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
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
"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. …