How Assad turned Yarmouk into a living hell

Shane Bauer writes: There was a circle of friends who lived on the southern edge of Damascus in a district called Yarmouk. They were artists, mainly. Actors, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians. Their neighborhood was a maze of alleys and tightly packed, four-story cement block buildings, and it smelled faintly sweet and dusty. On the roofs, the friends would sometimes sit to smoke cigarettes and look toward a horizon filled with rusted satellite dishes and rooftop water tanks. They could see laundry hung out of windows and rugs draped over balconies. In the evenings, they could watch men flying pigeons from their rooftop coops. Off to the west, they could see Mount Hermon, and if it was winter, there would be snow on it.

There were many sounds: children playing soccer in the alleys, men advertising the watermelons they pushed around on wooden carts, stereo-projected voices calling the devout to prayer. In between the honking of horns and vrooming of motorcycles there were the coos of pigeons, the dings of bicycle bells, the gossip of neighbors.

The scent of food always beckoned on Yarmouk Street: warm, cheese-filled pastries dripping with sugary syrup; the best falafel in Damascus; pizzalike things called fata’ir that came in 10 different varieties and cast tantalizing scents a block away. People were poor in Yarmouk, more so than in most of Damascus, but there was always much food. Many had large bellies.

Who then could conceive that imams would one day announce it was no longer religiously taboo to eat cats or donkeys? Women and children couldn’t yet dream they would soon be sifting through the grass for edible weeds. No one could imagine that on a street outside some apartments, there would be a little pile of cat heads next to men and children flaying the mangy animals and boiling them in a pot.

From the edge of Yarmouk, above the distant buildings miles away, the friends could see the house of Bashar al-Assad, sitting high up on a hill. They did not like him. People they knew had gone to prison for suggesting an alternative political vision, however subtly. They felt so choked by his secret police that when someone they didn’t know showed up at a party, they regarded him with suspicion and measured their words. Sharing a cigarette laced with hashish at the edge of Yarmouk, they would joke about the eyes of the dictator being upon them, and they would laugh cynically.


Among this group of friends were Hassan and Waed. (I’m withholding their last names to protect their families.) Hassan was a budding actor and playwright, and Waed had been a student of English literature. They were a handsome couple, both in their mid-20s. Waed was reserved compared to most of the group, but sharp and self-possessed, with gentle eyes and long, wavy hair. Hassan had a long face, a head of shiny black curls, and dense, dark eyebrows that arched high when he became excited. He loved to joke about things — ridiculous things, like the schlocky keyboard players who perform at weddings, and serious things, like how his grandparents’ honeymoon in 1948 consisted of being driven out of their homes in Palestine — “life’s a bitch” — and coming to Syria. [Continue reading…]

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