At Damascus University, Syria’s oldest and largest institution of higher education, students casually stroll the sprawling campus. Female students sport salon-fresh locks or smart white headscarves. Skinny jeans are still in fashion.
The sounds are of fountains and chirping birds, not of bombs. A naïve tourist could be forgiven for forgetting there is a brutal war tearing apart Aleppo, a city 200 miles to the north, or that armed opposition groups continue to have a foothold in the capital itself.
But there are no tourists here. My NPR colleague Peter Kenyon and I were at the university for a government-approved conference this week, which offered a rare opportunity for foreign journalists to visit Damascus.
As a journalist based in Beirut, covering Syria for the past 4 1/2 years, I spend hours each day communicating via Skype, Whatsapp and Facebook with Syrians suffering the unimaginable: hunger, bombings and siege. Some are living in areas surrounded and under fire by hard-line opposition groups, others by ISIS, and still more, are under attack by their own government.
As I leave the campus and walk through the streets of Damascus, bustling with cars, couples and children, I wonder how many of the capital’s residents have grown used to the strange paradox of life during wartime.
Did they lose a brother serving in the army or perhaps in a rebel brigade? How many had relatives kidnapped by the gangs that have sprung up amid the chaos? Maybe they had a son or daughter thrown in prison for joining the protests in those early days of the uprising in 2011.
I wonder if they changed their minds about the upheaval when they saw hard-line jihadists rise to prominence and vow to take their cosmopolitan city. Do they believe it was the government’s crackdown that pushed the protesters to arms and drove throngs of young dreamers from the country?
Many here seem to be carrying on with grace and dignity, even enjoying mundane, simple pleasures — like the teenage girls and a 40-something man snapping selfies in front of a giant “I (Heart) Damascus” sculpture in a main square.
At the phone carrier, Syriatel, the salesman helping me set up a local cell number asked if I could be patient while he helped two trainees, a man and a woman, learn the ropes. It was a good opportunity to register a mobile to someone with a foreign passport, in this case, a U.S. passport. He walked us through each step, gently reminding them to get the passport number right and asking with care if I wanted an “nice number” — one easy to memorize.
When the time came to pay, I realized I was just short of the Syrian pounds needed. There would be no credit card fallback or paying in dollars like I can in neighboring Lebanon. In Syria, cash is king; sanctions have stifled whatever global financial engagement the country was adopting before the war.
Maybe the Syriatel salesman blamed the U.S. government for imposing sanctions, but if so, he didn’t let on. Almost bashful, he told me not to worry and that I could come back anytime before closing to bring the money.
So began my odyssey to find a place to change my American dollars. After going along the street from bank to bank, holding out hope for the Lebanese branches, I realized I’d have to go across town to the Central Bank district, where I’d find exchange offices.
I flagged down a cab, agreeing to pay him at the end of our errands. We wound through Damascus traffic, finally arriving at our destination, a private exchange office on a tree-lined street, in sight of the imposing Central Bank. Changing $500 to be safe, I received in return wads of Syrian 500-pound notes bound in rubber bands.
The teller handed me a black plastic bag to keep my transaction out of sight and a receipt, signed and stamped, with the official exchange rate of 514 Syrian pounds to the dollar. The government maintains this rate despite the existence of the black market, which pays slightly better.
Back to my cab and I was on my way again through traffic, back at Syriatel to deliver the 4,000 Syrian pounds I owed. The salesman and his trainees smiled graciously and I went out the door, feeling more conscious of how cut off we were from the rest of the world.
It was time to get back to the British Syrian Society conference my colleague and I were attending. I had missed the panel on the impact of sanctions.