What happens in Damascus stays in Damascus

Once (and if) the dust settles, elite Damascenes will be able to move on in ways that Syrians who have paid a higher price will not.

A man holds up a knife as he celebrates the conquest of a town in Syria by Islamist fighters (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man holds up a knife as he celebrates the conquest of a town in Syria by Islamist fighters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Whispers Lounge in Damascus, Syria, served turkey with Hunter Sauce accompanied by chestnuts, perfumed rice, and oven-baked baby potatoes for its Christmas party. Santa Claus also made an appearance. At Z Bar, the nightclub that adjoins Whispers Lounge, the festivities are year-round. Wednesday is Latin Night (120 typically turn up), Saturday is Oriental Night, and on summer evenings the dancing spills onto the outdoor terrace, where guests get their fill of entrecôte and fondue.
Meanwhile, Syrians elsewhere in the country fear Islamic State (IS), the Nusra Front, and other Islamist factions turning their villages into slaughterhouses.
Syrians are not only divided along ethnic and religious lines, but also in terms of how they experience the war. Similar to the heart of Damascus, the Alawite stronghold of Tartous, considered Syria’s safest city, is free from the shelling that has decimated most of the country. As the Tartous beachside promenade buzzes with coffee-shop chatter, the only sounds to be heard in the ghost town that once was Syria’s second city, Aleppo, come from guns.
While the Damascene elite simmers skewers of fondue, fellow Syrians in the besieged city of Homs have survived by eating grass.
Damascus’s Mood Lounge threw several alcoholic pool parties throughout the summer.
Around the same time, half of Aleppo did not have enough water to drink, let alone fill up a pool, after the Al-Khafsah pumping station was damaged.
The different ways Syrians experience the war influences where their political affiliations lie. In the relative comfort of the capital city, the DJ at Z Bar remixes “God, Syria and Bashar al-Assad” as guests repeat enthusiastically, their arms flailing in the air. The millions of Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey would cringe.
Another bar in Damascus’s Bab Touma area hosted a party called “Obama’s Challenge” when Washington threatened to bomb Syria last year. The most powerful cocktail on the menu is named after Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of Assad’s most stalwart allies.
If Syrians living under IS were even allowed to drink alcohol without fear of imprisonment or death, they would chose another leader to honor on their cocktail list; Russian-donated arms have been used more often against civilians than against IS.
While politics is tearing Syrians apart, common cultural icons are providing one of the only remaining vestiges of national cohesion. Earlier this month, Z Bar hosted a celebration for the crowning of Syria’s Hazem Sharif as Arab Idol 2014 on the most-watched show in the Middle East.
While Z Bar partygoers were celebrating Sharif’s victory, Syrians in the south were waiting for electricity to access the web and celebrate the news. Some received the news days later and apologized for the belated congratulations. The administrator of the “Hadar al-Hadath” (Hadar is a Druse village in Southern Syria) Facebook page said in a post on December 15: “In my name and the name of the people of Hadar, I congratulate brother Hazem. It’s true that we are late but yesterday there was no Internet connection and today we received the news. The electricity has been gone for 13 days and we are isolated from the world.... Our most simple livelihood demands such as power, telecommunication, water, and mazut [fuel] are absent.”
Even before the war, Syrian society was rife with ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic cleavages. As Syrians experience the war in different ways, these cleavages are becoming more pronounced. When asked about the environment, Basel from Z Bar’s initial response had nothing to do with the war, saying, “The vibe is awesome.”
Syrians in Raqqa (the proclaimed capital of IS’s “caliphate”), Damascus’s southern suburbs, and virtually the rest of the country have not been able to say that for years.
This past October, a young man dressed as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, showed up at the Halloween Party at a bluelit Damascus bar. But in the over 35 percent of the country under IS control, al-Baghdadi is not just a Syrian rendition of a Halloween horror, he is a real-life nightmare.
New bars are opening up in Damascus, including the Cubano Lounge in June 2014. The cheapest item on the menu, pizza bread (350 Syrian pounds, or about two US dollars), costs half the average daily Syrian salary. The Cubano Lounge is not the first to open during the war. In March 2012, a French expat living in Damascus opened Pure Lounge in a Christian neighborhood.
Later that month, he tweeted, “Bars are full, restaurants also; no one can guess what’s happening in the rest of the country.”
Once (and if) the dust settles, elite Damascenes will be able to move on in ways that Syrians who have paid a higher price will not. Conflicting memories and competing narratives of the war make a cohesive national identity more elusive than ever.
The writers are, respectively, a former research assistant at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a research associate at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Arabic editor of the Institute’s Fikra Forum.