Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Ramadan of fear in Syria

Ramadan in Syria this year will not be celebrated as it has been for centuries, with most Syrians aiming simply to see the holy month through with a minimum of loss, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Appeals for security, stability and an end to the crisis have become a regular part of Ramadan prayers for most Syrians. The month is no longer what it was for the majority of the country.

There have been radical changes to people’s lives as a result of the crisis. It has affected the way they approach the holy month, as it has everything else in their daily lives. In times past, the capital of Damascus did not sleep during the month of Ramadan. It was home to centuries-old Ramadan rituals and customs. Many Syrians this month are simply trying to recall their old way of life during Ramadan without being able to practice it.

The last five years of war in Syria have had a major impact on every aspect of the population’s life, as falling security and poor economic conditions have played a role in changing customs.

Some insist on trying to preserve some remnant of ordinary life despite the war, especially during the month of Ramadan, visiting the mosque more often, decorating their shops and hanging lanterns, or buying food that is only available during the holy month. But in general most Syrians are no longer able to commemorate the holy month as they would wish and simply hope for it to pass with as little damage as possible.

There are expectations that the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will step up its military operations during Ramadan. Every day at sunset military forces begin shelling neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Damascus with mortars. The shelling only stops when the sun rises the next day. Damascus residents now live in a state of terror in most of the capital’s districts.

Damascus was once one of the safest cities in Syria and also among the warmest, thanks to the generosity of its inhabitants. Today, it is neither safe nor friendly. Virtually no cars are on the streets after 10pm during Ramadan, as people stay at home out of fear of a stray mortar or sniper’s bullet.

After the Ramadan sundown meal of iftar, Damascus becomes a ghost town, its streets and markets emptied of people and traffic. Many Damascenes skip the usual tarawih prayers in the mosque after iftar, while the musahhirati, who once wandered the city’s quarters waking residents for the last meal of the day with his drum, is nowhere to be seen. Damascus residents are no longer interested in the famed Ramadan sweets because of the difficult economic situation of the country and the psychological hardship of living in the middle of a war.

Damascenes no longer hear the Eid cannon, which used to be fired three times a day during Ramadan. Instead, on most days they hear the cannon fire and the explosions that have become all too common over the past five years. Family gatherings around tables laden with food are another sight that has grown rarer, as many Syrian families have been split up, with some members leaving for other countries and some dead in the war.

Syrians say their country and its people have been subject to the worst killing, destruction, and displacement seen anywhere in the world over the past 50 years. Statistics confirm their sense of catastrophe: from a country with a population of some 23 million, half a million people have been killed over the past five years. Seven million have been displaced, while more than four million have fled to neighbouring countries.

Some say there are now more than 300 military and security checkpoints in Damascus alone. Virtually no main street is without one. When identity cards are examined at these checkpoints, it’s enough to come from one of the anti-regime areas — Homs, Deraa or outside Damascus — for accusations and insults to fly.

Living conditions are deteriorating. Every year is worse than the one before, security is scarce, the smell of death is everywhere, and poverty is skyrocketing. The poverty rate in the country is now estimated to stand at nearly 80 per cent, but most Syrians are less interested in reducing poverty than in stopping the shelling, killing and violence.

Since Ramadan offers an opportunity to look for peace, international and humanitarian organisations have tried to use it to reach at least a temporary truce and to spare Syrians the plague of death and homelessness for at least a month. But over the past five years Ramadan has brought Syrians only war, just like the year’s other months, with no change in the violence despite appeals to suspend the fighting for at least the holy month.

The traditional Ramadan decorations that in the past adorned Damascus neighbourhoods during the holy month are rare these days. Some may be spotted in secure areas in the centre, but they have disappeared completely outside and in quarters destroyed by the regime due to the presence of the armed opposition.

No lanterns are hung and no lights illuminate the streets. There are no sweets or tables where passers-by can break their fast. Only the Old City of Damascus has tried to carry on the struggle for survival, although its landmarks and even its population have changed.

“Old Damascus itself has changed, and its population has changed,” said Qassem Dalati, a resident of the city. “It is now full of people from other provinces who have fled from the war. There is also the warlord class and young layabouts who don’t care about what’s happening in Damascus or anywhere else. They are a product of the war and of the changes it has brought to people’s mentalities.”

Entering the Old City also means passing through regime checkpoints, something that can be fraught with danger, especially late at night. Arrest and extortion are among the dangers, as many of the checkpoints are supervised by pro-regime militias that are subject to no authority or oversight.

WIDER CHANGES: The war threatens not only daily life and the displacement of millions, but also the country’s ancient buildings and cultural heritage. The city of Aleppo, for example, in the north of Syria has lost much of its built heritage, while many of the important archaeological sites at the ancient city of Palmyra have been destroyed.

In Damascus, too, Syrians stand to lose much of historical significance, and not only due to the fighting. Iranian forces billeted in the country have engaged in wilful destruction, especially in Old Damascus, while heritage buildings have been demolished willy-nilly by the wealthy and developers who have replaced them with modern blocks of flats. As a result, much of the Old City has been disappearing.

Because of the corruption over the last two decades, many traditional homes of historical significance in Damascus have been converted into entertainment venues such as restaurants, cafes, and hotels, without proper restrictions or standards being applied. They have been turned into profit-generating enterprises, although many had hoped they could become cultural spaces to feed the city’s cultural, artistic and literary life. Investors, however, have had other ideas.

It is now not uncommon to see volunteers in Ramadan near the Umayyad Mosque in the centre of the Old City passing out iftar meals to the poor and needy, with many Syrians unable to provide for food or other necessities amid the conflict. Essam Alloush, one of the people responsible for the distribution of the meals, said that volunteers prepare more than 2,000 iftar meals every day in Ramadan, asking people to donate ingredients such as rice, meat, chicken and vegetables. They are as many as 2,000 volunteers.

The Umayyad Mosque itself is still a symbol of Damascus, but everything around it has changed. The walls are covered with images of Al-Assad, the supreme guide of the Iranian Revolution, Ali Khamenei, and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Lampposts nearby are covered with Shia banners and prayers, some of a nature likely to provoke residents of the Umayyad capital. However, only a minority is interested in changing or removing them, and over the past five years Iran has worked hard to change the demographic composition of the capital through economic and security methods.

The Umayyad caliph, Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan, took Damascus as the capital of the Umayyad state in 661 CE. A Sunni city, it nevertheless embraced religious and ethnic minorities and lived by the values of diversity and coexistence. Its urban and demographic fabric was only attacked under the current regime.

Over the last five years Damascus has become a centre for Iranians who have flocked to the city and engaged in Shia rituals in a provocative way, choosing the Umayyad Mosque in particular as a site for calling down imprecations on the Umayyads for events that took place 13 centuries ago and for vengeance on their descendants.

After 2011, Damascenes began to notice signs of the Shia presence in the city, from the spread of black banners and Hizbullah flags to the distribution of sectarian flyers to curses of the Umayyads in the Umayyad Mosque itself, all with the protection and sponsorship of the regime.

The Shia presence is most strongly felt at the Hizbullah checkpoints inside the city, manned by men wearing yellow headbands emblazoned with the group’s name and dressed in traditional garb. Sectarian songs can also be heard blasting from their cars as they race around the city’s streets, unconcerned by either traffic rules or pedestrians.

The regime has also issued laws permitting the confiscation of the property from anyone considered to be a supporter of terrorism, meaning the regime’s opponents who have in many cases fled the country in fear of the security forces. Their property has been handed over to army officers, Iranians and members of Lebanese and Iraqi militias who have been given Syrian identity cards.

The Iranians have also shown much interest in buying up hotels, houses and shops in Old Damascus. They have set up husseiniyat, or Shia religious foundations, and expanded the Sayyeda Ruqaya, a Shia religious shrine, to gigantic proportions at the expense of houses in the Old City.

The Iranian settlement of Damascus and other Syrian cities is very obvious, though it is difficult to give precise figures because of the secrecy of the regime and the tight security grip on Damascus, in particular, that is being maintained by hundreds of security and military checkpoints. However, it is manifest in the destruction of many city landmarks and Roman and Islamic monuments in Damascus to which the Iranians ascribe little importance compared to the reconstruction of their own religious shrines.

Due to regime control, the Iranian expansion in Damascus is met with silence, but in other Syrian cities it is being met with a military response. The fighting today is no longer between regime forces and revolutionaries: today the revolutionaries are fighting Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia forces.

DAMASCUS TODAY: Today Damascenes live in a state of loss, fear and dispersion. The regime has worked hard to fragment the city, and prices have risen with the collapse of the local currency.

Many people’s major preoccupation is simply securing their daily bread, though all of them are well aware of what is happening to their city even if it is impossible to object or complain. People are isolated and alienated in a way they have never been before.

The silent Iranian sectarian expansion has changed the demographic features of Damascus, reflected in the traditions of the city, the customs of its people and the way they celebrate Ramadan and other social and religious occasions.

The Syrian opposition has drawn attention to the need to save the country’s historic monuments while archaeologists have cautioned about the imminent destruction of treasures including Aramaic, Greek, Roman and Islamic sites. They have appealed to international organisations to protect these sites and have publicised attacks on them by regime forces, among them attacks on Crusader fortresses, mosques, ancient churches, and ancient Greek and Roman monuments.

The destruction is not limited to Damascus, and the capital is not even the most badly damaged. The war has not only changed other cities almost beyond recognition but it has also wiped some off the map. The regime has dug up archaeological mounds to carve out shelters for tanks, and tanks and troop carriers have been deployed in the middle of archaeological sites. Ancient fortresses have been converted into military facilities in Palmyra, Bosra, Apamea, Ebla, Aleppo, Homs and other cities.

Five of the seven Syrian sites classified by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites have been damaged, with the greatest destruction being seen in Aleppo and Palmyra. Syria’s heritage is being directly threatened by the military and security operations undertaken by the regime in its efforts to quash the revolution. These constitute a threat to the country’s history, its museums, ancient fortresses, archaeological sites, mosques, markets and historic cities, making the immensity of the human casualties all the more tragic.

Every day hundreds of people are killed in military offensives. Although material losses cannot be compared to the tragedy of human casualties, the loss of Syria’s history in the shape of its heritage, customs and traditions is a loss to humanity as a whole because it is a loss of 6,000 years of history and civilisation.

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