Damascus: More than one visage; More than one age
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the age of faith, it was the age of ingratitude, it was the time of light, it was the time of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, and we had nothing before us. We were all going straight to heaven, and we were all going straight to hell.”
These words largely express the novel “A Tale of Two Cities” by the English writer Charles Dickens, which intersects a lot with the Syrian reality after 2011. The temporal setting of the novel is a “revolution of the hungry” that turned into an “era of terrorism.”
The events take place in two separate cities, London and Paris, which is summarized in the Syrian case in the capital, Damascus, which in recent years has been divided into two cities in one geography that brings them together, despite the presence of many different factors between them.
The first city is represented by a group of quiet, upscale neighborhoods that have distanced themselves from rapid and violent events for more than 12 years, while the other is represented by neighborhoods destroyed by bombing and military operations launched by the Syrian regime to subjugate their opposition residents with iron and fire.
This situation was expressed by the Palestinian poet Tamim Barghouti when he described Jerusalem: “The city does not live for one age, but for two,” and this applies to Damascus as well, with the presence of those who cry over the past in the face of the harsh reality, and those who live in the present and immerse themselves in it without paying attention to the past.
This is clearly evident in endless posts on social media, some of which praise the Umayyad sword installed in the main square of the capital, Mount Qasioun, the ancient streets, and the cultural, historical, and aesthetic heritage of the city, with a tangible separation from the opposite present.
In the face of severe economic disparity, reinforced by the decline in the value of the currency and wages, the rise in prices of all kinds of goods and products, and the exclusion of groups and segments of the people from government support, Damascus was divided without visible lines, with people’s priorities, needs, and lifestyles differing on the one hand, and the general and political outlook that social media contributed to forming intentional and unintended propaganda on the other hand.
The visits made by UN and European officials to the capital are limited to the colorful side of the city while neglecting the other side, which is empty of its residents as a result of their displacement.
Last September, the Charge d’Affairs of the European Union Mission to Syria, Dan Stoenescu, visited the capital, Damascus, and then conducted a radio interview on Al-Madina FM, which reflects the Syrian regime’s version of events in Syria.
This visit was preceded by another in June, at the end of which the European envoy said, “In Damascus, to address the root causes of the Syrian crisis, taking a constructive stance instead of a challenge has become more necessary than ever before,” referring to the situation of Syrian youth who wish to leave their country.
None of the visits of the European envoy to Syria, which began for the first time in August 2022, provided any announcement of a visit to the areas affected by the bombing and emptied of population, whether in Damascus or outside it.
This applies to visits by UN officials, including the UN Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, who visited Damascus last June and met with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.
Residents’ own view
Damascus-based Ammar, a philosophy graduate, told Enab Baladi that an individual’s view of others in Damascus was affected by the situation that Syria had reached in general, comparing between before 2011 and after it. People dreamed of self-realization and achieving stability on the personal and social levels.
Also, the psychological state was somewhat stable, in Ammar’s opinion, before shifting towards the opposite, and understanding and explanations becoming limited to what is negative, and the state of destruction reaching relationships between people and things, and people’s relationships with each other.
This has made conflict the most visible state in people’s existence, and this necessarily leads to collective frustration, despair, and unhappiness.
Reem, who is based in one of the poor neighborhoods in the capital, compares the lifestyles in Damascus. She feels that life is unfair. There are those who suffer to find a living, and there are others who do not feel the extent of this tragedy or at least do not live it.
“What angers me most is that some of those who are not experiencing this real tragedy are the ones who are complaining today, and nothing satisfies them,” she added to Enab Baladi.
Sociologist Safwan Qassam told Enab Baladi that this state of disparity already existed, but it has worsened recently to the point of shifting from social classes to societies, such as a society of the newly affluent, the war-rich, and the impoverished society. On this basis, there is no longer a neighborhood for the poor and another for the rich. The class disparity reached one neighborhood from one house to another.
Today, the people of cities, including Damascus, live in a state of social oppression as a result of this circumstance, as they are in more contact with the extremely wealthy society as a result of plunder, quotas, and looting.
It is an emergency society built on the phenomenon of existing differences, which led to the separation that generated two societies, which means that today’s rich are not necessarily yesterday’s rich. On the contrary, only a few have maintained their wealth, with some of them leaving and traveling abroad.
The current poor society is the one that has been defeated and has truly been broken as a result of its constant pursuit of its daily needs. On this basis, people feel sadness, despair, and regret for the past.
At the same time, they view the other, different society as a society that is morally, politically, nationally, and culturally separate from them and does not belong to them, even though this society is the one that portrays itself today as a national society, according to Qassam.
In the face of this state of disparity, the poor society seeks to reach the rich society regardless of the standards and mechanisms, and many of them are actually used by the other party. The rich want to exploit the poor to double their wealth and use them as a front to get rid of accountability, leaving them with crumbs, said the sociologist.
YouTubers, influencers and residential projects
During the past few years, during which the Syrian regime strengthened its field presence on the ground and regained geographic areas that had been out of its control for years, the regime tended to exploit influencers through social media and the propaganda they provide to promote an incomplete picture of life in the areas it controls.
The regime also devoted its attention to the tourism sector to no avail and promoted the presence of services concentrated on specific areas that most of its controlled areas lack while placing the image of the “busy capital despite the war” before the eyes of the world.
Efforts to exploit YouTubers have collided with cases of kidnapping of some of them, in conjunction with the promotion of a “safe Syria,” in addition to the development of zoning plans for urban rehabilitation in the southern neighborhoods of the capital, Damascus, without regard to time.
The Basilia City project, for example, whose zoning plan was issued more than five years ago, which came pursuant to a decree issued in 2012 to create two zoning areas within Damascus, causing displacement to random housing during times of conflict, did not see the light to this day.
On March 10, 2022, the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) issued a report that addressed human rights violations against Syrians during the year 2021, including housing, property, and land rights.
The report explained that despite Western economic sanctions that stopped most real estate redevelopment projects in Damascus, including Marota City and Basilia City, these real estate projects were relentlessly bulldozed and demolished, which entrenched displacement in times of conflict in random housing.
Work on Basilia City began in 2017 by Damascus Provincial Council and Cham Holding Company. The former governor of Damascus, Adel al-Olabi, announced in August 2019 the start of implementation of the project, noting the cost of its technical study, which is estimated at 750 million Syrian pounds with an implementation period of 480 days.
In light of all these factors, Qassam believes that solutions to this problem of division and disparity require international effort before talking about the social dimensions, despite all the harsh feelings and thoughts experienced by the residents of one of the banks of this city or part of the residents of the two banks, in a way that is not much different from the literary approach to “A Tale of Two Cities.”
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