On Streets of Syria’s Capital, Even the Sweet Is Sour

Adnan Gimaah was perhaps the sourest purveyor of sweets in the old souk of Damascus.

If a customer questioned the quality of his wares, he snorted impatiently. If they haggled too hard, he invited them to leave. His idea of small talk was to grumble about the phone bill his wife incurred in nightly calls to their son, a homesick refugee in Germany.

“Costing me a fortune,” he said.

Still, it was impossible to miss the humor that undergirded his gruff manner, and the customers seemed to like it. It matched the mood of the city: a fatigued capital with an increasingly threadbare air, trapped in an interminable season of war.

Damascus is shielded from the worst of Syria’s turmoil and violence, yet filled with those who have suffered from it — the displaced, the bereaved, those seeking to flee — and so everything, even the candy, is laced with a layer of skepticism.

“What you do you mean, what’s in it?” Mr. Gimaah snapped at an elderly woman who had sat down on a couch in the back of his century-old shop and was chewing a mlabbas, a sugarcoated almond. “Aren’t you eating it?”

The woman’s name was Najieh Dahir, and she hailed from Deir al-Zour, a besieged city in the far east of the country. In fleeing to Damascus, she had been forced to leave behind her daughter, who was trapped in a neighborhood controlled by the Islamic State and living in fear. “One wrong move, and they’ll cut the hand off,” the mother said, matter-of-factly. “Or they can take you as a slave.”

She had also left her husband behind, but was less bothered by that. “He’s no use to me anymore,” she said impatiently. “He hasn’t sent any money. I hope a shell lands on him.”

Mr. Gimaah, in apparent appreciation of the black humor, allowed himself a little smile. Mrs. Dahir ordered two kilos of mlabbas, then hurried home.

A picture of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was draped across a nearby lane. Mr. Assad is a ubiquitous presence in the rump state that he rules, watching from portraits in immigration halls, crowded city streets and desolate army bases. He has a variety of looks: the sharp-suited statesman, the windswept military commander in khaki and shades, or the fearless leader posing with a bear.

But as the war drags into its sixth year, Mr. Assad has been joined in the images by the foreign leaders who have played a crucial role in keeping him in power: Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whose warplanes have mounted devastating attacks on opposition-controlled areas, including, many believe, the bombing last week of a hospital in Aleppo that killed at least 55 civilians.

Mr. Assad rules from a hilltop palace overlooking Damascus — a city that, despite continuing fighting in some rebel-held suburbs, is firmly in his grip. His early plans to modernize Syria have given way in the last five years to the iron-fisted authoritarianism of his father, Hafez al-Assad. Yet the city has managed to preserve a tenuous air of normalcy, at least in its downtown districts. Fashionable weddings spill through the streets on the weekends; the wealthy still gather for meals and to smoke water pipes at plush restaurants and bars.

The opera house intermittently offers musical productions, and TV studios are filming drama series, which enjoy a huge following in the Arabic-speaking world. There are few signs of the Russians who have played such a decisive military role over the last six months.

But for the most part, Syria, once a middle-income country, has only a tiny minority who can still afford the good life. Many young Syrians have fled abroad, either in search of work or to avoid military conscription. More than half the prewar population has been displaced.

Some of those who remain have pawned their gold, a traditional last resort, to cover their living expenses. “Everything is changing. We can feel it,” said Waddah Abd Rabbo, editor in chief of Al Watan, a private newspaper. “The people are tired. And the state is under such great strain, it’s a kind of miracle that it’s still going.”

Across the city, tattered posters from the recent parliamentary election cover the walls. Few people, however, feel comfortable speaking openly about politics, particularly with foreigners, like me — who are accompanied by an official from the ministry of information.

There is little enthusiasm for the faltering peace talks in Geneva, which seem to many Syrians like an abstraction at best and an exercise in cynical maneuvering at worst. But frustration with the war-induced hardships is never far from the surface, and unlikely events can become sucked into the war’s paranoid politics.

After a fire swept through one corner of the old city last week, torching over 100 shops and businesses, rumors quickly circulated on the Internet that Iran, another of Mr. Assad’s close allies, was somehow responsible. The official explanation was more prosaic: faulty electrical wiring.

The next day, Anas Kanoos picked his way through the steaming rubble of his toy store, trying to salvage what he could.

Mr. Kanoos was downcast: The business, which consisted of two stores, had been in his family since his grandfather. They had already lost one store, in the Damascus suburbs, to fighting during the war.

He kicked a pile of steaming children’s slippers. Then he picked up his phone and started making calls. Time to plan for a rebuilding. “What else can we do?” he said.

Some Syrians, trying to see past their country’s anguish, are choosing to consider events in the broader sweep of history. The city’s Great Mosque, a magnificent site revered as one of the holiest in Islam, once drew a stream of pilgrims. Today, that traffic has dried up, but the mosque itself remains untouched.

One recent evening, flocks of warbling swallows rose and fell in unison over the mosque’s ancient courtyard. Inside, the caretaker, Salim al-Rifai, 85, watched over a small shrine that, according to legend, contains the head of John the Baptist.

The change in Syria in the past five years was “the difference between sky and earth,” Mr. Rifai said, fingering his beads as he spoke. But even the worst calamities did not last forever, he added: “This, too, will pass.”

The sound of a distant explosion filtered into the mosque. Mr. Rifai ignored it.

First, though, he said, his countrymen needed to change. “We need to believe in God and do what he asks of us,” he said. “And we need to help each other to be human again.”