Back in Beirut after a week in Syria, I already feel far away from Cham, which is a city that raised me, in a way.
Being in Damascus was like visiting the city of one’s childhood in a dream. Everything looks normal at first, but then there are bizarre differences from real life — exaggerations, unmarked absences — that creep up on you until you realize it is not really the same place at all.
The changes stem from the fact that Syria is trying to open up economically and the socialist sheen is disappearing. In that sense, its society is fading into a plain old dichotomy between rich elites and poor people. People say that the middle class is dwindling.
A snapshot: Damascus has new, green public buses and people have bought new cars by the thousands — Hyundai, Skoda, Peugot, etc. — so it no longer has a Cuba-of-the-Middle-East feel. The number of restaurants and hotels in the old city appears to have about doubled. The government has torn up parts of the old city for refurbishment. There are more beggars on the street — there were once hardly any. Youtube and Facebook are officially blocked, and many of the internet cafes appear to have shuttered, though I couldn’t say why. Foreign companies like KFC are more prominent, and there is a big, American-style mall in Kaffar Sousseh.
Average Syrians aren’t thrilled with the economic changes. They say the cost of living has shot up, and salaries haven’t.
“There are only two ways to live now,” one upper-middle-class Syrian told me, smiling. “You can steal… or, you can die.”
The friend I stayed with in a crumbling, mildewed, shared room in a poorer Christian neighborhood is experiencing the economic climate more directly. With a college degree, he has a “good-paying” job at a bank that is working him hard. The pay is about $500 a month. Enough to get by, and have the occasional indulgence at a cafe. But hardly enough to build a future.
Of course, I love Syria dearly, and I think it has been much maligned — and subjected to ridiculous measures, like the prohibition by the United States of shopping at the airport’s duty-free — while the greater misdeeds of other countries (ahem) go completely ignored. I also understand the need for economic reforms. I hope for a bigger Syrian role in international affairs, for its prosperity as a country, and deeper acknowledgment of the burdens it has had to bear as a result of the war in Iraq and the generosity it has shown to refugees.
I just don’t think I’m hearing much support from among Syrians for the direction that’s been chosen.
In any case, I won’t forget the day I came into town: flying down out of the mountains on a Sunday morning in the July sun, the city sparkling, green and peaceful below, joy rushing inside me as I recited the neighborhoods through which my taxi passed, just to feel their names on my tongue. A brief homecoming.
For next time, a few comments on a more personal note…