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Returning To Damascus, A City Changed By War

Dec 1, 2016
Originally published on December 1, 2016 5:50 am

When I last visited Damascus in 2008, the historic Old City district was full of Western students learning Arabic. Before bloody conflicts engulfed them, both Damascus and the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, were favorites with foreigners seeking to learn Arabic.

Eight years ago, U.S. student Kara Francis told me that while she did have to field some questions about then-President George W. Bush, she never felt looked down on for being American.

"No, to the contrary, every time I tell a Syrian that I'm American, they just get really happy and excited," she said back then. "And you know, they tell me that they don't like Bush, and I tell them that I don't either."

In November, I spent a week in Damascus and found things are different now. The foreign students are gone. Nearly six years of conflict have killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displaced millions more. The Obama administration has repeatedly called for President Bashar Assad to step down, and anti-American feelings are abundant.

That's in large part, Syrians say, because of the brutal devastation wrought by a war that neither Western powers, regional actors, Russia nor the U.N. seem willing or able to stop. Those hard feelings are reinforced daily by the preferred news outlets here — state-run television and RT, the Russian broadcaster that serves up a steady diet of negative stories about the U.S.

Damascus still has places like Café Rawda, a popular downtown hangout for intellectuals, artists and academics. It's known as a place to find unusually candid opinions – philosophical, political or otherwise – in a city where dissent can be uncovered and punished by the authorities with shocking speed.

Those conversations are probably still taking place, but on this visit, I didn't get to hear them. Once the management learned of my presence, I was asked to leave — not for being a reporter, but for being an American reporter.

At another, smaller café a few blocks away, I met Mohammad, who greeted me with the warmth and politeness I remember from eight years ago. He agreed to answer my questions if I didn't reveal his family name or where he works. In this tightly controlled state, even explaining what's wrong with American foreign policy requires permission.

He said anti-American feelings are stronger now, but it's not just the USA.

"Actually, we don't just hate America, it's all the Western powers, everyone standing back and watching Syria get consumed by war or adding to the killing for their own reasons," he said. "We have no good feeling towards the American government, of course, after many years of bad policies. We watched Iraq crumble and never imagined it could happen here."

Every country has at least one national myth: America was the melting pot where immigrants came to build a new life. Many Syrians still like to think of their country as the moderate, pan-Arab peacemaker that strove to hold a fractious region together. Now people wonder if Syria can hold itself together.

Mohammad said the Syrians who are dying in their homes and in the ocean fleeing to Europe know what it would take to silence the guns – but it's out of their hands.

"To stop this war, everyone knows we need an agreement between Russia and America," he said — adding, perhaps a bit hopefully, "If they agree, it will stop immediately."

I got in touch with Mohammad again after Donald Trump's election as U.S. president to see what he thought.

He said the Syrian government will probably be happy with the election results, given Trump's oft-stated wish to get along with Russia. But he's not convinced it will bring peace. What if Trump and Putin agree, in Mohammad's words, to "keep the Syrian fire pit burning?"

He says a friend of his, a visual artist, is planning a new series of works. It will explore the theme of "insanity taking over the world."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's open a line now to Damascus. Syria's capital is firmly under the control of President Bashar al-Assad despite years of civil war. The many changes in the city include a rise in anti-American sentiment. NPR's Peter Kenyon was in Damascus eight years ago and recently went there again.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: When I last visited Damascus in 2008, the historic district was full of Western students learning Arabic. Student Kara Francis told me she didn't feel looked down on for being American, though she did have to field questions about then-President George W. Bush.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KARA FRANCIS: No, to the contrary. Every time I tell a Syrian that I'm American, they just get really excited and happy. And, you know, they say that they don't like Bush. And I tell them I don't either (laughter).

KENYON: But things are different now. Nearly six years of conflict have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more. The Obama administration has repeatedly called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Anti-American feelings are abundant, even here in Cafe Rawda.

This downtown Damascus cafe has long been a favorite with intellectuals, artists - anyone who enjoys a lively debate. It's a place known for candid opinions in a city where dissent can be uncovered and punished by the authorities with shocking speed. Those conversations are probably still taking place, but I didn't get to hear them. Once the management learned of my presence, I was invited to leave - not for being a reporter, for being an American reporter. Much of the media available to the average Damascus resident is either state-controlled or Russian and heavily anti-American.

At another, smaller cafe a few blocks away, I meet Mohammad, who agrees to answer my questions if I don't reveal his family name or where he works. In this tightly controlled state, even explaining what's wrong with American foreign policy requires permission. He says anti-American feelings are stronger now, but it's not just the USA.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) Actually, we don't just hate America. It's all the Western powers, everyone standing back and watching Syria get consumed by war or adding to the killing for their own reasons. We have no good feelings towards the American government, of course, after many years of bad policies. We watched Iraq crumble and never imagined it could happen here.

KENYON: Many Syrians still like to think of their country as the moderate pan-Arab peacemaker that strove to hold a fractious region together. Now people wonder if Syria can hold itself together. Mohammad says the Syrians dying in their homes and on the ocean fleeing to Europe know what it would take to silence the guns. But it's out of their hands.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) To stop this war, everyone knows we need an agreement between Russia and America. If they agree, it will stop immediately.

KENYON: This interview took place days before Donald Trump's surprising election win. So I got in touch with Mohammad again to see what he thinks. He says the Syrian government will probably be happy, given Trump's wish to get along with Russia. But he's not convinced it will bring peace. What if Trump and Putin agree, in Mohammad's words, to keep the Syrian fire pit burning? He says a friend of his, a visual artist, is planning a new series of works, exploring the theme of insanity taking over the world.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Damascus.

(SOUNDBITE OF IBRAHIM MAALOUF'S "ILLUSIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.