In the Old City, a Bohemian Rhapsody

By Oliver August
Sunday, July 8, 2007


"Are you married?" the old lady asks, standing in our doorway at 8 a.m. She comes most days to check on who's spending the night in my house. I am her first Western neighbor, and probably also the first with a blond American girlfriend.

The old lady and I have adjoining doors on a shoulder-wide dead-end alley in the Old City of Damascus. When I moved in last year, she stopped a dark-haired American friend in the alley one afternoon and told her, "He had a woman there yesterday. And he will have another one tomorrow." Since then, I've learned that my neighbor is named Nadia. She always wears a headscarf, but she has stopped warning women about me.

I am reminded nonstop that I live among devout Muslims, many of whom were taught to distrust Westerners. Yet the reminders are increasingly drowned out by the boisterous transformation this city is undergoing. Despite American sanctions imposed four years ago, the Syrian economy is booming. Even alcohol is easy to find. A restaurant overlooking the Great Mosque, among the holiest places in Islam, just started serving drinks. This is no Iran or Iraq (even if my worried dad keeps mixing up Damascus and Baghdad on the phone).

According to President Bush's original plan, Baghdad was to be the next Prague. Once Saddam Hussein was deposed, free enterprise and Bohemianism would sweep away the ghosts of the past. Four years after the arrival of U.S. troops, neither enterprise nor Bohemianism is much in evidence in the Iraqi capital. But next door in Damascus, newfound hedonism is facing Arab hopelessness head-on.

The Syrian capital is enjoying something of a return to historical rank. In the 7th century A.D., it was the capital of the Muslim world, the seat of the first caliphate. Then, in A.D. 750, the capital moved to Baghdad and a rivalry was born, continuing into the 20th century and the establishment of rival Baath parties. With the seat of the second caliphate now brought low, the first is resurgent. Unemployment is still high and oil is in short supply, but Syria is calm. In the Middle East, that counts as good news.

The Syrian government is still following the authoritarian Baathist ideology. And it has built an alliance with Iran that's straining relations with the United States. But Syria's shackled stability is a sign of hope to some in a time of vastly downsized expectations.

Syria's neighbors are paying attention. They see that President Bashar al-Assad is the only leader in the region who's feeling more secure about his position now than he did a few years back, when analysts predicted his downfall after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Then, Syria was next on the neocon hit list.

How different things look now. Regime change is less likely than at any time since President Bill Clinton left the White House. Assad began his second seven-year term on June 17 (Enrique Iglesias crooned at a post-inauguration party). Television images of Iraq's mayhem have made many Syrians cautious about swift political change. Rather than feeling emboldened by Hussein's fall, they're frightened. Stick with what works, even poorly, seems to be the popular sentiment.

Assad has shrewdly capitalized on this by paying more attention to popular aspirations. He has eased restrictions on free enterprise and on international trade. One of the most isolated places in the Middle East until recently, Syria is importing consumer goods, exporting workers and hosting any cash-laden foreigner who wants in.

There are Saudis -- hedonists in the extreme under their white robes. Less welcome in the West after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they come to the Four Seasons Hotel to find female company. There are also Iraqis, more than 1 million of whom have taken refuge in Damascus, a city of 3 million. Many are poor and uprooted by war, but others have brought in vast amounts of oil money.

And then there are Westerners like me -- language students, escape artists, volcano dancers, "Lawrence of Arabia" dreamers. We saw "Syriana." Perhaps we misunderstood the movie. Everything is connected, the poster said, intimating a conspiracy involving Gulf region princes, CIA operatives, corporate raiders and oil companies.

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