By Janine di Giovanni
At a Damascus wedding, as elsewhere in the capital, citizens try to tune out the violence. (Kate Brooks for Newsweek)
By the pool, glistening, oiled, and muscular bodies gyrated to a juiced-up version of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Atop huge speakers, a Russian dancer swayed suggestively in front of the young, beautiful Syrian set drinking imported Lebanese beer with salt and lemon. Behind them, columns of smoke were rising—signs of car bombs and explosions, of an encroaching war.
One woman in a tight swimsuit playfully squirted a water gun, joking that she belonged to the pro-government militia, the Shabiha, meaning ghosts or thugs, which is believed to be responsible for a recent massacre of more than 100 people, many of them women and children. “The opposition wants to kill us—they even announced it on Facebook,” the woman said, and blithely went back to spraying herself with water.
The pool party at the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus was just getting started.
For 15 months now, Syria has been engaged in increasingly bloody fighting, pitting antigovernment rebels against the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad, costing the lives of at least 10,000 people, according to the United Nations. What began as a protest against his autocratic rule has developed into a violent conflict with sectarian overtones that now threatens to spill into neighboring countries.
For journalists, Syria has been difficult and dangerous to cover, and many dispatches have focused on the rebels’ fight to overthrow the dictator in cities and villages such as Homs and Houla. Life in the capital among the pro-Assad elite is less known to the outside world. What emerges from a recent trip to Damascus, and conversations with dozens of people there who say they still support the government, is a deep sense of dread, kept at bay by distraction and, perhaps, delusion. Damascus has long been a stronghold of Assad supporters who count many Alawites and Christians but also (mostly secular) Sunnis. To them, Assad is a guarantor of stability. And many express fear that if the rebels win, they will turn Syria into a more conservative religious country, along the lines of Saudi Arabia or Yemen. But with government forces unable to quell the uprising, the scariest scenario now also seems the most likely: continued fighting widening into a civil war.
For days, I listened to the thumping music and watched the beauties in their fluorescent Victoria’s Secret bikinis partying at the pool at the Dama Rose Hotel, where I was staying. (More than once, I thought of Nero fiddling as Rome burned.) Syria, I realized, has become a schizophrenic place; a place where people’s realities no longer connect.
On one hand, there are the (in Damascus, largely invisible) activists who are trying to bring down Assad. By the time I arrived, shelling, gunfire, and a spate of “sticky bombs”—handmade bombs taped to the bottom of a car at the height of rush hour—had spawned fear in the capital and solidified anger against the opposition, which the government claims is supported by “foreign interventionists.”
There were daily clashes in suburbs such as Douma and Barzeh, and, according to human-rights groups, there are currently as many as 35,000 people being held in Syrian detention.
On the other hand, there is a class of Assad supporters who go about their daily business—pool parties included—while the skyline burns. As if the war is happening in some other place, people drink champagne in the Damascus neighborhood of Mezzah and partake in glamorous fashion photo shoots and go shopping for Versace and Missoni at the luxurious boutiques that line the Shukri al Quatli Street. Despite armed checkpoints and the threat of kidnapping, some still go out at night, attending the opera, meeting friends for dinner, and hosting elaborate wedding parties at the upscale restaurant Le Jardin.
“I have more work than ever,” says Dima, a television star who was being elaborately made up to be photographed by Gala Magazine. “I would love to work in Lebanon or the United States, of course, but at the moment, there is a lot of shooting here.” She laughs and lets the makeup artist—the best in Syria, she points out—apply another layer of purple eye shadow and tease her long, dark hair into a high chignon.
The jeunesse dorée of Damascus seem not to see that they are at war. Despite reports of civilian massacres by government fighters, the uprising has, thus far, not tainted their lives, and they don’t intend to let it. “Look, I still get my hair done when I go to a big party, which is about twice a week,” says a young woman I met. “I still get a manicure every week. I am still alive! Either you choose to be afraid all the time or you choose to live.”
Four years ago, Damascus was chosen as the Arab world’s Cultural Capital by UNESCO, and some people seem determined to hold on to that sobriquet, despite the many dead. Indeed, at the Damascus Opera House, the orchestra’s musicians believe it is their noble duty to keep playing. “People say that we should not make music while people are dying; I say it is imperative to give people hope,” says one violinist. “Even to have the house one quarter full in these times is a great achievement. People have to drive at night through dangerous checkpoints to get here, and most people just want to stay home and be safe.” A female musician agrees. “I don’t want to give the impression that we are like the Titanic—the orchestra plays on while the ship sinks,” she says. Her fate in Damascus has more in common with the Russian musicians who kept playing during the German siege of Leningrad, she says. “Music and art, in times like these, fuel the soul.”
One night I attend a classical concert at the elegant boutique hotel, Art House, in Mezzah, an area dominated by chic boutiques, gilded restaurants, and diplomatic villas. Built on the site of an old mill, the hotel has water streaming over glass panels on parts of the floor and would not be out of place in the Hamptons or Beverly Hills—except that, before the program begins, everyone rises to pay homage to the “war dead” with a minute of silence. The 34-year-old violinist and director general of the opera, Maria Arnaout, and a pianist then perform pieces by Bach, Gluck, and Beethoven for the select audience of bohemian-looking men in sandals and chinos and fashionable women in evening dresses and spiky shoes by Christian Louboutin, the French designer who keeps a summer residence in Syria and whose shoes are favored by the first lady, Asma al-Assad. Arnaout, in a strapless red silk dress and high heels, gets a standing ovation.
Afterward, as everyone files out to the hotel’s open-air restaurant, sipping champagne, I overhear hushed conversations about what has happened that day in Damascus; of bombs and fighting. This part of the city, a wealthy neighborhood of mixed ethnic and political persuasion, has been a particular place of tension. Lately, residents have noticed the sound of explosions, machine-gun fire, and helicopters in the sky.
A few days later, I’m standing with an architect on the balcony of her elegant, Italianate villa, watching people line up for gasoline down below. (International sanctions have created severe economic problems—even for the wealthy.) As we hear the ominous choppy noise of helicopters overhead, she comments, “This is the music we live by. And I fear this will be our symphony for the next few years.”
Bashar Hafez al-Assad, 46, is something of an enigma. Rarely seen in public, his long face is ubiquitous: portraits of the president hang on most government walls, and giant posters of Assad are displayed from downtown buildings.
Shy as a child, he was said to have had no intention of following his father, Hafez, into politics. Instead, he studied medicine in Damascus and London, specializing in ophthalmology. But when Bassel, the heir apparent, was killed in a car crash in 1994, Bashar was called home. In 2000, he inherited the presidency from his father and married Asma al-Akhras, a British-Syrian beauty who had been brought up in the U.K. To many it appeared that Asma modeled herself on Princess Diana and tried to win the hearts of the people through charity work and understated glamour. “She was really loved until this started,” one activist told me. “People admired her greatly.” Rumor in Damascus has it that, at one point during the early days of the uprising, Asma tried to flee the country with her children but was prevented by Assad’s brother, Maher, who commands the Republican Guard.
But gauging the truth is hard. As in neighboring Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or in Libya during the days of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, even ardent supporters of Assad worry about speaking their minds about the dictator for fear of retaliation and torture, and most of the people I meet only speak on the condition that their names not be printed.
The secret police, the Mukhabarat, hover in hotels, restaurants, and cafés. They bug telephones and hack into people’s emails, trying to weed out those who may not sympathize with the regime, clouding everything with suspicion.
One steaming Saturday morning, I drive to Barzeh, one of the hotspots around Damascus, where protests, arrests, and shootings are frequent. It’s also the home of a large military hospital, and on this morning I watch as men silently load the mangled bodies of 50 government soldiers—disfigured and broken by car bombs, explosives, bullets, and shrapnel—into simple wooden coffins. They drape the coffins with Syrian flags and march in procession into a courtyard to the sound of a military marching band. Here, the soldiers’ families and members of the regiment stand in attendance, most of them weeping. It’s an acute reminder of how hard Assad’s forces are getting hit by the opposition, whose guerrilla tactics are proving fatally successful. The hospital director, who refuses to give his name, says around 100 soldiers are killed every week.
On the seventh floor of the hospital, Maj. Firas Jabr lies in a hospital bed, his anxious fiancée standing attentively nearby. His right leg and right arm have been blown off.
At the end of May, the 30-year-old Alawite soldier fought the rebels during a battle in Homs; he says he was ambushed by “foreign fighters,” including men from Lebanon and Yemen. “After I lost my leg and hand, I knew I was wounded, but I kept on shooting until [government forces] came to evacuate me,” says Jabr.
His favorite story, he says, is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. “This is Camelot,” he says. “Assad is King Arthur, and I am a knight.” Despite the fact that much of his body is gone, Jabr has a huge smile on his face. Like nearly all the Assad supporters I meet, Jabr says he believes in the Syrian dictator, and he will continue to fight, he says, once he gets his prosthetics. “I have two loves,” he tells me, trying to lift himself up: “My fiancée and Syria.”
It’s a common belief among the elite that the bombs and chaos spreading throughout the country are caused by a “third element”: an influx of foreign fighters with radical Salafist beliefs who want to turn Syria into an oppressive and conservative state. After one car bombing during my stay in Damascus, the paranoia of the regime supporters was suddenly on full view. “Our only friend is Russia!” one well-dressed man shouted, his face contorted with rage, at the site of the bombing that left the smoking skeleton of a car but injured no one. “These are foreigners that are exploding our country! Syria is for Syrians!”
Maria Saadeh, a political novice who was recently elected to Parliament, is among those who doesn’t believe Assad or his cronies are behind any atrocities, despite mounting evidence of regime forces massacring civilians in Houla and destroying the Baba Amr district in Homs. “Do you think our president could put down his own people?” she asks incredulously. “This is the work of foreign fighters. They want to change our culture.”
Educated in France and Syria as a restoration architect, Saadeh lives in Star Square in the old French section of Damascus, in an elegant 1920s building that she helped renovate. Sitting on the roof terrace of her chic apartment—a Filipina maid serving tea and her two children, Perla and Roland, peeking their heads through the windows—she looks like a model in a lifestyle magazine: tall and blonde and successful, a yuppie member of the elite. When I ask her about regime change, she simply says, “Now is not the time.”
One night, over dinner with an affluent family in its villa in Mezzah, which has several terraces and elaborate shrubbery in the garden, the 17-year-old son lays out his firmly pro-Assad views. “Look at what happened in Tunisia, look at what happened in Libya, look at the results of Egypt,” he says. Ahmed, who wears a pink Lacoste shirt and faded jeans and trainers, is about to do his military service; after that, he plans to study political science at a university in the United States. Like his mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousin, he is educated, multilingual, and the holder of two passports. He doesn’t believe that everything Assad does is right, but he is 100 percent behind the government because he believes, like Saadeh, that the time isn’t right for change. And, he says, in any case, change shouldn’t be imposed by other states, some which may not be democratic themselves. “Why should we take democracy lessons from Saudi Arabia, who arms the opposition?” he says, helping himself to hummus. “They don’t even let women drive!”
Outside on the streets of Damascus, there are gas lines and rising inflation, with the price of some imported goods rising almost 60 percent.
The sprawling bazaar of the historic Old City, once teeming with tourists, now rarely gets visits from travelers. The beautiful, old Talisman Hotel is without guests, empty and quiet except for birdcalls and the sound of running water in the fountain.
Still, a certain class of Damascenes lives life untouched by the violence, in beautiful, spacious homes, hosting grand dinner parties underneath glistening crystal chandeliers, seeing friends during the balmy summer evenings on outdoor terraces fragrant with jasmine—too stubborn or too afraid to see their world has irrevocably changed.
“I’m still jogging and swimming every day,” says Wael, a wealthy businessman who’s eager to argue that this isn’t a civil war or a sectarian conflict. He is a Shia but members of his family are Sunni, and his list of friends includes Christians, Armenians, and Alawites, he says. “This is not a war. Our regime is strong. Seventy percent fully support Assad.” His wife, Nadia, who wears a headscarf and goes to the opera as often as she can, says the rebels threaten people—telling them to close their shops and join the protests. If they refuse, “they burn them down,” she says. “This is why I am supporting the government.”
When I ask them if they’re afraid, they deny it. “Not at all,” says Wael. “Last week we had a party of 20 people on our balcony. We were all relaxing and smoking the nargila,” the water pipe. “We heard gun shots in the background—but it seemed a long way off.”
-This report was published first in The Newsweek Magazine on 09/07/2012