As the MIGs raced over Damascus this morning, two traffic cops – sweltering in white helmets on this hot autumn day – were slapping tickets on double parked cars near the Barada River.
More than 100,000 dead – give or take a few thousand, if you believe the statistics – and they are still issuing parking tickets. Perhaps there is something fantastical about this city. As the rebel suburbs are blasted by the planes – these explosions can be heard all over Damascus like giant bursting balloons – the middle classes are sipping cold lemon juice on the terrace of the Trattoria café in Abu Rumaneh. This isn’t “blitz spirit” or any of the other hoary clichés with which we like to gift cities at war. It’s about the willing suspension of disbelief, the idea that if you pretend the war is not there, it will not be there; that which has happened has not happened. War is the great illusion.
Behind the French-built children’s college, old Joseph Batti – of Armenian origin, although he prefers “Syrian” or just “Christian” as his appellation – claims he now has an average of one customer a day. I am today’s customer at the Ibn Sina Bookshop; yes, it really is named after the 10th Century Persian Shia doctor and philosopher from Bukhara. So why does Joseph bother to open? “Because I’ve been here for 19 years,” he says. The books are old and dusty, a pile of French paperback editions of Les Misèrables and far too many Jilly Cooper novels in English and a couple of books by Amin Maalouf. There’s a tourist section with a brochure on the partly Christian city of Maaloula on the top, although the latest tourists to visit the town came from the al-Qa’ida-friendly fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra. A recording of the Lebanese singer Joumana Medawa moans across the bookshop. When I leave Joseph gives me a stamp-sized portrait of the Virgin and Child with Angels. People think of money rather than God. This war is all about money”.
But then we come to real war. I meet an Alawite friend for lunch. And a friend of his, whom I have never met before, one Khaled Mahjoub, who doesn’t even like being called a Sunni – although that is what he is – but who calls himself an ecopreneur, an industrialist and a confidant of President Bashar al-Assad. And he is indeed close to the President. He also happens to be a cigar-maker – real Syrian cigars, believe it or not, with tobacco from Lattakia. He hands me one. It is about an inch in width. So how many dead in Syria, I ask him? “Perhaps 70,000,” he replies.
My Alawite friend thinks it’s closer to half a million, an astonishing figure. But then I ask him, how many Syrians did he know personally who have died in the past two years. “At least 30 dead, all civilians, he replies simply. “One was a policeman from my village who was shot 10 months ago. Another was an employee at Furat Petroleum, who was a guard in Deir El Zour who was kidnapped and killed. Another was a money transporter for the local Syrian mobile phone network. He was shot for the money in Homs.” I turned to Khaled. “At least 55,” he says bleakly. “Five of them because of their connections to me. Two of the dead men were cousins of my Alawite friend.
Khaled speaks loudly and his support for the President booms across the restaurant. He is a man, I suspect, who has many enemies. He looks at me grimly. “Judge me for the enemies I made”, he says. And I think he is quoting Theodore Roosevelt because Khaled has been an American citizen since 1993. Then comes the inevitable praise of Assad. “He is a leader, not a manager. He leads people and he manages things. What we need here is a Mandela-type reconciliation.” And who is Syria’s Mandela, I ask (naturally holding my breath)? “Bashar al–Assad, of course”, comes the painfully expected reply.
His economic message comes in American sound-bites. And I’m not sure I understand all of it. “We have deliverable politicians. They are tactical retail politicians. It’s about vision, not about people. Today you need to be intelligent, not smart, effective but not efficient.” And back we go to Bashar al-Assad. “I respect him for two things: insisting on keeping [President] Lahoud as President of Lebanon” [beyond his constitutional term]. I can almost hear the Lebanese screaming with anger at such a thought. “The second strategical forte of Bashar al-Assad is that he refused to do non-institutional reforms. He refused to do short-cuts.”
I shake my head at all of this. I’m still trying to puff away on his massive cigar. But it worries me, this sense of vague optimism – within six months, Mahjoub claims, things will have turned around in Syria. And I’m worried about his mere 70,000 dead. And I also remember curling up in bed the night before with The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in which William Shirer records the German bombing of Rotterdam in 1940. “It was first reported and long believed that from 25,00 to 30,000 Dutch were killed,” Shirer wrote. That was the figure given in the 1953 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But at the Nuremburg trials, the Dutch government gave the final figure as just 814 killed.
I have a feeling there is a lesson here for all those fatality statistics we imbibe on Syria. Seventy thousand? One hundred and ten thousand? Half a million? Assad’s jets were still flying over Damascus this afternoon. I suppose the only sure fact is that the figures are definitely climbing.