Hello, Damascus? This is Israel calling

We can't talk to you, say Syrians on phone, 'til we see what gov't does.

phone syria 66 (photo credit: )
phone syria 66
(photo credit: )
When the Damascus hotel receptionist received a phone call Thursday afternoon, she was evidently expecting a routine reservation request. "When would you like to book a room?" she asked. Hearing that the potential customer was calling from Israel, her tone shifted slightly. "We're full right now," she said, but then softened: "Maybe you can try back next month?" That hesitant response typified several others Thursday, as The Jerusalem Post phoned businesses in Damascus and cities across Syria to gauge how residents feel about a possible thawing of relations with Israel. But some people said nothing at all, and quickly hung up the phone. Getting through was surprisingly simple, unlocking a sliver of the closed-off country with which Israel is still officially at war. A second woman reached in the hotel industry said the news of peace talks was still too new, and "nobody talks about it" among her neighbors and customers. But, she confided, she herself was hopeful a deal would be struck between the two sides. "It's a good idea to have peace between Syria and Israel," she said simply. "Nobody likes war. Nobody likes anyone to be killed. It's better for everyone to live in peace." It was far too early to tell how a peace agreement with Israel might affect Syria's economy or tourism industry, she went on. Even speaking to a reporter from Israel by telephone clearly made her nervous. "It's sensitive between Syria and Israel," she said. "We can't talk about it until we see what the government does." Muhammad Moutaz, another resident of the Syrian capital, was surprised when the voice on the line told him he was speaking from Jerusalem. "Really?" said Moutaz, the owner of a trading and contracting business. He asked in English: "What do you want?" Would his company be happy to conduct business with Israeli customers, we wondered? "I don't think so," he said hesitantly. "We don't know. It's still too early to tell. But maybe one day, inshalla." The man who answered the phone at the Abd Alrahman Al-Ghafike hotel in Damascus was blunter. Asked if, after a peace agreement was reached, Israeli guests could stay at his hotel, he said an immediate "No" and hung up. The language barrier was not the only factor in others' refusal to speak to thePost. Suspicion or fear played their parts as well. When an Arabic speaker made the calls, lines often went dead, too; the Syrians may have been more suspicious of him, he thought, wondering if the "caller from Jerusalem" was really a Syrian security official. Still, some Syrians greeted the phone calls with humor or disbelief. Two girls attempted to speak English when reached for comment at a telecommunications company in Aleppo, but gave up soon after, erupting in laughter when they were told that they were on the phone with an Israeli from Jerusalem. A man at a solar energy outfit also laughed as an attempt at conversation in pidgin Arabic foundered. It would probably be easier face-to-face. Brenda Gazzar contributed to this report.