I thought of Damascus for a long time after my departure, almost on a daily basis. For it is the symbol of my homeland and was home to my memories and the details of my life. I hope it remains unharmed but I almosy feel embarrassed by that wish. For why should Damascus be more beautiful or important than Homs, Aleppo or the other cities rampaged by the destruction of war, a war which has fundamentally changed their appearance, color and smell?
The return to Damascus means a lot: even if you go back as a casual visitor haunted by fear. Above all, it means you partially bridge the gap created by being away, the ga[ between you and the place, the life, the people and time in that city. For Damascus is, like all Syrian cities, changing every day: more checkpoints, more destroyed homes in Qaboun, Joubar and Barzeh, more and more displaced people and more spiders in abandoned corners.
Bridging the gap goes beyond the Syrian border. For many have come to Beirut fleeing the war in Syria. Some have abandoned their dream of living in Europe and settled in Beirut, comforting themselves that at least there is no time difference between Beirut and Damascus; the sun rises and sets at the same time.
Some, the lucky ones so to speak, swallow their fear and cross the border. You look at the sky as though to bid it farewell. You try to immerse yourself in the blueness of the sky and the whiteness of the clouds in the that they can extinguish from your mind the image of the cold-eyed border guard arresting you. At the border checkpoint, things go well for you, but you are so terrified you can hardly stand. When I returned to Damascus, it was on an early morning in the spring. The border center was a dark building. When the officer stamped my passport, I turned and focused on the bright light outside the door. I walked slowly, repeating to myself “If you fall now, you will raise suspicions. Focus on the light. Walk towards the sun.”
The bitter irony is to find out that there are nine checkpoints awaiting you before you reach your home. Each has its men, lists of wanted people and its terror. Perhaps it is going to take me a long time before I can grasp the mechanism with which human beings deal with this constant, although intermittent, terror. You relax for a few minutes overwhelmed with happiness and a strange form of comfort as though you were home. Then another checkpoint looms and adrenaline spikes again in your veins, your heart beat speeds up, cold sweat pours from your body and you try to maintain your regular breathing rate. Then you pass the checkpoint and your nascent happiness returns, however briefly.
However, as soon as you enter Damascus, whose entrance I did not recognize, you are shocked by the sorrow it holds. Damascus today is a city haunted with grief that runs deeper than mere sadness; it is bitter sadness. People in Damascus walk a lot to avoid checkpoints installed at every street corner, to travel the streets in which vehicles are no longer allowed, and most importantly, to avoid costly taxis. For the shortest distance a taxi costs around 200-300 Syrian pounds, when one US dollar equals 170 Syrian pounds and the average salaries in Syria are about 120-150 dollars, i.e. 20,000-25,000 Syrian pounds with very few higher ranks with higher salaries.
The real disaster, though, is the price of food. One kilogram of potatoes, supposedly one of the cheapest food items, and one of the least nutritious, can cost up to 150 Syrian pounds, while a kilo of beans costs 200-250, which would not even be enough for a family of four or five. Regular coffee costs 1,000-1,500 pounds a kilo on average, while a kilo of sugar costs 150-200. Hence, small delicious things seem very expensive, such as a bar of Snickers which costs 100 Syrian pounds. If you ask people in Damascus what they want you to bring them, they mostly ask for chocolate. They seem to have done without many things such as cheese, processed meats, and other types of canned meat.
Death is omnipresent, with the constant awareness of falling mortar shells or stray bullets, and the risk of abduction looms at every corner and in every street. On top of that, life has become insanely expensive, with prices tripling or even four times what they were. Most importantly, a sense of abandonment pervades the air of Damascus, as all those who could do so have departed, and the city is littered with garbage everywhere. Damascus, long having boasted of the cleanness of its people, has become a dirty place.
The dust of destroyed homes in the nearby Damascus suburbs and other governorates has travelled with the wind to settle on the facades of the homes and buildings still standing. So has the smell of death. Damascus has a strange smell beyond being unclean air. Damascus is gray. People move around, certain that they will collapse should they pause for a moment to reflect on any of the myriad pains of their daily life, so they keep moving. They think not of those who are gone. They forget not those who were forcefully disappeared from their lives to kill or be killed.
Happiness does not exist in Damascus, but with great effort, every person makes unremitting attempts to create even a semblance of happiness, with even some checkpoint officers attempting to be a little friendlier, a little more human, to create the shape of a normal life that, for many, is simply impossible.
For what life it can be when power cuts sometimes last for more than 15 hours a day? Students study by candlelight or by the light of strange electronic devices and expensive power generators. Life as we know it seems to have survived only in Souk Al-Hamidiyah, with the faint heavenly lights whispering out from its ancient ceiling, its quick movements, the voices of vendors and the colorful, glimmering beautiful goods.
Fear in Damascus is multifold: fear of the rebels who might break into Damascus and take revenge on its merchants who stood by the Syrian regime; fear of extremists coming to behead people and extend their darkness over the city; fear of arrest and disappearance; fear of abduction; fear of meaningless death in an explosion or the falling of a shell on an innocent person happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong moment. Daily life is a struggle, weighed down with a sense submission, resignation, and no longer having any great expectations.