DAMASCUS — We landed in Beirut at midnight to meet my fixer, who would accompany us to the Syrian border because Syria's Information Ministry had invited us to attend an international conference on fighting terrorism. My fixer was accompanied by a young man devoted to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Our driver took us towards the Lebanese mountains at full speed. Beside him, there was Ali Ekber Bero, who showed me scars on his arm and neck when we stopped at passport control.
"I have been fighting in Syria for three years," Bero said. The 22-year-old joined the Damascus militia forces in 2012 to protect the mausoleum of Lady Zaynab.
We left Lebanese customs and entered Syria from the VIP section. The Kalamun area where Hezbollah and the Syrian military fight the opposition forces was just north of us. A three-car convoy accompanied us from the border to the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus. I was expecting a darkened Damascus because of power cuts, but we arrived to the hotel after passing lightened streets and parks. When I opened the room's window, I saw Qasioun Mountain, where Cain and Abel fought. The People's Palace is also there, but President Bashar Assad doesn't live in it. He lives instead at his own house nearby.
The next day at the Opera House, where the conference was held, more colleagues than I expected wanted to speak to me, a Turkish journalist. By noon, I felt suffocated and made my escape. I didn't yet have the necessary permit for carrying a camera, and I was stopped at one of the checkpoints because of it. But they let me go after asking a few questions.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi speaks during the International Media Conference Against Terrorism in Damascus, on July 24 — Photo: Zhang Naijie/Xinhua/ZUMA
At the checkpoint, soldiers were enjoying mate tea, imported from South America and served with a metal straw. The tea is more than a little symbolic. People are hesitant to say out loud what their their religious sects are — for example, nobody would say, "I'm an Alawite" — but if somebody drinks mate tea, it's a pretty good indication that that person is an Alawite.
Given the very hot weather, the streets were empty and stores closed. Shutters were painted with the flag of Syria, which the government commissioned after the opposition declared its own flag. Cement barriers at checkpoints are also painted like that.
Lots of news, but few to read it
I found a newsstand in the Shaalan neighborhood, where local dailies are on sale along with foreign newspapers and magazines. But circulation is just a third of what it was before the war, the newsstand man says. In the nearby Sarouja neighborhood, one of the city's oldest, I visited a perfume shop. The salesman told me that prices there are eight to 10 times more than what they were before the war.
"We cannot get products due to the embargo," he said. "The second-rate French goods produced at the Gulf do not come anymore either." I stopped for coffee at Gemini Patisserie, where a portrait of Assad hangs at the entrance.
I walked around Damascus a little more and then sat at a small restaurant called 3 Tavilat. On television, the patrons were watching the conference. "I'm uneasy with this many Iranian speakers," the man next to me said. "Yes, we are grateful to Iran, but we are also worried that it will intervene with Syrian domestic affairs." What about Hezbollah intervening? That's different, he said. "They are people of this region and an organization, not a state. [Hezbollah] cannot dictate anything to us."
There are photographs of Nasrallah everywhere, but I haven't seen a poster for any Iranians. Asked whether he thought Assad could stay in power without Iran and Hezbollah, the man said, "Assad leaving or staying, it's a matter for the Syrians. "If he leaves at this point, the military would disassemble and terrorist organizations would threaten not only Syria but Turkey and Jordan."
I met other Syrians who also thanked Iran with caution and thanked Hezbollah with cheer.
I didn't attend the afternoon meetings of the conference's second day either. I hit the streets of Damascus towards the Cafe Kemal, where the Ba'ath Party was founded. I met a long-haired, bearded young man on the road carrying his guitar on his back. I raised my camera, and he posed with joy. He was going to the same place, and we took a seat. His name is Sadi el Husseini, and he plays death metal and draws designs for tattoo artists.
Two female snipers patrol in the Daraya suburb of Damascus — Photo: Zhang Naijie/Xinhua/ZUMA
"You don't seem like an Arab," I joked. "I'm Chechen," he said. But Caucasians in Syria don't use surnames like his. "My mother is Chechen, my father is Arab," he explained. He stopped talking when he learned that my fixer was Alawite. "I can't talk to you. This man may be from the Muhaberat," or Syrian intelligence, he said.
We convinced him otherwise, but he was right to be cautious. "They send papers to our home and called me to their headquarters when I was just 17 years old," Husseini said. "They questioned me, threatened me because of my music, hair and beard. The Muhaberat perceives this as rebelling against authority. I have been questioned 10 times."
He has a boat ticket from Trablus to Mersin, Turkey. He says he doesn't run from the war but that he wants to be able to play his music. The tables in the cafe's garden were completely occupied as the sun set and the water pipes got busy.
A businessman's tragedy
I talked to Kemal Benkesli, an Aleppo businessman, at the hotel. His story also summarizes how the rebellion has developed. "The opposition kidnapped me," he said. "They wanted one million Syrian pounds as ransom. I refused. They tortured me. They sliced my arms, broke two of my toes. At last, the judge of the group ordered my execution. Their leader stopped the executioner during the act, but he had already fired. The bullet hit me in the knee. Then I learned that they had discussed this among themselves. I waited four hours in a pool of blood before they released me to my family."
Sitting across from me, journalist Rula El Salih showed me a photo of her sibling, wounded, his wrist bones exposed. "I've lost 35 relatives in this war," she said, adding that 185 people have died in her neighborhood alone.
Photographs of "martyrs" are posted in front of many Damascus buildings. The Radio and Television Institution had its own losses on display, as the photographs of 25 journalists were lined up on a gigantic board. The number of casualties is inversely proportional to the Syrian government's acknowledgement of loss.
People are determined to live their lives despite all this suffering. There was a wedding at my hotel each night. Singer Mecide el Rumi was entertaining the guests on the terrace with popular Syrian songs.
The old city resists
On my third day in Syria, the Information Ministry issued my camera permit. I started from the Fenham area, a conservative neighborhood where the marketplace was crowded with the prices of fruit and vegetables three to four times more than before the war, despite the fact that wages have remained the same for the last five years.
"Everybody used to buy a lot before," a shop owner said. "Now everybody buys a little." There are two reasons for the price increases: the rising cost of fuel and falling agricultural production.
"Our business dropped a lot in the first year of the crisis because no tourists came," one gift shop owner said. "Now it's improving slowly. It's not because tourists come. Many Syrians went abroad, and those who go to visit them buy gifts."
Old Damascus still has many visitors, but nothing like before. Some of the stores on these narrow streets weren't able to survive and have been transformed into cafes or fast food restaurants. A store owner who was willing to sell me a Shiraz carpet for almost nothing probably closed his store without a single purchase that day.
And the silence is broken
The silence was broken on my fourth night in Damascus. Bombardment in the rural Cobar area during the early hours kept people awake. Opposition forces also shot rockets toward the Dahyet al Assad area. The regime is taking serious precautions to keep the opposition forces from the center of Damascus, but the opposition controls some areas east of the city and can terrorize Damascus with rockets from time to time.
We ate in the Bab Duma neighborhood, famous for its restaurants, mansions turned into hotels and stores selling handicrafts. The streets are full with live music at night despite everything. It turns out that Syrians experience death and joy together.