Two weddings, an engagment and its your funeral.

The foreigners are all desperate to stay in Syria, meanwhile the Syrians are all desperate to leave. Apparently the governments increasing its surveillance of foreigners and a friend was deported for no apparent reason just before I last extended my iqama. We’re worried we might be sent home, Syrians are worried about what’s happening to their homes.

My flatmate, who’s easy to get on with and a good cook, has decided the easiest way to guarantee herself residency is to marry her Syrian boyfriend. It’s all very complicated, partly because ‘ (and Israel’s) personal status laws were last updated by the Ottomans, partly because neither partner is telling their parents. The first problem manifested itself when the man in the marriage office (next to the Iraqi Communist Party HQ) demanded proof of religion. As a westerner and an atheist my flatmate couldn’t produce a certificate of cultural Christianity, so they trotted off to a church to get her baptised. This wasn’t a problem, but it was explained that registering her officially would be extremely difficult; her parents had screwed it all up by not being Syrian Christians. Consequently she decided to convert to Islam, for which she only needed two copies of her birth certificate, in Arabic, and three passport photos. Converted and registered, armed with all sorts of papers, most of which had been sent from home and needed stamps from the Syrian embassy there and her embassy in Damascus, she and Lover Boy returned to do the deed. They learnt that Lover Boy can’t marry a foreigner without government permission, which takes 6 months to get. If they preferred they could bribe the judge, which only takes 3 days and is very reasonably priced. As her iqama expires for the last time in a fortnight they went for option B and filled in the paperwork, which they’ll sign after the referendum. Alawi, Sunna, Christian and Druze are united in apathy when it comes to the new constitution. The man in the office isn’t quite sure when it is, or if it’s a holiday.

I’m cynical about marriage and I want everyone else to see it as a convenient way of regularising joint property ownership as well, rather than enjoying it when I don’t. My vague sense of unease, then, is not because they’re undermining the sacrament, it’s probably partly because Lover Boy is Alawi. Converts aren’t asked what branch of Islam they plan on entering, and the Alawi are genuine, Khomini certified, Shia (he issued a fatwa in return for influence in Lebanon), so sect isn’t an issue yet. I’m pretty confident, though, that if she stays here being married to an Alawi will eventually turn round and bite her on the arse. They didn’t make much effort to ensure her immigration department will accept the marriage as genuine, apparently they take a dim view weddings without any parents in attendance. As some of my ALC colleagues discovered processing the paperwork for divorce takes allot longer than the Islamic ‘I divorce you,’ and that’s not as easy for women to do. The happy couple haven’t known each other for 6 months yet, and she was initially dating someone else, so they might have to explore divorce laws at a later date.

Another friend was propositioned by a rich Syrian looking for a passport for his son. As the sons studying in her homeland she seemed ideal wife material. With a starting offer of 8,000 UK, monthly expenses for 3 years and the cost of the divorce covered, the guy seemed like an ideal father in law as well. The only snag seems to be that she wants to stay in Syria and her future husband wants to stay out of it. He’s also 13 years younger than her, but while she gets a bonus when her husband gets nationality, she’s not really that interested in how plausible the relationship is. She doesn’t have to worry about convincing the Syrians it’s a genuine marriage, people aren’t that keen on earning the right to remain here (men married to Syrians can never get nationality, women have to live here continuously for 5 years, survive a background check and then get lucky if they want to become Syrian). Shes back home now, applying for a new visa, meeting and marrying her fiancée.

It’s all rather different from a Druze wedding Habibi and I were invited to in the summer. The bride and groom were sat on a dias, too far apart from each other to talk over the music and looking alternately bored and terrified. Old women went round the horse shoe seating dragging guests into the center of the room and making them dance dabki. I should have given Habibi a dabki lesson lasting more than 30 seconds. It’s a 3 beat stamping kind of morris dancing and in Syria is usually danced in a circle, but the people next to Habibi kept on moving away from him and he ended up at the end of a line. Eventually someone put the groom on their shoulders and danced, the groom waving a sword he’d been given in time to the music as he bobbed around above the other, now all male, dancers. Back on the floor but still armed he fetched his bride and danced with her. A cake adorned with fireworks was wheeled in to the low cellinged function room and they cut it with the sword. The bride was returned to her dias, the groom and his friends danced more celebratory dabki (one of the friends hates dabkai because its ‘traditional’ and danced very badly), then at ten everyone said goodbye to the new couple who went home together for the very first time.

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Graffiti and other Signs of the End Times

One doesn’t expect a county that’s part of ‘the axis of evil’ to own a sleek and shiny PR machine, but Syrias actually rather good at branding herself. For some reason though she only ever does it to the people that have never had much of a choice about her. The professionalism of the campaign convincing Syrians to put their rubbish in the bins that adorn every single one of Shams lamp posts is as impressive as it is surprising. None the less the bins have languished, ignored until now.

The bins are green,a perfect background for people to spray the yellow-on-green Al Jazeera logo on. Underneath the omnipresent posters of the president a graffiti war is being fought for Damascus’ public spaces. Artistically we are talking seriously sub Banksy, but I don’t care. A lot of the anti stuff is too offensively ammeya for me to understand properly and it goes pretty quickly, but that’s not the point. Reactionaries can turn their houses into giant Syrian flags, but activists are out draping islamic green flags from ‘the presidents bridge.’ According to Al Jazeera more creative people dyed the water in the main fountains red. The pro stuff is depressing, praising Syrian TV for ‘taking the truth to the world,’ but its also hilarious. Someone’s written ‘Thank you Russia’ in Arabic and Cyrillic, but thanked China in Arabic and English.

I sympathise with whoever was defeated by Mandarin, but he has official back up. Syrias billboards now do Bashars bidding. If at a job interview I’m asked who I’d invite to my dream dinner party I’d have to say Syrian sloganers and G. W. Bushs speech writers. I don’t know what the man who came up with ‘My Future or Your Future, I am With Syria,’ and ‘Optimist or Pessimist, I am With the Law,’ could do in collaboration with the brains behind ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists,’ but I want him doing it at my table. Americas political tag lines are popular in Syria, a big sign in Mezza proclaims ‘Obama! Change we do not believe in,’ so I think the idea could work.

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As if Graffiti artists weren’t bad enough Bashars also got to worry about the world ending. Eschatologically the Qoran is as vague as Revelations. The prophecies, including a massive earthquake, fit, they always do. I’m told, though, that other ‘old books’ are specific enough that in 1995 an Iranian ayatollah named a low ranking Syrian Ba’th party official as the man who, after a string of bloody events, will seize power and precipitate the end of the world. Low ranking no longer, he’s keeping very quite.

Apparently the ‘bloody events’ cannot be misconstrued. ‘Harista, one of the villages of Sham, will fall to the ground.’ Harista was one of the first Damascus suburbs to embrace the revolution, and homed the first building to be blown up, the Air Force intelligence HQ. A western friends just got back from visiting another friends family their. Her host says ‘its a different place after dark,’ which is supposed to be reassuring. Having seen it in daylight the Westerner describes it as ‘fucking scary.’ We can all look forwards to a yellow banner from the west, a green banner from the Hijaz, and a spotted banner battling it out for Bilad Ash Sham. While I’m not sure ‘spotted’ is the first adjective one thinks of in conjunction with the Star of David, Hizbollahs HQ is definitely on the western edge of Bilad Ash Sham, the Levant, and their ‘banner’ is yellow. As part of modern Saudi Arabia the Hijaz’s flag is undeniably green. Various other of Damascus’ suburbs, all of which have staged protests, are divinely scheduled for demolition, one suspects Assad has also lined them up for invasion.

While I don’t believe in the end of the world full stop, and I’m not sure I believe the ‘old books’ aren’t just mass hysteria, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of a spin people who believe the end is nigh will put on a conflict between a president fighting for his throne and an opposition fighting for their lives.

Moving

All those war stories, holocaust stories, stories about humans ability to adapt, to survive. The ones that say ‘a remarkable tale of the indomitable human spirit in terrible circumstances,’ on the back, A Child Called It, the ‘my life as a junky genre’. They don’t really question whether people should manage to live through horrendous times. I’m impressed by Damascus’ ability to man up, keep calm and carry on, but I’m horrified by it as well.

If you can think of a way of coping with the disintegration of your country I can guarantee their is a Shammie practising it. Homs has pushed what’s happening in Damascus out of the headlines, but something definitely is. The question of course is what. Concrete barriers entirely bar the exits from the ring road to the rebellious eastern suburbs, stationary trucks fill Jermaanas high street. Rumours and videos are coming out of Zabadani, Duma, Harista, everywhere and helicopters are becoming commoner.

Still, people get on with life. People who weren’t put off having a good time by Derra haven’t been put off by Homs. The bombings have shaken everybody, they’ve added an unwelcome element of random death. But while you don’t see people on the streets before 2PM on Fridays, afterwards the good times roll. Like us everyone spends the morning channel surfing, with a satellite dish you can have back to back Syria coverage, flicking from news to propaganda and from Arabic to English and back. We discus theories and rumours over the news we’ve carefully lined up. My Iraqi friends swear they know about bombs, and Syrias aren’t big enough for the reported death toll. Someone’s cousin in the mukhaberat said that Aleppo would have 8 bombings. So and so describes the unusual lack of street life outside the first building to be bombed in Damascus the night before it was attacked. In Syria buildings dedicated to maintaining the police state are prominent, and defended by a few conscripts with AKs. They’re designed to intimidate but if they wanted to the opposition could easily get close enough to blow them up. We argue until their is more Homs footage, and then their is nothing to say.

By 3 its life as usual. Anything that’ll be blown up that day has been and cafés house women saying the first person to mention politics pays. families go out to eat. Bars fill up. I’m impressed by the way Damascus carries on, but I’m appalled by the city’s myopia and seeming indifference as well. While half my friends now say ‘gunna do a Russia,’ for ‘no,’ or ‘I’m not joining in,’ and complain they ‘feel like Homs,’ in the morning the other half have long-standing ideological objections to enjoying themselves. The dark humour is more fun than going out for a few bears with people who glare at other customers and complain that they’re having fun. Asceticism wont improve anything. None the less it feels better, going out does seem immoral. It is hard not to despise the people who seem unaware theirs a war on.

On the other hand the life as normal crew are spending cash and keeping people employed. The people who think this is a time of suffering are bulk buying, inevitably pushing prices up and creating shortages. The petrol shortage is the most disheartening. Petrol is subsidised by the government and theoretically the price is fixed at 220L a litre. People are paying a thousand up front. A week or two later when the depot has supplies they deliver whats been paid for, and the customers stockpile it. The lines outside petrol stations are unbelievable, the cost of everything is rising. The corruption is so depressing, it takes more than a change of government to change that kind of mentality. The revolution started with ‘the people calling for the overthrow of corruption,’ but how can you stop it?

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Their is a Syrian version of the Pythons Yorkshiremen sketch doing the rounds. Apparently its a true story from the campus of one of the private universities. A bunch of stoners in their final year are hanging out, complaining about the situation and the power cuts. One winges he has to do all his studying in cafes powered by generators. His companions are not impressed, and his friend moans about studying by candle light. ‘Candle light,’ the third student exclaims. ‘Cant afford candles, do my studying in middle of t’ road I do. Use the light from t’ restaurants.’

”Dudes. Whats wrong with sunlight?’ A passing class mate asks. ‘You guys need to get up earlier.’

This is no longer my life. As much as I enjoyed living in Jermaana my low income friendship groups disintegrating along with Syria. The focus of my life has shifted west and consequently I’ve moved in with some friends in prosperous, laid back Afif (or ‘unsullied’). Its just down the road from the Burtons’ and Lady Jane Digby’s old hangout in Sahlahya (‘righteous’). Despite crawling in mukhaberat (leather coats and pistols), security (overcoats and AKs) and traffic police (motorbikes and jack boots) its far more attractive than Jermaana. The rich My new flats biggest draw is location, and I’m not talking views, architectural charm and a tourist departments dream of a vegetable souk. Its just up the mountain from Bashar and shares a power cable with him. Electricity 24 hrs a day!