Damascus. Everyone debates on who is more of an oppressor in the war in Syria. Listening to one side, it seems like the others are shooting unarmed flower sellers, and vice versa if you listen to the other side. In between these two sides, however, 13.5 million people are technically defined as in need of help, and 4.8 million have physically fled Syria: men and women who, since 2011, have lived together with war and have been luckier than the 500 thousand whom have died. But, one could ask, what kind of life are they living?
At least a difficult life, which goes on in spite of all. For example, in Damascus, the Syrian capital and stronghold of the Bashar al-Assad regime, ironically you can go out for dinner at a very famous Aleppian restaurant, while in Aleppo rages a bloody battle (in December, the government’s forces recaptured the eastern part from rebel groups). You ask yourself how many other restaurants are left that can boast of a cuisine from a region that has always been an indicator of good eating in the Middle East, BUT which will be forever changed by missiles. Here, a waiter might explain you that Aleppo is (was?) the best Syrian city for food, where several worldwide illustrious personalities have dined for over one hundred years chez Sissi (Beit Sissi, a famous Aleppian restaurant that no longer exists).
So, either you have been to Aleppo before the war, or you trust the waiter who, up until six years ago earned ten times more than he does today. You trust him and you eat well in Damascus during the conflict. At dinner, you talk about your tough day, of what you could or should have done but did not end up doing; or of what strategy should be adopted to be more effective in that project for war widows.
However, there is a war going on. So, in the middle of the feast, a not-so-distant explosion moves your glass a few centimeters away. Heartbeat increases, you get instinctively down to protect yourself. Then you look around and realize that you’re clearly the foreigner, not used to the soundtrack in Syria. Everyone around you kept on as if nothing had happened, and they are right: after six years of war, a missile that hits close by is not newsworthy, missiles only kill when they hit you. With a big smile, the waiter comes: “There are a couple of blasts here, but you eat Aleppian. In Aleppo you eat explosions.” Joking about tragedies is part of life in recent years here in Syria, like a lot of other practices that you wouldn’t expect: the streets of the center of Damascus on a cold Winter Friday are teeming with people who, regardless of the risks, take an evening stroll – there are many women and children, far fewer men because they have either fled, have died, or are fighting on the front lines. At this point, after a “normal” dinner and a walk, in the small room of the convent hosting me, I wonder about the only abnormal thing about the evening: if there are no men, who will rebuild Syria? Women will be the backbone of the post-war, like they have been historically in Africa and everywhere hit by war. Therefore, the professional training project that brought me to Damascus has a new meaning, and a sense of the future.
*Marco Perini, manager for the Middle East of the AVSI Foundation, often visits Damascus for work. He has told Oasis what it means to visit a city surrounded by war, a city that goes on in spite of everything. The trip told in this article happened while the battle between the regime’s forces and armed rebel groups was still on in December, before the city was again under control of the government of Damascus.