Night Falls Silent in Damascus

It’s 2 am and the night falls silent outside his window. Finally the sounds have stopped. The computer screen shimmers brightly with a stream of Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates. He sits back and sips his coffee. Some music wouldn’t hurt. He clicks on the media player and brings up some classic tunes - a little Najat al-Saghira, perhaps, or maybe some Laure Dakkash. Umm Kulthum is too heavy for the moment, Fairouz too light. It’s important to strike a balance.  

After the bomb exploded outside the apartment last weekend -- someone had tossed a small one at the newspaper kiosk on the corner, causing almost no damage but scaring everyone in the quarter -- Khalid hasn’t much ventured outside. The office is still open but he can work from home just as well, for now, as the Internet works* and he has all of his important files with him. His wife and twin daughters left three weeks ago to stay with her family in their natal village up in the mountains. It’s safer there, for now at least, and they have their garden for food. Lina put about two week’s worth of meals in the freezer, and Khalid makes quick runs over to the little green grocer across the street when it’s open to get supplies. Mostly he buys fruits and canned foods that don’t require heating. It’s getting harder to find cooking gas and the tank of Butagaz in the kitchen is running low. Refilling it would mean foraging about, and the cost is now so high -- ten times what it was only last month when it was already expensive. He’ll use the microwave for now. At least there is still electricity most of the day. One counts one’s blessings in such times.

Khalid works for a small engineering firm he opened with two partners a few years ago after a short career in the public works sector. The economic openings under Bashar al-Asad encouraged him to follow the lead of many others who ventured into the murky waters of the Syrian private sector. Lina worked for many years as a high school teacher but retired to focus on raising the twins. Khalid earns a good enough salary so that, like many aspiring Syrian urbanites of their generation, they live comfortably if not extravagantly. University educated, secular-oriented, and ambitious, life has been pretty good, until recently. Prior to the uprising, the couple had traveled a fair amount as well: two trips to Paris, one back to Moscow where Khalid had done his studies, and several to Cairo, Amman, Istanbul, and Dubai for his work. While nominally Muslim, for them Islam is their culture, a framework for living more than a daily practice. Life in the “new Syria” has been pretty good to them, and they haven’t experienced many of the worries of their parents’ and grand-parents’ generations: colonial rule, postcolonial politics, and several decades of an oppressive regime under the current leader’s father. The son was supposed to be better, or so they had thought. Now everything is different. Worse, even.  

Earlier that evening he heard some explosions from the balcony window while he was taking a quick cigarette break from watching al-Jazeera in the salon (Lina doesn’t like him smoking indoors anymore, so the balcony serves as his sanctuary). Peering out he could see nothing in the early evening sky, but the faint rumblings in the distance seemed to be getting nearer. A helicopter passed overhead and the sounds of the conflict echoed in the streets of his neighborhood for hours. Qaboun. Barzeh. Midan. Tadamon. He’d heard about the struggles in the other areas but it was hard to know for sure what was happening. Now he hears it from seemingly next door, just across from their neighborhood in the chic areas of al-Mezzeh. Not even Bab Sharqi has been spared. He’d returned to the salon and put on a pro-government news station for tragicomic relief. “Terrorist gangs” were bombing the outskirts of Damascus, blowing up buildings in Aleppo, and were now attacking innocents in Bab Sharqi in the heart of the Old City of Damascus. Just a few clicks away al-Jazeera, MBC, CNN, and the BBC show pictures of wounded children, charred bodies, screaming women. “Terrorists.” Right.  

With a sigh he turns back to his Facebook page. One friend has posted a photograph of a child playing on a destroyed tank, another a cartoon showing the Syrian president watching videos of Daffy Duck on his computer. Hah! he smirks. It’s a little simplistic but entertaining nevertheless.  Some weeks back a group of hackers claimed to have broken into the Syrian president’s personal email account and revealed a string of racy messages between him and some unnamed young women, one of whom referred to him as “duck” (batta) -- a term of endearment in Arabic, but now a term of scorn and satirical black humor. Khalid clicks on some links to reveal a picture of a mural in Homs showing the president as a duck, then a cartoon showing Bashar al-Asad sitting in a bathtub overflowing with blood, playing with a rubber ducky. A Syrian group posts a link to their new song mocking his taste for blood.  

Sharr al-baliya ma yudhik. The worst disaster is what makes you laugh...  

__ *The Syrian government can and on some occasions has shut down the entire national communications network, including 3G, DSL, and dial-up Internet access. However, this has not been done frequently for two reasons. First, Syrians can easily access the Internet from servers in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, so that shutting down access in Syria has limited effect on Internet traffic in Syria. Second, the Syrian government routinely filters and censors the Internet to use it as a powerful tool for monitoring revolutionary activities as well as for the dissemination of pro-government propaganda. This includes the creation of pro-regime Facebook pages, false Facebook, YouTube, Skype and Twitter profiles, malware and viruses to cripple computers and servers, large phishing campaigns, and other forms of electronic warfare to supplement their actual war against the Syrian people.

__ ** Credit for thumbnail art goes to Syran caricaturist Ali Ferzat.