Just Another Day of War in Damascus

From my back-dated Damascus Diary.

Emerging from Hamadiyah souk the light is almost blinding, the shoppers silhouetted, the modern world outside the Old City is noisy and harsh; in the summer the heat slaps you in the face and where the traffic is frustrated and angry.
The Old City an urban oasis offers protection, a sanctuary where the narrow alleys and trellised vines shield the sun, the mud brick thick walls of century before muffle the noise, its only necessity that compels me to walk the half kilometer of covered bazaar, leaving behind the calmness and languid pace, where only pigeons being chased by children disturb the peace until the Muezzins recital, a sound even to the unbeliever is as harmonious as birdsong.
Always it feels like leaving one world for another, a world of cars and commerce, of electric elevators, offices and underpasses.
In the past when I had to leave the Old City I would avoid Hamadiya simply to avoid the crowd of shoppers seemingly all heading towards me but these days I prefer it simply as it avoids a couple of checkpoints, that’s not to say it’s not watched, soldiers lounge in front of the Mosque at one end and undercover police mill around at the other, they never shown any interest in me and I pretend not to notice them.
Sharia Thawra, Revolution Street, every Middle Eastern city has one and this one no less revolting, clogged with traffic, the car park opposite empty since the car bomb, I had been in the exact spot twenty-four hours exactly before it exploded, I felt the blast under my feet while walking in the souk near my house, I should vary my route I keep telling myself-kidnapping is becoming more and more of a threat, past the Palace of Justice and more irony, over the road and into the electric souk, a thriving market in generators that now only the very well off can now afford to counter the frequent cuts.
Standing on the corner of Merjeh Square I think how anyone of the hundreds of cars parked randomly on corners could be full of TNT or whatever it is they use.
I cross over the foot bridge as a convoy of ragged Syrian troops trundles underneath to or from the front line just a couple of kilometers in either direction, at the bottom of the footbridge a soldier is checking bags, the road is closed now and concrete blast walls line the street, perhaps when all this is over it could stay pedestrianized I wonder, its much nicer, another bag check, everyone being very polite.
My current favorite watering hole, for coffee that is, Pages café, Americano coffee and electricity, well more than in the Old City anyway, the WiFi is somewhat iffy but enough-it’s not as though I have images to file these days. The café is crowded as usual, the smoking ban being flouted, I can’t see anyone being brave enough to try enforcing it either given the situation, most of the familiar faces of my friends have gone now, some have died but most have left the country, the waiter brings my coffee without me ordering it, I perch on a redundant barber’s chair by the window, most of the clientele are students busy with studies, hunched over books, ipads and laptops, the sound of artillery thundering overheard gets no attention whatsoever, if it wasn’t for a war outside the scene inside would be the same anywhere, bright young things working on a bright future, on various occasions I have been approached and asked for help with language study, CV writing, job and visa applications, rarely we discuss the elephant in the room.
Despite everything happening I retain great faith in the young Syrian generation to drag the country from the mire, however long it takes.
The following day a massive car bomb explodes in Merjeh square, dozens are killed and scores injured, mangled cars are strewn across the streets and every windowpane blown out of every building, I felt the blast under my feet at home and watched the black smoke billow in the breeze.

ti40-central-cham-palace-hotel-central-damascus-syria
Outside Pages Cafe Damascus on a better day.
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39 thoughts on “Just Another Day of War in Damascus

  1. John, thanks for bringing theses glimpses from Damascus. I always wondered how it is during this time of war! it has been and seems to be still beautiful and glamorous regardless the artillery thundering over heads and the car bombs, and yes I agree with you of having faith in young Syrian generation. I’ve never been to Pages Cafe in Damascus, is it the same one that opened here in Istanbul?

  2. I have Syrian friends who travel to and from. I find it amazing that they tell me life is going forward. From my perspective it sounds like a war zone. But that is not so much the case.

    1. The war obviously effects everyone in some way, life has to continue and everyone does their very best to try, the actual fighting is confines to certain areas, if you live outside of these areas such as the suburbs of Damascus you are able to manage easier, the recent explosions in Sayeda Zeinab killed dozens proving even close to the center of the capital nobody is safe. Opposition held areas are bombed daily and areas under Daash are subjected to medieval rule. I think in many ways the Syrian war is much like any war-its only when you experience it you understand what other or previous wars could be like.
      The media rarely likes to portray the full picture.

  3. John, have you approached one of the British broadsheets with your Damascus diary? I enjoy these glimpses of “ordinary” life (and death) from inside Damascus very much. I’m sure there’d be a wider audience. Sorry if you have already had some published and it’s passed me by. I hope life in Istanbul is more prosperous for you in 2016. Stay safe.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion Miles, I have not approached any media with my own story-for various reasons, just now am still trying to come to terms with everything, my notes are just for myself mostly-
      Perhaps I will do something more constructive with them in the future.
      Thanks again

  4. John – Don’t know how you do it. I feel so safe shooting my daily assignments here in the States. I find the local things going on as interesting but not as much of a challenge to what you go through. Do you have any weapons? Ya my camera. Loved the two pieces. Good Luck and keep shooting – cameras that is.

  5. Marcellus Mabry

    Thank you for this piece. We don’t hear of events in Syria here in the U.S. If you want international reportage, you have to find it. Stay safe.

    1. Sadly this is true of much of the world, there is no shortage of reporting only the main stream media is full of……whats the word I am looking for..?
      Appreciate you taking the time.

  6. Hi John, thanks for visiting our blog and liking the post – but moreso for giving me the opportunity to visit Syria through your words and photo gallery. Your writing is compelling and the images of a haunting quality -a pleasure to wander through. My brother had been to Syria (around ’97) and thoroughly enjoyed his experience there, as a woman though I imagine mine being quite different -had I gone. Nevertheless, you’ve given me a glimpse of life for a people and country I know little of except for recent war images and tragic headlines of loss. I hope peace comes quickly for them. God bless.
    -Christine

    1. Thank you Christine.
      Its so sad that for most of the world the only knowledge of Syria is through this ghastly war. No reason why your experience as a women traveling in pre war Syria would not be every bit as fascinating as your brothers, I have many female friends who have traveled and lived in Syria. Hopefully peace will prevail and you will have the chance.
      Thank you again for the nice comments

  7. Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences with such compelling and rich words John. Isn’t it amazing how diarising your experiences and expressing them creatively helps to process all you are going through? Love your work.

    May peace prevail soon. Be safe.

    1. Thank you Brenda.
      It is indeed, sometimes I have written something after the event and just thought wow did that actually happen, I want to share the more positive aspects of life in Syria and intend to to do more of that in the future but am still processing the events of the last few years as Syria slips deeper into the mire.
      Peace will prevail of that I am sure.

  8. Hello John, thank you for liking my most recent spot on the Syrian conflict. I have been to Damascus and Aleppo a number of times in the past and I am profoundly sorry to see these charming places reduced to rubble. Your spot has taken me back Damascus on a sad but very realistic tour of the city and I thank you.

    1. Hello Ali
      Thank you for taking the time to read my post.
      You are one of the few lucky Turkish citizens to have visited Syria, of course just before the war Turkey was enjoying a good relationship, tourism and business was booming, it was great seeing Turkish flags hanging inside Syrian shops, even a Kumpir shop in Shaalan, few inside Turkey and further afield are familiar with its charm, the only images now are of war and desperation, I hope I can shed some light on the more positive aspects of life in Syria.
      You writing is important and I intend spending a little more time reading you blog than I have been able so far.
      Teşekkür ederim

  9. The way you write about how some of your friends have died, and your remembering them in a cafe is both shocking, sad, and subtle at the same time. Snapshots of the day rendered into feelings…and also your pictures are beautiful too! You’re doing important work, and I thank you! The world needs to know, and we need to feel what our friends, brothers, and sisters feel during times of crisis.

      1. Keep fighting the good fight, and I’ll be checking your blog all the time! My blog focuses on the aesthetics of life…beautiful shops and croissants. A reprieve for people. Reading what you write is touches the heart. All my love to Syria.

  10. Hello,

    Thank you! You visited our blog- Tech for Giving and liked Building a Non-Profit Organization.
    We like your website. Amazing images of Istanbul. Good work John!

  11. Must say, a few of the editorial images are chilling and makes us think about how mankind should work together to make our planet a better place. God Speed!

  12. So glad I’ve founbd a blogger who can tell me about what things are/were like in Syria. I was there a long time as a hippy and my heart bleeds for the country.

  13. Riema

    Thank you John for this beautiful photo!
    I’m half Syrian myself and this picture for me sums up the atmosphere of Damascus as I have experienced it until I last visited 7 years ago. The photo also shows my favourite hotel in Damascus. The Hotel “Sham” with the rotating cafe/restaurant at the very top. It is particularly stunning to have dinner there. While you eat you get a 360 view of Damascus which is absolutely magical at night with all the lights crawling up the mountain. I love the hotel because it has kept the look of the 70/80ies and has not been modernised. When was this picture taken?

    My parents are staying in Damascus in the Rawda district. They can hear the shelling and war is happening not far away in Ghouta. It amazes me how people get used and adjust to the most difficult situations and get on with their life.

    My hope is that the Syrians can find a way out of this disaster, that they reconcile and stop allowing dark forces to pursue their selfish agenda.

  14. Descriptive piece John. Striking how daily life continues to unfold against the backdrop of a profoundly destructive and affecting war. Surreal.
    Perhaps what you communicate here – amongst other things – is the will and spirit of the Syrian people enduring and their need for something that resembles normalcy amidst a dangerously abnormal situation.
    Your words do what a great landscape photograph is capable of doing (at times) – they transport me there.

  15. great blog. I wonder if you saw the piece in the NY Times a couple of days ago about the reasons why the Syrian Civil War has been so intractable and bloody – particularly the involvement of multiple foreign powers – and if so, what you thought of it. Very depressing reading, but then i am not close to it.

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