Six meters back in the darkness, Mahmmad sits at his desk with a cigarette in one hand and a phone in the other. Behind him, the three-starred flag of the Syrian opposition is pinned next to a sticker that bears a warning to Assad’s thugs: “No Shabiha allowed.”
He chides me for coming to speak to him at the busiest time of his day. “You should have come in the morning,” he says. “Syrians stay in bed until 11, so my shop is empty until then.” Hospitable nonetheless, he clears space on a chair, orders coffees from the drinks seller opposite, and talks about his business as customers file steadily into his shop.
Antakya is a small town in southeastern Turkey that is best known as the birthplace of Christianity. It used to pull in a smattering of summertime tourists and pilgrims, but since the Free Syrian Army captured a stretch of the Syrian border just half an hour’s drive from the town, the holidaymakers have been joined by a wave of journalists, NGO workers and rebel fighters who use it as their base to dip in and out of the war-stricken country. The hotels and cafes are heaving, the newsstands are full of international papers, and entrepreneurs like Mahmmad have joined the gold rush.
“I used to be an olive farmer in a village near the border,” he says, “but eight months ago I decided to open this shop. I am a Sunni and I have relatives in Syria who are fighting the regime, so by doing this I feel that I am helping them.” His customers are the fighters from rebel brigades who come to Antakya to buy their combat fatigues and sniper scopes. As the Free Syrian Army began to professionalize and adopt their own distinctive uniforms, commanders came to Mahmmad to buy hundreds of sets of clothes at a time. At the back of the shop, a small section of wall is hung with necklaces and wristbands in red, black and green—the colors of the revolutionary flag. “They buy these for their girlfriends and children,” says Mahmmad, “but if someone puts in a big order, I’ll throw in a few for free.”
The success of Mahmmad’s business is a sign of how commerce in Syria has slowed almost to a complete halt, and normal life, squeezed out by the ferocity of the war, has taken a sidestep over to Turkey. Scores of Syrian factories have been destroyed, while others have been closed down and shifted across the border by owners fearful that the same will happen to them. Even the people who stoically keep their businesses going inside the country often bring their products into Turkey to sell. Mahmmad greets an old man who has brought him a batch of ammunition belts. “I can’t sell them in Syria because there are no big markets any more, and I can’t advertise what I’m selling,” he says. “It’s easier to bring them here.”In the beginning, this is how Mahmmad stocked his shop, bolstering the supplies from Syria with clothes shipped from Istanbul. But Antakya is a competitive marketplace for revolutionary outfitters: his is the fifth such shop to open in the small town center. So in January, he decided to cut out the middle man and enlisted the sewing skills of Um Omar, a mother of five and grandmother of eight from Latakia who joined Antakya’s swelling population of Syrian refugees eight months ago. A fabric-cutting table dominates the front room of her small apartment on the edge of the town, and three sewing machines line one wall. “I borrowed money from my relatives to buy these,” she says, “but now I’m making so many clothes from the shop that I want to hire other people to come and work for me.”
She spreads out a pattern for an ammunition jacket on the table as she explains how she came into her trade. “I’d always just been a housewife,” she says, “but I learned how to sew by reading magazines. When my children were small, I made their school uniforms. I always thought that their education was the most important thing.”
Um Omar’s magazines never taught her how to make balaclavas and ammunition vests, but she says it was easy to learn. “I took a hunting jacket and copied the pattern, and then added the extra pockets for the ammunition,” she says. Picking up one of the jackets, she shows how she sews padding into the shoulders to make them more comfortable. “These are really heavy when they are full of ammunition, so I sew this into them to stop them rubbing,” she explains. “And now that it’s summer, I’m making the trousers from a lighter material. I’m always thinking how I can make my clothes more comfortable for the soldiers.”
Um Omar’s son and nephew have both fought with the rebels, but she has never met any of the fighters who wear her clothes. “I see them sometimes on the television and wonder whether they are wearing what I have made,” she laughs. “I’m proud to be helping them, and I hope soon they will win this war. I would like all this to be over so that I can go back to Latakia with my family.”
Back in the shop, Mahmmad says that thanks to Um Omar he can now sell the cheapest rebel uniforms in Antakya. “The other shopkeepers are angry because the commanders know that I sell at the best prices,” he laughs. When the war ends, he will return to his olive trees and ordinary life. But for now, business is booming.