As the evening call to prayer sounded through the alleyways of old Damascus, the aging storyteller known as Abu Shadi clambered into an elevated chair at the Nawfara cafe, slipped on a pair of rimless reading glasses and turned to the page where he’d left off.
An expectant silence settled over the smoke-filled room, interrupted by the clink of coffee cups and tea glasses.
For two decades, Abu Shadi has regaled his audience of shopkeepers, university students and tourists with epic tales of war and romance, heroes and rogues from the classics of Arabic literature. Fewer turn out now, but still he reads.
This night’s selection was taken from the tale of a 13th century sultan famed for campaigns against the Mongols and Crusaders. As Abu Shadi read from a battered text, his raspy voice took on the accents of his characters, and waiters yelled out sound effects.
The old epics still have lessons to teach, Abu Shadi said, lessons about honor, chivalry and standing up to invaders.
But the time has come for new tales.
“There is a need for stories about our times,” he said. “Our story now is the story of our troubles, it is the story of our crisis.”
The reverberations of a battle fought ever closer can be heard at night in the Old City.
Until recently, gun battles between government and rebel forces had been confined to provincial hubs such as Homs, Dara and Hama. Now they have reached the doorstep of Damascus, the center of power for the ruling Assad family for more than four decades.
Driving through the morning rush hour, when storekeepers are opening their shutters and streets are choked with traffic, it’s easy to forget about the daily violence that the United Nations says has left more than 5,400 dead on both sides in an 11-month uprising. But when night falls, residents hurry home, spooked by the rumbling explosions from nearby suburbs and tales of masked gunmen who are said to prowl the streets after dark.
Since bombings in December and January shattered the surface calm in the city on two Fridays, few venture from their homes on the once-lighthearted start of the weekend here. That’s except for the pro-government militiamen who appear at major intersections in combat trousers and leather jackets, many brandishing guns, ready to pounce at the first hint of trouble.
No one knows who the bombers were. Government officials blame their opponents, whom they label terrorists. But neighborhood activists accuse the government of orchestrating the deadly attacks to tarnish what began as a mostly peaceful uprising.
The uncertainty only adds to the fear and paranoia on both sides.
Syrian authorities acknowledge that they have lost control of parts of the country but are quick to crush dissent in the capital. Few here want to be seen talking to Western journalists, for fear of drawing the attention of government informants who seem to sidle up in every neighborhood.
What emerges are brief glimpses of life in an increasingly polarized city.
Meetings with opposition activists involve cloak-and-dagger-like subterfuge. An intermediary appears at a busy traffic circle and leads the way to a waiting taxi. No eye contact is made. The journalists walk several steps behind him so that it won’t appear that they are together.
There is reason for caution: Protesters have been arrested and many of them beaten, tortured or even killed in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite-led government.
“It has been five months since I last saw my wife and kids,” said an activist who goes by the name Abdul Hayed. “There are Alawite militiamen living in the same neighborhood, so I can’t go home.”
The 33-year-old painter is part of a close-knit circle of friends who have been demonstrating almost every day since March in the maze-like alleyways of Midan, a working-class neighborhood that was the scene of one of the bombings. But most don’t know one another’s real names, so they can’t reveal them if they are caught.
Neighborhood kids are sent out on bicycles to see whether it is safe to gather. When they give the all-clear, the streets come alive with marchers chanting for Assad’s downfall. Within minutes, word spreads: Security forces are closing in. Gunfire rings out. The protesters scatter.
After one recent protest, Abdul Hayed and his friends regroup at an apartment that serves as a makeshift clinic for wounded demonstrators who refuse to go to public hospitals, where they fear arrest.
Although they insist their protests will remain peaceful, they welcome the growing number of defections by security force members now fighting the government for control of nearby suburbs. Some would like to take up arms themselves. They would even welcome a Libya-style international bombing campaign to end the crisis, a scenario once rejected by the government and its opponents.
“We are dead anyway,” Abdul Hayed said.
The casualties are mounting on both sides. On the seventh floor of the Tishreen Military Hospital in Damascus, a 33-year-old army colonel named Maher Yasir Deeb lies under a blanket, pale and shaking with pain from bullet wounds to the leg, chest and groin.
Late one night, he said, five masked gunmen burst into his home in a contested suburb of Damascus.
“I didn’t get a chance to reach for my gun,” he said. “They broke my arm.... They shot me four times. There was a photograph of the president on the wall. They threw it to the floor.”
Deeb said he was the only military man living in his neighborhood. His assailants accused him of spying. He won’t return home.
“I don’t feel safe. The way they look at me is full of hate,” he said. “The military is being perceived as collaborators, despite the fact that I did not hurt anyone and I did not report on anyone.”
Hospital staff say they are treating a growing number of patients like Deeb, whom they call victims of foreign conspiracies to sow strife in a country that has long been at odds with Israel and the West.
“The people are ignorant,” snapped Hoda Khodr, a 50-year-old nursing supervisor. “They want freedom but they don’t know what freedom is. They want freedom to riot in the streets and do whatever they want.”
The spiraling violence has some longtime government supporters beginning to question Assad’s handling of the crisis. But many in Damascus are just as worried about his opponents, who they say have done little to reassure minorities afraid of a bloodbath if the government falls.
It is this so-called silent majority that Zaher Saad Adden was hoping to mobilize when he applied with several colleagues to form a new political party to contest promised parliamentary elections, part of a series of reforms announced by the government to blunt dissent.
“The regime did not succeed in many things, but it succeeded in creating an opposition that is a mirror of itself — vengeful, threatening and also linked to external parties,” said Adden, a 42-year-old business executive who works out of a sleek office in the upscale Maliki neighborhood. “When I listen to them on TV, it takes me some time to figure out who is talking.... They use the same rhetoric.”
Unless more moderate people speak out, Adden fears the country will soon be dragged into all-out war.
“We are on a train headed that way,” he said.
At the Nawfara cafe, the storyteller was nearing the end of his tale.
“I shed tears for every person who is killed, whether they are with the government or the opposition,” said Abu Shadi, who has begun writing his own stories to win back his dwindling audience.
He mourns the time of peace, when tourists flocked to his performances, and the generous tips he received. But he is convinced the tourists will be back. To keep in practice, he sprinkles bits of English and French into his readings.
“Thank you. Merci,” he said with a flirtatious look at a table of giggling young women. “Je t’aime. I love you.”
Marrouch is a special correspondent.