London / Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat – Haifa felt a sense of embarrassment when her friend asked her “what food are your preparing for today’s iftar?” and began her answer with a long passage regarding the joyful reunion of her siblings – and their children – at the family home in Damascus.
Haifa, who is 50-years old and unmarried, continues to live in the family home in the Syrian capital’s al-Salahiya district, along with her younger siblings, whilst her remaining 6 siblings are scattered across the capital and the surrounding region, in addition to two others who emigrated from Syria more than two decades ago. Despite this, Haifa and her siblings remain in contact, often gathering at the family home in Damascus for celebrations and family occasions.
This year has been particularly difficult for the family, and they have been unable to reunite and get-together as much as usual. However the majority of Haifa’s siblings lately found themselves under the same roof once more after they took the decision to leave their own homes, which are dotted around Damascus – many in districts and neighborhoods that have been beset by clashes – and return to the safety of the family home. This coincided with one of Haifa’s elder brothers, who had made a life abroad having left the country almost twenty years ago, returning to Syria to be reunited with his siblings during this difficult time.
Although the circumstances of this meeting are extremely unusual, Haifa is happy to see her siblings together again, and has suggested a celebratory feast, with grilled meat, kibba and tabbouleh being prepared for the evening’s iftar. Haifa attempted to convey all of this to her friend, who answered “it is iftar, not a celebration” adding “certainly nobody can be happy during this period, for grief is present in the hearts of everybody!”
The kibba and grilled meat, not to mention the family reunion, have signaled joyous scenes in this one Syrian household; however it is as if Haifa is embarrassed or ashamed of these feelings of happiness during such a difficult and tense time in Syrian history, particularly as the rest of the Syrian people are not able to share in such feelings. The Syrian people as a whole are sad and unhappy regarding the situation that the country finds itself in, and many of them feel extremely bitter towards anybody who does not share their discontent.
For his part, Danny, a Syrian youth engaged in relief work who witnesses the horrors and tragedies that affect Syria’s displaced citizens on a daily basis, expressed his own dissatisfaction at his neighbors, who held a large wedding ceremony at one of the neighborhood halls, describing them as “insensitive”. He stressed that “it is not acceptable to dance publicly to loud music and colorful lights whilst dozens of people are being killed every day, and grief clogs the hearts of their mothers!” The Syrian youth asserted “I do not object to other people’s happiness…it is their right to experience happiness and joy, but they have to respect the feelings of those whose lives have been devastated, and therefore they should celebrate modestly.”
He added that his own family is experiencing “extreme boredom” due to being cooped up at home as a result of the tense security situation that is prevalent across the city. He revealed that his father is forced to remain at home for the majority of the day, after it became too difficult for him to travel to work in the Damascus suburbs. He added that the situation is also difficult for his younger brothers and sisters, particularly as it is the summer holidays and it is too dangerous for them to leave the house. He said that their only means of entertainment is the television or video games, which creates an even tenser atmosphere in the home.
The Syrian youth, who lives in Damascus’s commercial district, revealed that this tense atmosphere occasionally erupts into verbal quarrels. Despite the tense atmosphere at home, Danny stressed “we are wary of going to public places, despite our need to do so” adding “this is not possible even if there are no bombardments or clashes, for there is no family that has not seen a son or daughter injured or killed. We are surrounded by death and destruction, even if only indirectly.”
Danny also revealed that “the day before yesterday I was close to an explosion at the Semiramis hotel near Marja Square, and I found myself in the midst of an intense firefight…bullets were hitting the ground like hailstones, it was shocking!” He confirmed that “death is walking the streets”
For her part, Maysa, who is one of Danny’s friends and neighbors, takes an opposing view, stressing that “life cannot just stop!”. Maysa, who also helps in relief work, asked “what has a child done to be imprisoned at home? It seems as if this crisis will last for a long time, so we must live with it.”
Maysa encouraged the idea of residents building and adapting their rooftops as a place to meet one another and pass the time. She said “my neighbor, Abu Subhy, had the wonderful idea of spending some of his time following iftar on the roof, and soon neighbors began to join him there, and everybody is now coming to the roof with their families, swapping drinks and sweets.” She added “these gatherings are full of happiness and jokes…and tears.”
She viewed this idea as a model solution, as it allows neighbors to get together and support one another during these difficult times. However this is not always possible, particularly should clashes erupt suddenly or explosions and bombardment target nearby neighborhoods, whereupon everybody takes refuge in their own homes.
Haifa, who remained at home for a number of weeks after clashes erupted in the heart of the city, finally took the decision to try and return to a normal life. Haifa said that she refused to die at home in fear, and began to visit her friends in their homes, as well as invite them to visit her at the family home, however they will not be visiting cafes and restaurants as they did in the past!
However Haifa revealed that she did respond to one invitation to meet a friend at the “al-Sharq” restaurant in Damascus. She revealed that “one friend invited me to iftar at al-Sharq restaurant, one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in Damascus, to celebrate her son’s birthday and also to bid her farewell, as she was leaving the country for Canada. I was surprised that the restaurant was practically empty, for in the past one would need to book a table at least days in advance.”
She added “you could count the number of occupied tables on one hand, whilst there was a very tense atmosphere that was full of talk about who has been killed or arrested or kidnapped, and where the new checkpoints are being established, and which districts are quiet and which ones are being bombarded, as well as what happened to so-and-so’s family, and so on.”
Haifa said “what is interesting is that even our jokes are now about terror, killing and our daily experiences with checkpoints and raids.” She relates the story of how a son who had a difficult relationship with his father was kidnapped by one of the Damascus gangs, and when the kidnappers ask for a ransom of 5 million lira, the father answers ‘I do not need the son you kidnapped…and if you have 5,000 lira to spare, please send it to me.” Haifa laughs at this story, claiming that the kidnappers believed the father and released the son unharmed. Haifa stressed that although such stories illicit laughter, this is a form of gallows humor, and it fails to dispel the grief and sadness in most people’s hearts, particularly as the future remains unknown.
There is also Amal, a secondary school teacher who fled the capital for her hometown of al-Damir [40 km north of Damascus] during the summer holidays only to find that 2,500 families had sought refuge there, having been displaced from across the country. After spending two days of boredom and sadness trapped within the walls of her childhood home with only her elderly mother for company, Amal decided to take action to alleviate her boredom, as well as help the suffering Syrian people. As a result of this, Amal, along with some friends, have set up a database of key requirements for families who have been displaced from their homes with the objective of organizing some relief operations to provide assistance to the suffering.
This work has taken over Amal’s waking hours, and she stressed that “we cannot sit quietly at home when the country is burning; we are facing a huge humanitarian crisis!”
Amal previously took part in relief operations in the capital Damascus, but this had a limited impact. She said “when I was in Damascus, the after-school hours would pass in vain, and this gave one feelings of helplessness; every day we would hear sounds of explosions and monitor the growing number of displaced people in Damascus’s streets, squares and school, and we were unable to do anything to stop the situation from deteriorating further and further.”
She added “I tried to participate in the protests however the brutality of the security forces made me hesitate to continue, particularly as I am a young women living far from home.”
Amal tried to spend her time on the internet, raising awareness of what was happening in Syria via social networking sites such as Facebook; however the internet restrictions imposed in the country prevented this. Amal said that she felt depressed and “hated life” during this period, however it seems as if her recent activities helping Syria’s displaced have brought about a change.
Radwan, a pediatrician who lives in central Damascus, also expressed his sense of depression and boredom, particularly as his clinic – located across town – was forcibly closed. Radwan said that he has spent most of his time since the outbreak of clashes in Al Qadisiya district at home, particularly following the regime forces bombardment of the area. He revealed that despite the danger he goes to a sports club four times a week, but this does not fill the vacancy that has been left in his life by the closure of his clinic.
Radwan revealed that he has been married for twenty years and that he had never previously quarreled with his wife or children, however such quarrels have erupted during the recent tense period. He said “every day there is a problem, every day there is heated debate, we are all feeling aggrieved.” He revealed that his wife has begun to allow the children to play with the neighbors children on the communal staircase, which they were previously not allowed to do, adding “she is also not able to stand their noise in the house all day.” However he stressed that the children are safe within the confines of the apartment block, and are not allowed on the street, particularly as “Azrael [the Angel of death] is walking the streets these days.”
“ This article was written by an Asharq Al-Awsat correspondent in Damascus. The correspondent’s name is being protected to ensure their safety.