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Notes From a Brief Return to Damascus

At the end of October 2015, Swiss journalist Monika Bolliger had the chance to visit Damascus for the first time in more than four years. This is a short and very personal account of her journey back to a city she used to call her second home.

Written by Monika Bolliger Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

BEIRUT – A jasmine flower has been stuck in my notebook since I came back from Damascus. If it wasn’t for the flower, I might think it had all been a surreal dream. It started with a rainbow that popped up just after my arrival. My friend and I ran to the rooftop of his house in the Old City in the pouring rain, laughing euphorically and taking photos. It was the first time I’d been back in the Syrian capital since early 2011, and it was my first time ever seeing a rainbow in Syria. It felt almost prophetic, like a promise of peace soon to come. What a beautiful illusion.

I used to call Damascus my second home. No other place I’ve lived in has created such a strong bond. It became a lost home over the past years, a place of beautiful memories, of happy times with open-hearted people who made me feel truly at home, a place I had said goodbye to in 2011, anticipating that I wouldn’t see it again – at least not the city of my memories. And here I was, back, unexpectedly. She is still here, beautiful Damascus, resting in the lap of Mount Qasioun, with birds hovering over the Umayyad Mosque like they always did. And yet, many things have changed.

I remember waking up that first morning, a Friday, and enjoying the morning sun in the courtyard of my friend’s old Damascene home. Birds were singing and the smell of jasmine was in the air – a tranquility quickly interrupted by the distant sound of shelling further away. A bit later I saw reports that dozens had been killed in a regime strike on Douma, a besieged rebel-held area just a few kilometers away. It was hard to imagine this was happening so close to here. In Damascus, nobody reacts anymore to the sound of war. People have become used to it. They continue their daily routine, hoping they won‘t be hit by one of the shells that occasionally strike the city.

I strolled through the Old City, buying a chocolate croissant on Qaymariya Street like I used to in the past because they’re the best. Only this time, I gave it away. A begging child had approached me. “Feed me, I’m hungry,” he said. Again, reality hit. While I walked on, thinking that I should have bought a proper meal for the kid who was probably a refugee from another area, the thundering sound of warplanes hovering over the city made me feel scared for the first time. But only for a few seconds. Everyone else went on as if it was normal. Their composure calmed me down. By this point, I had arrived at the Umayyad Mosque. There it was, majestically resting in the heart of the Old City, as if nothing had happened. At the entrance, there was the same ticket vendor who asked in classical Arabic where I was from, like he used to ask all the foreign students who came to study here in the past: Min aina anti? The price for the ticket was still 50 Syrian pounds, even though the pound has lost its value. The price of the dollar, once 50 pounds, was around 380 pounds the week I spent there.

I was still struck by the magic of this ancient city, and the kindness its people still managed to hold. But this beauty has only ever thinly veiled the merciless, corrupt regime that has blanketed the city for decades. This ugly, subsurface layer has thickened over the past few years, as if someone has painted the city in dark nationalist fervor. The country is at war. The Syrian flag is everywhere, painted on the shutters of stores, on the checkpoints scattered in the city’s streets. And so are the pictures of Bashar al-Assad, now even more ubiquitous than before the war. Wherever you look, he stares at you as if he were saying, “I’m here to stay, whether you like it or not.” People put his picture in their shops, but you never know if it is because they support him or because they just want to protect themselves from his thugs.

When speaking with residents, everyone has a sad story. Everyone has lost. Sons have been killed, daughters kidnapped, friends have deserted, brothers have disappeared in prison, houses been damaged by shells. Relatives and friends have emigrated, people have lost their jobs, young men fear being drafted into the military. People are tired. The city is tired. But above all, she feels empty. Empty not because there are no people, there are actually a lot – many internally displaced people from areas across the country have moved to the heart of the capital over the past five years. She feels empty to me because all the wonderful people I met there are there no longer. Some chose to leave on their own, some simply had to because they or their families were no longer safe.

How I wish my friends were still in Damascus to fill the city with their laughter. I wish we could have coffee together listening to Fayrouz in the morning, have long chats over mate, eat Foul bel Labanat Souq Sarouja, stroll through the Old City cracking jokes, enjoy the sunset from the top of Mount Qasioun, discuss the meaning of life over a bottle of wine at Kassabji and get shawarma in Bab Touma after dancing all night.

Yet, I can’t remember the last time I’ve had so many full-hearted laughs as I did during my last stay in Damascus. And this is thanks to those who are still there, who amaze me with their incredible sense of humor and laughter in the face of such despair, who keep going in spite of everything, who manage to preserve their humanity – I have no idea how.

Funnily enough, despite all the crazy price hikes and the seemingly universal lack of money, the hospitality of Damascenes has not changed a bit. People I hardly knew still insisted not only on feeding me with the best food in the world, but on treating me as if I was a member of their family, as if this was my home. I only wish the Syrians who have left were receiving the same treatment in their new host countries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

Top image: Syrians gather in a coffee shop in the ancient bazaar known as the Hamdiyeh souq in Damascus, Syria on Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. It is one of Syria’s chief markets, once packed with tourists and visitors from around the country who shopped in the cavernous maze of arched alleyways and ancient Roman columns. Even amid conflict, it’s still an important shopping spot for the country’s working classes, but prices here have more than quadrupled over the past five years for most products in the market. (AP Photo/Diaa Hadid)

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