Many faces of a troubled land

A land of time, of myth, of warmth, of callousness and of the power hungry – Syria is a land of spirit. As Maya Irvine, a Syrian friend now living in Abu Dhabi, told Daisy Dumas, "it will survive". I spoke to her about her memories of a childhood in Syria.

  • A love letter to the old Syria

Since it's now Ramadan, I'm reminded of the calls to prayer. This is very special in Damascus - the muezzins are chosen for their beautiful voices, clear pronunciation and expression - it creates an atmosphere of eerie romance, touching Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

There's no doubt, this gives the city, particularly the old city within the city walls, a very special charm and character not replicated anywhere else that I've been. This is also the time when all the street vendors sell the special Ramadan treats.

I recall when we were kids, standing on our balconies, waiting to hear the calls of the vendors as they round the corner into sight – and try to be the first to run down and get the naem [a crepe with date molasses] whilst they're still fresh and hot. Beautiful aromas and tastes. Where we lived kids didn't observe the fast. In Syria you don't have to hide if you're not fasting.

In my day, some did it, some didn't – no stigma attached either way. Things were free and easy then. I had many friends of different religions, Christian, Jew and Muslim, and we neither knew nor cared. Damascus is an ancient city where these three main religions have lived for hundreds of years in harmony - each enjoying the feasts and celebrations of the other as neighbours and friends - how I miss those days. We always had Christmas trees and we're not a Christian family.

In the '60s, nobody cared about what religion anyone belonged to, you were simply a decent person or not. Now, not only are you queried on your religion, but also on which sect. Why does it matter now when it didn't then?

Damascus has a special smell - jasmine. It's a smell that's remained in my senses since I left in 1973 - any departed Damascene will tell you they miss the smell of jasmine. When I think back to those days in Damascus, my heart skips a beat - I love this country - the Syria of my memories.

These were good innocent times - full of friendship when we enjoyed simple pleasures with a free spirit. Life was simpler, people were simpler, less expectations, more happiness, a more-level playing field - no flashy cars - even the president only had a little Fiat.

When I think back to how life in Damascus used to be, I'm saddened for the young of Damascus now. We didn't know fear. We didn't have militia roaming around the streets - in more recent years these militia have been little more than thugs. At least now there is a cause. We didn't have to wear hijabs as a badge of the club we're a member of. The atmosphere was completely different. Maybe I'm being just a little selective - we did have pretty regular coups for a period of time - until the current regime won their coup and started the oppressive and repressive era that seems now to be coming to an end.

There is a mistrust of others now that we never knew. I watch the news and see hatred between brethren. Where did the innocence go? People are chasing their basic needs, bread on the table, bills to be paid, and schooling for their children. Religion has overtaken rational thinking.

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In the '60s, nobody cared about what religion anyone belonged to, you were simply a decent person or not. Now, not only are you queried on your religion, but also on which sect. Why does it matter now when it didn't then?

Our pride used to be for our country first, our friends, our families, our neighbourhood. The divisiveness that has been spawned from too many years of a selfish regime has created an unhappy country – Damascus is no longer a place to enjoy spontaneous happiness, the joy of hearing the banter between shopkeepers, waiters and customers … how can a clique get pleasure from the knowledge of how they've killed the spirit of the people? So that's what's happening now – the people are expressing their bottled-up passion for the lifestyle we had and no longer enjoy.

Fear and mistrust is pernicious in Damascus and throughout Syria. People, young and old, are afraid to express their views for fear of imprisonment or worse. The wrong word in the wrong ear … Even saying this, I have to be aware of potential repercussions for my friends and family who still live in Damascus.

Today, the first week of Ramadan, the people of Damascus are probably only thinking of and hoping for a new era of freedom on the horizon.

The most special thing about Syria is the people, the lilt of the spoken Arabic, the sense of humour, the deep love of their country and thirst for knowledge of other cultures and societies.

When we have an open and transparent government, others around the world will be able to enjoy what we have to offer.

A sense of fairness, generosity, and hospitality set Syrians apart. Growing up in Damascus, I would often meet young people from other parts of the world on the "Hippie Trail". Many are the times we would have them come and stay with us. To this day my mother complains of "all those dirty hippies that came to stay in our house" – but they were always welcomed and they never left without having a good meal in their bellies.

The vendor who gave food and drink to potential customers (clever marketing!), the villager providing access to their home for strangers in need - these are some of the older, trusting and perhaps naive values that were once prevalent. Modern policy is now driven by neighbours with more oil than sense - and some other neighbours who are not very neighbourly.

When I was young, Friday afternoons and all day on Sundays were our days off school. These were the days I recall with relish.

Friday was a family day. We'd go to the countryside of Bloudan to lunch with other families, kids on one table, grown-ups on another. We would be eager to finish so we could run off to play on the swings.

On Sundays we'd go out with our friends to play on the streets - hide and seek or sometimes acting out the latest Fairuz play, rehearsing so we could give a show to our parents.

We'd create concoctions from what was available in our kitchens to go out and sell sweets or we would swap with other kids to enjoy their concoctions. We didn't have many toys - we'd invent games and amuse ourselves with what we had to hand.

We'd have breakfast of cheese, labneh, thyme and olive oil, homemade jam on buttered bread - and then run outside to play. By midday all you'd hear is the sound of our mums on the balconies calling for their kids to come home for lunch - the main meal of the day - usually vegetable stew with rice and salad and an extra vegetable dish. We'd have to eat up before dad arrived so that he and my mum could eat quietly with their guests; we would often have visitors from Lebanon and other parts of Syria staying with us. We'd be asked to go out and play whilst the adults enjoyed a siesta after their lunch.

We hardly watched TV – mainly because there was little of interest to engage our imaginations. By around seven we'd be back home for a dinner of boiled eggs, cheese and fruits and then off to bed - dreaming of what we'd get up to the next day. I had a wonderful, carefree childhood.

We would look forward to the coups – it was an infamous period in our history as various factions vied for supremacy. We were not obliged to go to school and we had curfews in the evenings. So we would just have more time to invent more games. During curfews I had enough friends to play with in my two other sisters and brother.

The seriousness of the coups escaped us; we didn't understand their significance or why our parents were looking increasingly concerned . They knew where it was all leading and feared for our future.

Slowly, as we moved into the seventies, things started to change in our country. The promises of a better life and the liberation of Palestine didn't materialise. Instead we found ourselves in an environment of fear, people disappeared if they disagreed with the regime - land was “nationalised”, with no apparent benefit for anyone and people became afraid to express their views and opinions.

On a visit to Damascus a few years after having left, I remember my usual eagerness as the plane is coming in to land being replaced by a feeling of being “removed”, not belonging – this feeling stayed with me for some days – dirty streets, women in veils, uncontrolled traffic – nothing like my memories of this beautiful city. I was disappointed. Then I went to the old city and saw the tired faces, struggling people with sadness in their eyes … and burst into tears. I had not considered how lucky I was to not have a son in prison, to not have my house watched day and night.

My country had been stolen by the greed and selfishness of a regime that pretends to care for its country and its people, but only really cares for itself.

Damascus has survived many wars and it will survive this one too.

Hama [1982] is still very fresh in the minds of all Syrians. The massacre was not perpetrated by an enemy, but by Syrians against Syrians. It was and remains a graphic example of oppression.

The obvious result is an increasing enmity towards the ruling regime and those associated with it.

I was in Damascus when it was happening and my husband was in Amman. He called to ask if we were OK, despite what was going on in Hama. We had no idea that anything was going on – there was no news – which is still the case when an oppressive regime controls what the populace can and cannot be told. The big difference now is that other media can spread news around the world in seconds, so even when the regime restricts access to news, the people can now be informed.

The ancient stupidity of the current regime almost beggars belief. How can they imagine that such oppression can continue in the modern, enlightened world that Syrians would like to be a part of?

I wouldn't wish the oppression that Syrians have suffered under the Assads on any nation.

For many, many years Syrians have been just trying to get along with their lives as best they could. Those with the means have fled the country for a better life.

The oppression of the Assad regime, particularly the father, was total and brutal. Any dissension would result in punishment – like the school bully without any teachers to tell him to stop.

What happened in Hama in '82 was an example of the Assad form of “management”; they were not toeing the line, so they were killed.

An alternative leader has never appeared.

There are still external pressures and agendas and even now, the outcome of the uprising is not in the hands of the people: it's in the hands of larger, foreign powers.

In the past, despite their suffering, Syrians have accepted that the status quo was better than the alternative, but that's no longer the case.

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