A Snapshot of Life in Damascus

The soldier gave the IDs back to their owners except for two people. He kept the door of the van open before he moved away a little bit. It was immensely difficult to see what was happening outdoors during the early morning hours of that winter with barely any light around me. The way a woman squatting next to the door looked at me was enough to swallow whatever light was left. I still remember what I thought to myself when she looked at me that way: “Damn you for such a look, aunt. I understand what you mean.”

Another soldier approached the door, and it seemed that his function was to instill fear at the checkpoint. He screamed with his coastal accent, calling out the name of the person sitting behind me, and asking him about the date he was enlisted, the date he was discharged, his place of residence, his job, his favourite singer, his role model, and whether he had been recently drafted. All of this “patriotic” talk was in screaming, the intelligence’s way of communicating innately known to Syrians. This terror contaminates their DNA and is nurtured like a religion. It is a penalty for anyone influenced by their evil soul to feel slightly secure.

I felt short of breath. Is this what happens in the backstage of those videos of people being interrogated?!

In Greek mythology, there is a goddess called Medusa who turns whoever she looks at into stone. As for the Syrian regime checkpoints, if the circumstances are appropriate, as they were in the winter of 2015 when I was stopped at that random checkpoint between Jaramana and Duwelaa, a look from a soldier could turn you into a video, something no Syrian wants to experience.

The military version of Medusa called out my name and the horror I felt scattered my response to the ears around me. The soldier approached and looked closely in the dark, and I muttered, “don’t do it, Medusa, don’t do it.” My striped winter hat looked like a veil, which made him think that I was a woman. He laughed after he cross-checked my face with the smiling person on my ID, and the passengers intuitively laughed. The pores of my body laughed: “Yes, well done Medusa, well done.” We were then allowed to pass.

In fact, this incident is considered a routine occurrence by Syrians. Compared to other young men from other governorates, I would have been considered lucky for passing safely through the regime checkpoints. Imagine, for example, had I been from Raqqa, or from Deir al-Zour. Even if from the “quiet” provinces, as the popular Syrian lexicon calls them, belonging to one of the families renowned for their opposition to the regime is enough for anyone to be deemed suspicious by the “specialized authorities.” These checkpoints do not seem to belong to a state that governs its people under a law, but seem more vengeances between tribes and traps set by bandits. To be honest, I believe that my remark concerning the “law” is ridiculously stupid.

Lest I be accused of exaggeration, I will just refer to one Red Crescent volunteer in the Rif Dimashq branch, who is from the Sweida governorate and lives in Jaramana. He was subjected to threats and intimidation by the regime militants for delivering food aid to some areas in the countryside of Damascus. He was even beaten during one of these missions with no clear justification. He just belongs to a family famous for being pro-revolution and having many activists.

As for the random checkpoints, they are significant for their hostility towards all young men qualifying for military service such as myself. They inspect their papers, look for any mistake made by an employee in the recruitment division of the Ministry of Defense, and hold them accountable for the civil servant’s mistakes. You might encounter such a checkpoint anywhere in the country, depending on the regime’s need for soldiers. You might encounter them in narrow alleys in slums, or even perhaps in your nightmares. Some of these checkpoints have become predictable, like the one between Jaramana and Dwelaa. In Arabic we call them “flyer checkpoints” but they only flies within this region!

As for me, I reordered my official papers in my pocket, as well as my breathing and my pulse. I was thinking quite uneasily: “Oh God, what a coward I am!”

I remembered how the city is hurling me from madness to madness. I laughed as I anxiously looked at the faces of the passengers: “They have to separate us with wires. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them wanted to devour my face like a loaf of bread!”

From the Turba Square in Jaramana, I stepped up in this van hastily as I wanted to escape an imminent catastrophe: a groggy guy forcing another sober guy into a taxi. They brawled in front of the taxi driver, who seized the first opportunity to escape. The two guys then began to stagger and only targeted public transportation. Whenever they missed a van, they would yell at its driver to stop, punch him before allowing him to leave. I managed to throw myself into one of the vans, which took me to the random checkpoint of Dwelaa.

I smile: “Oh God, what is this madness! I do not want to be killed by a possessed fool who thinks my body is the field for his holy battle.”

Jaramana itself has become a resting pitstop for fighters before setting off to the battlefield, or rather their breeding ground. Everything has become violated in this town, which is now full of foreign militants coming from Iraq and Lebanon, in addition to those affiliated with the Syrian regime. They not only target the regime’s opponents, but many local civilians had been killed and injured in Jaramana. It has become a crowded area for the displaced, and the latter have become, by convention, enemies of the regime.

The regime and its military allies never hesitated to terrorize the town, even with mortar shelling. Jaysh al-Islam in Ghouta has been taking pride in targeting the town, allowing the regime to freely discipline its own population by shelling them whenever it dislikes a certain behavior. The meager privilege Jarmana enjoys, providing it with general protection by the regime, stems from being the vulnerable borderline of the Air Defense Division. The latter is located between Jaramana and the neighboring town of Al-Malihah, which had long been under the control of the armed opposition. This division has become a huge military barracks, and it is through it that the regime used to extend its military and security control over large parts of Damascus and its countryside.

I arrived to Bab Touma Square triumphantly unscathed. I took the bystreet on foot towards the Umayyad Mosque, then pass through Al-Hamidiyah Souq. From there I am to choose the appropriate route to reach my final destination, the Umayyad Square.

Choosing to walk all this did not stem from any extreme athletic Olympic belief. The notion of waiting for the bus in Bab Touma was like a teenage girl listening to the romantic Hani Shaker songs at her window, dreaming of a knight riding a white horse to pull her out of this hell. Yes, with all its oddness, lunacy and madness, that is exactly how it was. Accordingly, whenever I arrived at this square I recall the proverb “Cut your coat according to your cloth” and then walk whatever available old routes and by-streets in Damascus.

I firmly believe that the characters walking around Damascus at six o’clock in the morning are but nocturnal runaways from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If any of you ever tried to read this novel and discovered that it lacks some characters, be sure that you will find them in the alleys of Damascus. In these early hours of the morning, most of the city is still fast asleep except for the eyes of the soldiers lying in wait for civilians. Nobody would dare to go out into the streets except for the hunchbacked, one-eyed or crippled, and all the of rest are otherwise potential militants. Nobody goes out into the streets at this time except for the insane, and perhaps also those who had principals like the ones I had in their educational institutions.

I make haste as soon as I remember the head of the studies department at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts. I could hear her blatant voice as if she were walking behind me: “I cannot appreciate each of your humanitarian circumstances. How can I let students graduate from this Institute when they come late to their lectures? How can I grant you a certificate for a job without you studying, how how…?” I run, and her voice runs right behind me: “This delay will not pass peacefully without consequences.” Damn, I left my house at 5 a.m. so as to avoid her reproaching me.

The Higher Institute takes care of the “artistic and academic” level of its students. That is why its administration established a managerial committee belonging to the Student Union of Syria, to supervise them and to control any political tendency. The rumors woven around that committee are intimidating enough, even if none of them have been confirmed to date.

I enter Al-Hamidiyah Souq. It will be empty at this time except for the “street vendors,” a profession considered by the Syrian mentality as an official security rank. This is one of the features of this market that is covered and concealed, full of covered and concealed worlds just like it.

I personally think that the peddlers in Al-Hamidiyah Souq managed to provide the theater students what the Higher Institute was unable to to provide: a theatrical laboratory! Regardless of what your profession or your field is, in front of this huge number of informants in the Souq, you can only feel that dread felt by actors on stage. Yes, exactly so. It is like sensing hundreds of eyes and ears watching you in the dark. At best they will be like secret surveillance cameras in your bathroom. You know they are there but have to pretend not to. Why? Because they are secret. Your unconscious, however, cannot evade the chronic question, what is this surveillance camera doing in my bathroom?!

That is why passing through Al-Hamidiyah Souq was a test, a group of vestibular mazes that you have to pass through with full conviction that they are the correct path. There are those who pass through it following the “school” of Stanislavski, believing in what they say in order to sound convincing. There are also those who pass through it following the “school” of Meyerhold, strictly settling for saying what the informant wants to hear in order to sound faithful.

The most exciting thing is that, the more these two schools spread in the theater of citizenship, the more Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty flourishes. I am more and more certain that the performance of a street vendor, actually selling and buying nothing, is far more efficient at deception and theatricalization than all of the country’s genius performers. “Thank you, Al-Hamidiyah Souq, I would have never memorized and grasped these theories and names had it not been for your blessed projections.”

I get out of the market. I turn around me, trying to remember the locations of the checkpoints. I fail. Military clothes and their instinctive indication of thuggery have become ubiquitous. The grocer is a soldier, the van driver is a soldier, our wall painter neighbor is also a soldier. You come to the feeling that your clothes are inappropriate while amongst them. Traffic in the empty streets of Damascus, traffic in the faces of the passers-by, traffic in our chestsز I try to remember: “Damascus is full of checkpoints, damn your soul Hafez.” All roads are passable with curses, then.

I enter the Institute at 7 o’clock. Nobody has arrived yet. I rush to the only water fountain which overlooks what is metaphorically called the “Barada River.” I drink like a caravan of camels that had just finished both its winter and summer trips. I declare to myself with great satisfaction and acceptance: “Yes indeed, my shoe with which I travel half of Damascus walking is worth more than the whole of the Ministry of Transportation.”


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