Champagne Flows While Syria Burns

By Di Giovanni, Janine | Newsweek, July 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Champagne Flows While Syria Burns


Di Giovanni, Janine, Newsweek


Byline: Janine Di Giovanni

A country at war with itself. Bombs and civilian massacres. Yet, in Damascus, the music plays on.

By the pool, glistening, oiled, and muscular bodies gyrated to a juiced-up version of Adele's "Someone Like You." Atop huge speakers, a Russian dancer swayed suggestively in front of the young, beautiful Syrian set drinking imported Lebanese beer with salt and lemon. Behind them, columns of smoke were rising--signs of car bombs and explosions, of an encroaching war.

One woman in a tight swimsuit playfully squirted a water gun, joking that she belonged to the pro-government militia, the Shabiha, meaning ghosts or thugs, which is believed to be responsible for a recent massacre of more than 100 people, many of them women and children. "The opposition wants to kill us--they even announced it on Facebook," the woman said, and blithely went back to spraying herself with water.

The pool party at the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus was just getting started.

For 15 months now, Syria has been engaged in increasingly bloody fighting, pitting antigovernment rebels against the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad, costing the lives of at least 10,000 people, according to the United Nations. What began as a protest against his autocratic rule has developed into a violent conflict with sectarian overtones that now threatens to spill into neighboring countries.

For journalists, Syria has been difficult and dangerous to cover, and many dispatches have focused on the rebels' fight to overthrow the dictator in cities and villages such as Homs and Houla. Life in the capital among the pro-Assad elite is less known to the outside world. What emerges from a recent trip to Damascus, and conversations with dozens of people there who say they still support the government, is a deep sense of dread, kept at bay by distraction and, perhaps, delusion. Damascus has long been a stronghold of Assad supporters who count many Alawites and Christians but also (mostly secular) Sunnis. To them, Assad is a guarantor of stability. And many express fear that if the rebels win, they will turn Syria into a more conservative religious country, along the lines of Saudi Arabia or Yemen. But with government forces unable to quell the uprising, the scariest scenario now also seems the most likely: continued fighting widening into a civil war.

For days, I listened to the thumping music and watched the beauties in their fluorescent Victoria's Secret bikinis partying at the pool at the Dama Rose Hotel, where I was staying. (More than once, I thought of Nero fiddling as Rome burned.) Syria, I realized, has become a schizophrenic place; a place where people's realities no longer connect.

On one hand, there are the (in Damascus, largely invisible) activists who are trying to bring down Assad. By the time I arrived, shelling, gunfire, and a spate of "sticky bombs"--handmade bombs taped to the bottom of a car at the height of rush hour--had spawned fear in the capital and solidified anger against the opposition, which the government claims is supported by "foreign interventionists."

There were daily clashes in suburbs such as Douma and Barzeh, and, according to human-rights groups, there are currently as many as 35,000 people being held in Syrian detention.

On the other hand, there is a class of Assad supporters who go about their daily business--pool parties included--while the skyline burns. As if the war is happening in some other place, people drink champagne in the Damascus neighborhood of Mezzah and partake in glamorous fashion photo shoots and go shopping for Versace and Missoni at the luxurious boutiques that line the Shukri al Quatli Street. Despite armed checkpoints and the threat of kidnapping, some still go out at night, attending the opera, meeting friends for dinner, and hosting elaborate wedding parties at the upscale restaurant Le Jardin. …

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