the Al Rabie hostel”. The cigarette is
almost half-way. “I’m staying for the week-end, I have to get back to
work on Monday, in Beirut”. The Lebanese annual work permit is open
on the desk, next to the ashtray. “You sure?”. Before I can answer,
the stamp beats on page 11. The cigarette, now only a butt, falls in
the ash. “Welcome”.

The border unwinds on a desert ridge, a stony yellow surface swallowing
the no man’s land between Lebanon and Syria. As if the thick green
in the Bekaa valley – only a handful of kilometers away – had been
set on fire on the border line. A truck lies solitary on the side
of the road, a remainder of the caravans striving up these ramps
up until a few months ago. The only passage of land between Lebanon
and the rest of the world is a silent line of tarmac, beat only by
the wind of bad news. A giant poster of the President bids welcome:
“Syria united belongs to the Syrians only”. In the shade of the poster,
a shepherd is feeding his dog.

Damascus is announced by Soviet-style buildings, desert embankments,
austere and indelible witnesses of the alliance that once bound
Syria to the Kremlin until the fall of the Communist bloc. A vain and
repeated effort made by the regimes to bind their longevity to that
of the concrete. The taxi rides under the blocks, quickly through
the junctions and roundabouts that in other times would have cost
hours in traffic, whilst an imminence-filled atmosphere seems to be
looming over everything. Stores, lights, people on the sidewalks:
everything is in its place, but is somewhat distant, precarious,
absent. Down the avenue, the statue of Salah ed Din on a horse guards
the entrance to the old part of the city.

>From my journal. December 9th

In old Damascus, guarding an urban civilization more ancient than
the Italy of the Communes, a drilling replication of Bashar Al
Assad’s portrait makes its way anti-historical and vulgar through
the protective alleys of the city. The leaderism achieved by the Arab
power in long decades of dictatorships is not able to renew itself in
the bony built of this slouching man. Lacking the mass of Gheddafi
and Moubarak or the puffed up bearing of Ben Ali, his counterparts
already swept away by the Arab Spring, the picture of Assad resists
as it relies on a glassy and sharp look, a frown with no character
that vibrates like a muffled sound in the daily life of Syrians. The
cold eyes of a power that has drowned the people’s uprising in blood.

Bab Sharqi, the Gate of the Sun, Eastern border of the old city.

Beyond a white-stone surrounding wall, the bell of the Armenian Church
of Saint Serkis tolls the Sunday Calling. Prayer after prayer, the
liturgy is attended by about a hundred faithfuls for the whole morning,
while two distinguished gentlemen linger smoking in the bright sun
flooding the courtyard. I observe a marble bas-relief portraying the
deportations of 1915. “Tourist?” The older gentleman cannot curb
his curiosity towards a new face. “Yes. Italian” A look of wonder
crosses his eyes: tourism in Damascus has practically disappeared
in the last few months. In approaching me, the man offers a packet
of cigarettes. “You are welcome”. He then turns to his friend in
Armenian sending him off to a gate: he immediately comes out of the
same gate with three coffees.

‘An ill wind is blowing over Syria’. When mass ends, tens of people
greet each other in the courtyard, a space that is made intimate
by the walls around it. Vartan, a retired merchant who used to sell
Italian products, recalls his youth years. “I used to go to Vigevano
to buy shoes, Milan to buy fabric, Venice to buy jewels. But those
were other times, Syria was a rich Country. Now only those who can’t
leave remain”. Of the 150.000 Armenians who populated Damascus and
Aleppo until twenty years ago, less than 100.000 are left. “Up until
the ’80s we were a strong community, in money and in numbers”. While
we are walking towards his home through the alleys of the Christian
quarter, tens of shutters rolled down testify the hard times affecting
the Country. “It’s different, today. We no longer have certainty for
the future”.

Down an alley, its knob made smooth by the touch of hands, a small
door made of boards and wrought-iron squeaks as it opens onto a
courtyard. “We only come here on the week-ends, to be all together”.

The whole family is gathered round a table ready for the Sunday lunch,
while the presence of a stranger is no longer reason for embarrassment
and everyone discusses what is happening to the Country. “Every day,
the news gets worse. The rebels are more and more organized, armed by
foreign Countries to bring the war right inside Damascus”. The fear
of war is expressed like an oppressing sense of being under siege:
the enemy is at the gates.

“Why don’t you take part in the change?” All at once, silence sinks
at the table. The spontaneity of my question is mistaken for naivety.

“What is happening will bring us no good” Vartan speaks up, while
everyone listens. “This uprising is organized by Sunnite terrorists who
want the power to rule over everybody else, with the support of Saudi
Arabia. It is not the first time they’ve tried this. The same happened
in Hama in 1982. And the only one who can keep the fundamentalists at
bay, now as then, is President Assad” While speaking quickly, Vartan
reveals something much deeper than his words: as in every violent
clash, the positions of the opponents are polarized, definitive,
lacking legitimacy for the adversary. “But there are also Christians,
among the opponents.” Vartan almost does not let me finish. “They
are paid, just like everybody else.”

Damascus breathes by the rhythm of history. In the darkness of the
alleys, as in the large hectic avenues of the suks, there is a thread
linking the present to a monumental past. The thick and resigned
humanity populating the city moves head low among the great ruins of
ancient civilizations, gracefully integrated with the city’s living
architecture. Today as in the seventh century, the Umayyad Mosque,
legacy of the Arabic dynasty, the first to rule from the Atlantic to
the Indian Ocean, is attended by families who, during winter days,
warm themselves on white marble inundated by the sun, among high
Roman columns and the stately facade of the Byzantine temple.

>From my journal. December 9th From this symbolic place, ten months ago
Damascus let out its cry of uprising, fully embracing the purposes of
the Arab Spring and dragging the capital out of a passiveness that
had lasted 40 years. Were those who took part in that demonstration
driven by sectarian interests or did they have a different, fairer
and more just idea of society in mind? Before exiting Syria, I have
to meet one of those guys: in a while, History will no longer have the
time to understand who did what… it will be busy counting the dead.


Only a few weeks after the events herewith narrated, the few visitors
still in Damascus disappeared from its alleys. Since the beginning of
2012, Syrian authorities have not released tourist visas at the border.


You may also like