I am not so sure Damascus is paradise, but it looks more modern, clean and beautiful than I expected. The more prosperous neighborhoods are filled with boutiques with western clothes, shoes, make up, creams, sweet stores, banks, travel agencies and coffee shops. There is not much different in the streets from any other large city, except that most women dress conservatively and cover their heads.
But although life in Damascus more prosperous areas appear clear of conflict and the bustle of the souqs conceal any underlying problems the current regime might be having with its citizens, there is a feeling of something brewing underneath. This is obvious from the number of police on the streets, although it pales in comparison to the military presence in most Israeli cities I visited.
There is also a great number of secret service police in plain clothes I was told and most people are reluctant to talk about politics or even mention the name of their president. Others are either in denial, nervous about the lack of tourists, or too afraid to say anything at all on the subject, insisting that there is nothing going on in Syria. This includes one of the hotel clerks where I am staying.
I have noticed tired looks on many faces, as though there is something weighting on them. When traveling by bus, there are several checkpoints on the road, but they are much more relaxed than the ones in Egypt. During my three-hour journey to Palmyra, the bus only had to stop once to have our ID/passport checked on the way there and none on the way back.
I see demonstrations on TV and although I do not understand Arabic and the hotel management always try to play it down, I know there has been problems in many places now. This includes Daraya in the outskirts of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Lattakya, Baniyas, Jabla, Deir Ezzor and Daara, known as ground zero for Syrian manifestations. People want the end of emergency laws in effect since the 1963 coup, political reform, freedom of press and expression as well as more jobs,and better pay for existing ones.
Although Bashar al-Assad is not as hatred as Mubarak was in Egypt, protests continue to pop up in a different village every Friday after prayers in hopes to see their demands met, but at the same time, the police crackdown continues as strong as ever. The latest small town to start protesting and suffer from police violence is Maaret al-Naaman near Idiib, where military tanks have been deployed to discourage further demonstrations. The Kurdish region of Ain Arab north of Aleppo also recently got into the action shouting “azadi” on the streets which means freedom. The Kurdish towns of Qamishily and Derbasiya seem to be the most active, but so far, demonstrations have been peaceful.
Civil rights groups say the number of deaths in Syria since the beginning of the crisis in March totals 900 including children, and it is growing with each passing Friday. Many people are imprisoned.
I was told by many locals not to go out or travel on Fridays and I have taken this advise seriously. I met two male Syrians in Palmyra who were interrogated for an hour by the police because they were visiting the ruins on Friday. The police wanted to know why they picked that day to visit, what their jobs were, if they believed Syria was a free a country, among other questions.
Last Friday, leading Sunni Muslim cleric Sheik Karim Rajeh, the imam of Damascus's Al-Hassan mosque, said he will no longer lead Friday prayers. He said that security forces have been preventing people from going to the mosque by intimidation and crackdown.
The international press is not allowed in the country and US/Canadian/Iranian journalist Dorothy Parvaz based in Seattle was held for 19 day in a solitary jail in Tehran following her arrival in Damascus. She was deported to Iran on the false pretense that she was traveling with an expired passport but has been recently freed. Her case provides an insight on the cooperation of the secret service and police between Syria and Iran. Dozens of journalists and political dissents are jailed.
Photos of manifestations and public buildings are strictly forbidden and foreigners like me are advised to stay away from conflicts. After I took a picture of the parliament building from across the street, somehow the guards saw and motioned for me to see them. They were very nice explaining that pictures were forbidden, but also made sure I deleted them from my camera before their eyes.
On the other hand, some people seem to feel their president, al-Assad is not that bad, and that the country is on the right track. They like things the way they are and think their president is doing what he can to ensure the population have their “daily bread” peace and independence from the western consuming way of life. From my perspective, there are a lot of things to be proud of in Syria, but I think the country could benefit from reforms. On the positive side, the food is fresh, plentiful and free of pesticide for the most part. There are very few beggars and homeless, tap water is safe to drink, the streets are generally clean, safe and not very polluted. Although Damascus is a city of 7 million, there is a feeling of relaxation here that I haven't felt in many cities of the same size.
I hope the current political upheaval in Syria is resolved giving people more freedom and economic opportunities. Damascus may not be the paradise that Prophet Mohammed saw from Jebel Qassioun, the bare mountain above the city, but it is a place I would like to return in the future for a longer visit.