Syrian Renaissance Darkened by Prospect of War

Article excerpt

It's past 11 p.m. in the trendy Pitstop cafe in central Damascus. We're in the last days of Ramadan, so the cafe - like the streets outside - is bustling. At the table next to us, two young women, enjoying an evening out over a latte and a traditional hubble- bubble pipe, symbolize the way a new generation of Syrians is creating its own modernity from "Eastern" and "Western" sources.

One of the young women wears the hair-concealing head scarf of an observant Muslim tucked into the neck of her stylish pantsuit. The other, tossing flowing J-Lo locks as she talks, could be either a secular Muslim or one of the 15 percent of Syrians who belong to the country's ancient Christian churches. Young women having a night out together without a male chaperone: until recently, you wouldn't see that in many Arab countries. And in many of them, you still don't.

If there's much that's new in 21st-century Syria, the easy social interaction between local Muslims and Christians, in general, is traditional.

For example, my Syrian Christian friend Mahat Khoury took me to a traditional Ramadan iftar meal at the ultrasnob Club de l'Orient. As we waited at our food-laden table for the prayer permitting Muslims to break their day-long fast, several of Mrs. Khoury's Muslim friends came to greet us warmly. Many of the family groups there had a mix of head-scarved and free-hair women - all seeming to have fun together.

"We really do have a tolerant society," one high government official told me. "The degree of anyone's religious observance, or what particular religion a person belongs to, is really a personal matter. Other people respect that. That's how we get along."

I've been traveling to this lovely city of minarets, nestled between a large mountain and the desert, since 1970. Today, I see Damascus poised on a knife-edge between a palpable sense of new excitement and a strong sense of fear. Much of the excitement stems from the hopes foreconomic and political liberalization sparked by the new-generation president, Bashar al-Assad, inaugurated in 2000 after the passing of his father, the previous president. The fear stems from the prospect that a US-led war on neighboring Iraq would create regional turmoil.

Signs of the nation's renaissance include the adoption of new means of communication by many. There's been a steady growth in Internet access, and Syrian studios now produce a lot of the Arab world's TV programming.

Syrians particularly like watching TV during Ramadan. This year, there was a new series called "Spotlight" that intrigued viewers by poking an unprecedented amount of fun at Mr. Assad. In one episode, he was portrayed as bumbling and wooden at an Arab summit, while his Lebanese counterpart sycophantically agreed with everything he said.

"Suddenly, people are not sure where the 'red lines' on freedom of speech are any more," one Syrian friend commented.

Not all the signs are good. …