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Damascus Diary: A City Filled With Life, and Hints of Brutal Death

Downtown Damascus feels busy and alive, with people boarding vans and buses to get to work as in any other city. But the heavy traffic is partly a result of the security checkpoints that have proliferated.

We were forbidden to photograph checkpoints, but they are ubiquitous. Our government-required minder alternately castigated, teased and charmed the soldiers and militiamen to speed our passage. But the checkpoints are more than a nuisance for many Syrians, who can be forced to pay bribes, detained or seized and sent off to army service.

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Mount Qasioun towers above the city as always. But the cafes near the top, once a popular date spot, are closed. Artillery guns atop the mountain have been the backbeat of the war, the strange spectacle of a capital shelling its own suburbs, and sometimes being shelled back.

The simple act of changing money underscores how the economy has crashed with the costs of war, the destruction of manufacturing and the flight of capital as wealthy Syrians flee or send assets abroad.

For $600, we got a four-inch brick of Syrian pounds at the Lebanese border.

The value of the pound against the dollar is a tenth of prewar levels. So restaurant tabs are paid in sheafs of bills but seem ridiculously cheap compared with past visits. At Naranj, the fanciest restaurant in the Old City, a lavish spread of traditional Syrian food around the marble fountains and mosaics came to the equivalent of about $10 per person.

Sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, meant to punish the government for human rights abuses, leave most Syrians unable to use credit cards or open international bank accounts. Even industries intended to be exempt, like pharmaceuticals, are sometimes hampered by international banks’ caution against running afoul of the sanctions.

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Taxi and bus drivers have always seen themselves as impresarios in Damascus: playing Arabic classics and Western pop music, making coffee in little electric pots while weaving through traffic, setting up romantic lights they flick on at night for an instant party atmosphere. But this cabby was a moonlighting soldier, trying to supplement a salary whose shrinking value could not support his family, still stuck in the army several years past the normal two-year requirement.

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At a central roundabout were these two contrasting ads side by side.

On the right, a recruitment poster sponsored by a women’s group declares: “Our army means all of us. Join the armed forces.” On the left, a clinic offers a weight-loss treatment that promises “losing one kilogram after each session,” as well as “hair removal and bleaching without pain.” A short drive away is Moadhamiyeh, a suburb where, during a government siege earlier in the war, some of the most vulnerable starved to death.

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The Old City of Damascus is its most beautiful, famous section, with pedestrian streets, alleys overhung with vines and centuries-old houses built around courtyards.

No tourist museum, it is a thriving set of interlocking neighborhoods reflecting the city’s cultural and religious diversity, where a shop selling classic Syrian crafts and antiques might be next door to ones selling toothpaste and detergents, or lingerie and sweatsuits.

But many of those shops have closed, or remain open only for their owners to keep company drinking coffee and playing backgammon with neighboring merchants. Militiamen from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, or Syrians they have helped train, keep watch on the streets.

Some shop owners whisper that they feel as if they are under occupation or grumble that they were forced to paint the Syrian flag on their doors. Others want to leave Syria but can’t afford it because all their wealth is tied up in inventory — silver, tiles, brass, silk brocade, mosaic woodwork — they cannot sell. Rebel shells still occasionally crash down, killing people at random.

Some owners are coping by transforming antique shops into bars for the locals, especially on the thoroughfare known as the Street Called Straight, the destination of the Apostle Paul’s biblical journey to Damascus.

The Tiki Bar, shown in the video below on the Saturday before Halloween, had a bartender D.J.-ing from his laptop as costumed patrons drank and smoked.

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