“In the Old City, a Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Oliver August

The following is a fun article by Oliver August that came out in the Washington Post. He was just leaving Damascus as I was arriving. Damian Quinn of the BBC and now writing for Syria Today arranged a dinner on the eve of his departure at the Journalists' Union Club, which was appropriate because Deborah Amos of National Public Radio and a few others journalists were there.

Here is a photo I took at Leila's Restaurant which is on the roof of an old house overlooking the Umayyad Mosque. Oliver speaks of it in his article as having just acquired a liquor licence, which my wife and I discovered was true! We were quite surprised because the old city restaurants used to be divided between those that served alcohol and those that do not. The restaurants in the Christian Quarter of Bab Touma could serve alcohol. Those in the Muslim quarters could not – at least that was what everyone said. This was done in order not to offend religious sensibilities and to keep the delicate balance of the old city on the straight and narrow. You can imagine our surprise when we discovered that good Lebanese wine was suggested with our meal. Leila's is almost touching the greatest and oldest mosque in all of Syria and smack dab in the middle of the Muslim quarters. Too be fair, it must be added that before being converted into a mosque, it was a church. John the Baptist also has a tomb inside it, which is revered by both Muslims and Christians. So perhaps having a bit of wine along its walls is not such a novelty in the great span of things.

Manar, Shaboula at Layla's
Manar and Shaboula (three and a half years old) at Leila's

Anyway, Manar had a suspicion about the reasons behind the change in drinking rules at the restaurant and wanted to test her theory. She waved to a few waiters who were standing by and asked them who the owner of the restaurant was. Before long they were all biyqaqiyying and doing the Coastal Mountain, which-village-are-you-from routine. Her theory was right. We got a free platter of fruit and coffee after our meal, which cost a little over $20 dollars a person including the wine; the tip was large.

Leila's Restaurant Next to Umayyad Mosque
Leila's Restaurant next to the Umayyad Mosque

Leila's is one of the most beautiful night spots in Damascus and it serves the best Kebab Halabi with spicy sauce in town. I dare say it is almost as good as the Aleppine original, but you have to go to Aleppo for Kebab with cherry sauce. It is also a favorite dinner spot of the President and his wife.

In the Old City, a Bohemian Rhapsody
By Oliver August
Sunday, July 8, 2007; B02


"Are you married?" the old lady asks, standing in our doorway at 8 a.m. She comes most days to check on who's spending the night in my house. I am her first Western neighbor, and probably also the first with a blond American girlfriend.

The old lady and I have adjoining doors on a shoulder-wide dead-end alley in the Old City of Damascus. When I moved in last year, she stopped a dark-haired American friend in the alley one afternoon and told her, "He had a woman there yesterday. And he will have another one tomorrow." Since then, I've learned that my neighbor is named Nadia. She always wears a headscarf, but she has stopped warning women about me.

I am reminded nonstop that I live among devout Muslims, many of whom were taught to distrust Westerners. Yet the reminders are increasingly drowned out by the boisterous transformation this city is undergoing. Despite American sanctions imposed four years ago, the Syrian economy is booming. Even alcohol is easy to find. A restaurant overlooking the Great Mosque, among the holiest places in Islam, just started serving drinks. This is no Iran or Iraq (even if my worried dad keeps mixing up Damascus and Baghdad on the phone).

According to President Bush's original plan, Baghdad was to be the next Prague. Once Saddam Hussein was deposed, free enterprise and Bohemianism would sweep away the ghosts of the past. Four years after the arrival of U.S. troops, neither enterprise nor Bohemianism is much in evidence in the Iraqi capital. But next door in Damascus, newfound hedonism is facing Arab hopelessness head-on.

The Syrian capital is enjoying something of a return to historical rank. In the 7th century A.D., it was the capital of the Muslim world, the seat of the first caliphate. Then, in A.D. 750, the capital moved to Baghdad and a rivalry was born, continuing into the 20th century and the establishment of rival Baath parties. With the seat of the second caliphate now brought low, the first is resurgent. Unemployment is still high and oil is in short supply, but Syria is calm. In the Middle East, that counts as good news.

The Syrian government is still following the authoritarian Baathist ideology. And it has built an alliance with Iran that's straining relations with the United States. But Syria's shackled stability is a sign of hope to some in a time of vastly downsized expectations.

Syria's neighbors are paying attention. They see that President Bashar al-Assad is the only leader in the region who's feeling more secure about his position now than he did a few years back, when analysts predicted his downfall after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Then, Syria was next on the neocon hit list.

How different things look now. Regime change is less likely than at any time since President Bill Clinton left the White House. Assad began his second seven-year term on June 17 (Enrique Iglesias crooned at a post-inauguration party). Television images of Iraq's mayhem have made many Syrians cautious about swift political change. Rather than feeling emboldened by Hussein's fall, they're frightened. Stick with what works, even poorly, seems to be the popular sentiment.

Assad has shrewdly capitalized on this by paying more attention to popular aspirations. He has eased restrictions on free enterprise and on international trade. One of the most isolated places in the Middle East until recently, Syria is importing consumer goods, exporting workers and hosting any cash-laden foreigner who wants in.

There are Saudis — hedonists in the extreme under their white robes. Less welcome in the West after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they come to the Four Seasons Hotel to find female company. There are also Iraqis, more than 1 million of whom have taken refuge in Damascus, a city of 3 million. Many are poor and uprooted by war, but others have brought in vast amounts of oil money.

And then there are Westerners like me — language students, escape artists, volcano dancers, "Lawrence of Arabia" dreamers. We saw "Syriana." Perhaps we misunderstood the movie. Everything is connected, the poster said, intimating a conspiracy involving Gulf region princes, CIA operatives, corporate raiders and oil companies.

Everything is connected, just not in that way.

Outside my front door in the Old City, where humans have lived continuously for the past 5,000 years, the giddiness is palpable.

A couple of months ago, I went to a concert in the new Damascus opera house. It's named after Assad, though he didn't show up to see the Algerian singer and her Gypsy King ensemble. But in front of me, a Syrian woman in short sleeves jumped up and started dancing in the aisle. The Chinese ambassador to Syria cheered her on as most of the 1,200 people in the audience followed suit.

Pleasure-seeking is not only surviving the mayhem in the region, it's thriving. At Beit Jabri, a large courtyard restaurant, Saudis, Iraqis, Syrians and Americans are escaping the already oppressive summer heat. Beit Jabri was one of the first private manors to be turned into a business. Now a new boutique hotel, novelty restaurant or Internet cafe is opening every week.

Syrians are rediscovering the Old City, and it's giving them what they have long lacked: a genuine spiritual but secular center. After decades of neglecting it, they are returning in droves. Here among square miles of bustling souks and car-free colonnades, it's easy to feel proud, and perhaps to forget impending doom. On evenings and weekends, the narrow alleys are choked with girls in skirts and men carrying cellphones with the latest ringtones. At Mar Mar, a new nightspot near the chapel where Saint Paul was baptized, the proprietor leaves the keys behind for die-hard revelers when he goes to bed at 5 a.m. "Lock up when you leave," he says and disappears.

The rekindled interest in the Old City has doubled housing prices in the past year. Wealthy Syrians are restoring ancient houses to rent them to nostalgic aesthetes, many of them foreigners. The first moved in around the fall of Baghdad. Today, staff from most Western embassies live in Ottoman splendor, surrounded by stainless steel kitchens and 500-year-old vines.

For centuries, Westerners have played the game: Which city is the Paris of the East? Beirut held the title once; so did Shanghai. But the game has changed. Now you ask: Which city is the Beijing of the (Middle) East?

One might list Dubai and other emirates such as Abu Dhabi, or neighboring island states such as Qatar and Bahrain. But they don't have the hinterland, the historical roots or the diversity to be anything other than second Hong Kongs. Cairo is equally joyless, and Tehran is in a funk.

Damascus, however, makes frequent public reference to booming Beijing.

The Syrian government likes to invoke the Chinese Model: economic reform first. That may be spin for the benefit of Western investors. But it's also true — in many mud-brick alleys, there is a sense of possibility similar to what I saw in China, where I lived before moving to Syria.

How long will it last? A monster meltdown of the region could still happen, with sectarian strife spilling over from Iraq. In the Old City, where Christians, Druze, Sunnis and Shiites live side by side, kidnappers, fanatics and throat-cutters are well-known staples of history.

But for now, the Damascene are preoccupied. Even Nadia. Most days, she scuttles down our alley to help out at a store that sells electric nose-hair trimmers and massage sticks.

Oliver August is the author of the forthcoming "Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man."

Comments (41)

Alex said:

biyqaqiyying? : )

That’s a very special view to have with dinner. The Umayyad looks beautiful at night.

July 16th, 2007, 4:11 am


Offended said:

Thanks for narrating your personal experience Josh. May God bless you and your little family.

Although I must add that I felt a bit offended at your reference to the liquor license right across from the Umayyad mosque. These things as you’ve rightly observed are sensitive. And I’d like to believe that although this biqaqying person had acquired this license using his influence; he has done it for commercial reasons, and he (or any one else for that matter) doesn’t have the right to tease Muslims that he’s able to sell wine ‘smack bang’ in their own quarter…

July 16th, 2007, 5:07 am


engineering4change said:

“Despite American sanctions imposed four years ago, the Syrian economy is booming.”

A very interesting comment–has it been that long since I was in Syria? Has the Syrian economy suddenly started ‘booming’?

Any thoughts on this author’s opinion?

July 16th, 2007, 8:18 am


Claudia said:

Lovely article indeed but I think it might apply better to people who live here for 2-3 months and then they return home to the West (I don’t know how long you have lived here Mr August). I am living here since one and a half years and I am about to return to good ol’Europe and I am much happy about it. I enjoyed discovering Syria and Damascus in particular, it was a wonderful surprise indeed. Thanks to my Syrian friends I also managed to visit parts of Damascus that are generally off limits to foreigners. But in the long term, I had to re-consider this romanticized view I had. In the end, people are frustrated about this government, and as much they rally behind it (compulsory or not) when the Americans threatens it, still options are more open for a minority ruling over a majority. And I am not sure how much the economy is actually boosting up: Syria will become a net importer of oil in the next 10 years although a proper economic diversification is high on the agenda. People lament this situation, the high prices, at least my young friends…
But you did depict a true image of the wonderful old city, I will certainly miss it. And you are also right, a monster meltdown might happen. And all this beauty in the end is really fragile, it will crumble. Because only the authoritarian hand has kept and is still keeping all this sects together.
Yes, the Umayyad is amazing at night. And especially at Fajr.

July 16th, 2007, 10:22 am


Abed said:

You’ve mentioned that “Manar had a suspicion about the reasons behind the change in drinking rules at the restaurant and wanted to test her theory. She waved to a few waiters who were standing by and asked them who the owner of the restaurant was. Before long they were all biyqaqiyying and doing the Coastal Mountain, which-village-are-you-from routine. Her theory was right.” First of all, I do like the term “biyqaqiyying”. However, you did not provide us with the answer for Manar’s suspicion & theory: Who is the owner of this restaurant with so much influence to get such an exemption and get a drinking license at this location? I would really like to know please?

July 16th, 2007, 3:34 pm


Atassi said:

Biyqaqiyying !! Josh that was hilarious man .. Nice picture of the Wife and the Kid… MashaAllah.
Should I speculate the owner is “ Maklouf, Shaleesh,..”

July 16th, 2007, 4:43 pm


Bilal said:

Prof. Josh

Did they issue a liquor lisence to Leila’s?

July 16th, 2007, 5:17 pm


Joshua said:

Dear Offended,
You are right. It is surprising and distressing, even to a wine drinker like myself, to see the rules circumvented because of connections. I know that circumventing rules has become a national sport in Syria, in part, because it starts from the top and has a religious character, which, given the realities of Syria, adds insult to injury.

My hunch is that the old city is increasingly moving in the direction of expanding liquor licences beyond the Christian quarter. This process of the old city being increasingly converted to the interests of tourists and wealthy evening diners and pleasure seekers is perhaps unstoppable. Already in 2005, I had noticed that Jihad Khaddam’s lovely restaurant (I cannot remember the name right now) which had just opened on the far side of Midhat Pasha street, or Straight street, served alcohol. He, of course, was a Sunni, but had the power to serve what he wanted. Other good restaurants in the area did not serve liquor.

Part of the problem is that Bab Touma is saturated with restaurants and hotels, causing entrepreneurs to increasingly push into the Muslim neighborhoods. As liquor is the biggest single earner for restaurants, it is only a matter of time before owners find ways around the restrictions. As more boutique hotels, evening spots, and other commercial enterprises are opened, they will transform the social fabric of the old city from being primarily residential and traditional into being commercial and touristic; the old rules are bending with these changes. Pressure from commercial interests is growing; that from conservative residents, who are moving out, is declining. The balance is changing quite rapidly.

I think it is not entirely correct to attribute these changes to a battle of religions. Commerce and economic interest play a large role, perhaps even a dominant one.

In other areas of expansion, the restaurants often choose not to serve liquor for commercial reasons. The Swiss House on the road to Yaafour, for example, does not serve alcohol even though it is very upscale and attracts a wealth clientele. It seats roughly 500 with tables arranged around four ponds connected together by small waterfalls and surrounded by some of the most beautiful gardens in Damascus. The owner is Sunni. At first I thought he chose not to serve liquor for religious reasons, but when I asked a few of the waiters, they explained that many clients would not come or bring their families if drink were served. This is the case in many of the bigger restaurants outside of Damascus.

In the old city, where the seating capacity is smaller and rents high, owners can fill the house despite serving drink and earn more money per seat. In the large capacity family restaurants outside of Damascus, the economics push in the direction of prohibiting alcohol, in deference to Muslim sensibilities. In Christian suburbs, such as Zabadani, which is crammed with large scale restaurants that serve hundreds on the weakends, liquor is served.

July 16th, 2007, 5:27 pm


Alex said:

Claudia, Joshua,

This light topic is actually a serious one.

To what extent is this statement correct?

And all this beauty in the end is really fragile, it will crumble. Because only the authoritarian hand has kept and is still keeping all this sects together

What would you imagine would have happened if there was no authoritarian security system in place in Syria?

July 16th, 2007, 6:47 pm


Bilal said:

Damascene should never accept serving liquor steps away from the Omayad Mosque. This mosque represent a lot to us. Corruption should have a limit.

July 16th, 2007, 8:10 pm


Bakri said:

What would you imagine would have happened if there was no authoritarian security system in place in Syria?

Alex…what do you know about the religious peaceful coexistence and the place of christianity in pre asad syria ?;where are their newspapers,printing-houses,hospitals,their banks ?????cultural institutions ??? their former prestige ????as the other syrians,the ignorance and poverty ,sectarian reflex imposed on the syrians affected Syrian christians the most…before asad ,we had Fares al Khoury ,Edmond Rabbath,Constantin Zureyk,Abdallah Qaraali al Mutran Gabriel Farhat,Kostaki Homsy,S Mazlum ,Kamal Shumbeyr,Sami Shawa..????What is left of Syria’s christianity????

July 16th, 2007, 8:17 pm


Bakri said:

Bilal ,they transformed Damascus the capitale of the First Islamic Empire into a brothel…and some of the worse night clubs are located inside the old city not very far from Ommayad Mosque.
These barbarians must return from where they came,i dont mean a community as a whole,those who are not related to these business are now damascenes and they will remain in it forever.

July 16th, 2007, 8:29 pm


Ford Prefect said:

O’ my God. I am going to say things below I was hoping will never have to say. Instead of the refreshing and serine article from Joshua, I am stunned by comments representing my darkest fears of Islamic bigotry. Truly scary thoughts – exactly what we will get when Syria is run by religiously motivated ideas and doctrines.

Do not serve liquor. Do not have nightclubs. Do not play football. Movie theaters are haram. Do not wear your watch on your left arm. Who cares, guys! Seriously, who cares at this day and age where it is inevitable that people will drink no matter which God says no. Since when did imposing religion and morality on a society work? Two thousand years of human religion history told us that IT DOES NOT work. It never worked. It never will. It does not work in Saudi Arabia. It does not work in Iran. It does not work in Israel. And it did not work in the US. Religion has absolutely no place but in people’s hearts and in places of worship.

Let religion loose in the government and the sky is the limit because it is always the word of God – which no one can dispute or should dispute. And the story goes further. God sent his soldiers to earth to enforce his laws. They are the ones who must get upset, force people into prayers, shut down shops, open shops, and whip people who are not worthy of God’s word.

As The few steps from the Mosque will become a few miles then a few mountains. What is next, the Inquisition Period to decide who is a true Muslim?

Ironically, drinking was normal and widely available during the very same First Islamic Empire that was mentioned above. Poets used to sit at the feet of Amir al Momeneen and cite poetry while they were consuming alcohol. Nevertheless, they excelled in everything without imposing Saudi or Iranian-style theocracy of Ma3roof or Munkar. They managed to be tolerant and open-minded. Even Saladdin confidents were Christians who were not bothered when they drank. His personal friend and doctor was a Jewish man.

Arabs in the Andalusia never bothered anyone who drank. They had an open and tolerant society that excelled in arts, science, and most everything else. Women were free to wear what they felt as descent and protective. Why don’t we fancy these days?

C’mmon guys. Please! There are many burning issues to be discussed as Syria stands between complete disaster and complete disaster.

As a secular Muslim, I count my blessing every day that Syria has Christians, Kurds, Druze, Alawites, Jews, or many other proud sects and religions. God bless them all. They are our true protection against the belligerent bigotry of religious extremism.

And also thank God for America and the freedom of private religion. And I am an observing and devout Muslim who has been to Mecca twice under my own will and virtues. I am appalled when someone is using my religion to impose on others what they perceive is right.

The days of Ibn Taymmeya, Abdul Wahhab, Saed Quttob and many other dangerous extremists are long gone and buried with the shovels of enlightenment and education, hamdella.

July 16th, 2007, 9:45 pm


Bilal said:

Then Dam them and let them go to hell & they will.

July 16th, 2007, 9:52 pm


Ford Prefect said:

Fine. Meanwhile, let’s not bring Hell to earth prematurely.

July 16th, 2007, 10:10 pm


Alex said:

Bravo FP.

Bakri I have nothing against you, you are highly educated and a good man I’m sure. But for the reasons that FP listed above I worry about your understanding of democracy and minority rights and your tolerance to lifestyles not consistent with your own.

I think that this current generation in the Middle East is quite challenging … thanks to what the MB started in Syria, then the way the regime ended it in Hama, the sectarian Lebanon civil war, Israel’s violent treatment of Arab civilians and its destructive wars (two) against Lebanon, suicide resistance to Israeli occupation that targeted Jewish civilians, and lastly the Iraqi sectarian civil war with all the fears it brought to the surface of Shia domination, Sunni injustice ..etc. … religion got into the picture in the most negative way.

Bakri, the secular Syria that you just told me about can be in our future again if we all work to undo the effects of all the sectarian violence that took place in the Middle East the past few decades.

July 16th, 2007, 10:27 pm


ausamaa said:

Guys, I do not pray, I drink, and I like to think of myself as a secular person and actually a bit of a non-believer, but serving wine next to the wall of Omayyad Mousqe is a little “overdoing it”. Not for myself, but in consideration of certain soles who can be offended by such an act, maybe it is too much.Now all that depends on how “immediate” is the restaurant to the wall itself which could be really a little bit out of the way and not as close as it seems in the photo.

My First guess??? The restaurant does not have an Alcohol license! The owners opened that place up, real business without Alcohol did not match pre-alcohol expectations, the owner got little desperate and took his chances with serving alcohol (maybe only wine). My Second guess, that place would not be serving wine for long…

July 16th, 2007, 10:37 pm


Bakri said:

Ford i respect your opinion but as u know 90 % of syrian families are conservative families and it’s not normal to have night clubs ,gay bars,and brothels as neighbors.And even secular people like u would refuse that with force.Anyway ….
During the Mameluk era(Ibn Taymiyya) and then the Ottomans,by realism ,yes Prostitution was tolerated but only in specific areas.
And akh Ford,secularism is a foreigner matter , it’s the result of the struggle between the catholic church and the intellegencia influenced by the french revolution ideas.
The Islamic world from Al Andalus to Al Hind and al Sind had always embraced religious and ethnical plurality ,side by side churches,mosques and synagogues co existed together …this is was unknown in the christian world(a little in Byzantium).
And btw,the Caliph who as ordered the construction of the Bani Ummaya Mosque in Damascus and the Dome of the rock in al Quds had as minister of economy the father of Saint John of Damascus.

If in the USA they have more tolerance towards foreigner cultures and religions it’s because that they did not endured blood-drenched religious wars.And What’s the american people other than a multi religious ,multi ethnical melting pot ?

you said:Saladdin confidents were Christians who were not bothered when they drank. His personal friend and doctor was a Jewish man.

Yes and he was Yousef Ibn Maymon or Maimonide,the greatest jewish mind.
Salahadin’s behavior here was 100 % in accord with Islam,Islamically there is no problem for christians to drink alcohol inside the Islamic lands ,this centrist path was always dominant in Syria and the other centers of Islam as Cordoba,Fes,Tunis,Cairo,Baghdad,Mosul,Aleppo…..and it’s ours today.

As for the andalusian society during the golden age of the Ommayad rule there ,it was known as very pious muslim society who lived in harmony and peace with the jews and christians and the scholar who influenced the most Sheikh Al Islam Ibn Taymiyya was Ibn Hazm al Andalusi.

And AbdulWahhab is the famous singer, the great reformist of Arabia was Mohamad Ibn AbdulWahhab.

Here you will find many interesting articles on Sheikh Al Islam who is considered today by many islamologists as one of the greatest minds since Socrates.

July 16th, 2007, 10:58 pm


Alex said:


It is not about serving wine next to the Mosque .. when I read Joshua’s post even I (a Christian) felt uncomfortable with the idea. BUT the part that no one can hide or deny is this:

Bilal said:

“Then Dam them and let them go to hell & they will.”

With all of Bilal’s wonderful “don’t worry, if we replace the regime, we will respect women’s rights and minority rights” … the truth is simpler: “Then Dam them and let them go to hell & they will.”

And it has always been obvious. Politically correct statements do not go far.

July 16th, 2007, 11:20 pm


UZ said:

I found this line:

I am reminded nonstop that I live among devout Muslims, many of whom were taught to distrust Westerners.

to contradict every single other article I have read, program I have seen, and personal experience I have had or heard about Syrians. On the contrary, religious or not, Syrians are commonly described as welcoming Westerners. Of course, what’s an article about Syria (or any other Muslim country) without taking the opportunity to throw in an insulting comment to associate “devout Muslims” (whatever that means, as far as the author is capable of judging?) with ideas like “anti-Western”, “anti-progress”, “potentially violent”, etc. I’m surprised the reference to Nadia’s “headscarf” didn’t also include the bizarre terms “garb” or “veil” as is so often the case. LOL.

Changing the subject: any update on your son’s language development?

July 17th, 2007, 12:27 am


trustquest said:

Let me make clear, I do drink alcohol and I don’t have any reference to religion in my political views, but I lived in that society and I know its sensitivity to these issues. FP everything you have said is right and I’m behind you 100%, however, do not make the mistake of thinking that this regime is secular, it is only an oligarchy. And I wished they were as powerful as Ataturk to impose the civil change but they are not. They always play it with the religious and never were able to come out showing their real skin or agenda. The only protector for the people is the civil strive and civil societies who will lead by logic and wisdom not by rifle and Mokhabarat, but unfortunately the regime have them behind bars.
I felt very bad for the act of serving alcohol near the wall of Omayyad Mosque, it was not for the religious connotation of alcohol itself rather than to the overriding of the feeling of the merchants and populace in that area who definitely will be deeply offended by the regime elite sects prejudice act which will smear the resentment further and futther, and in the end it will be reflected on the poor minorities. The main reason for my disgust is the abuse of power by the big thieves who think that they can keep stepping over the head of the people. There are a dangerous fire smearing in that society and no need to put gas on fire. Do not forget that the president himself on the religious occasions like Eids he goes their, and we know that he hate that, but still he goes to that Omayyad mosque to reach the heart of that community.

July 17th, 2007, 12:48 am


Nur al-Cubicle said:

Oh, wow, and look how nicely and professionally the waiters are dressed! I’m planning a Damascus trip!

July 17th, 2007, 2:27 am


Findalaawi said:

I’ve just returned from Damascus, from a stay during which I mixed with both wealthy Syrians as well as those less well off.

The one thing that I would change in the article is the quote “the Syrian economy is booming” to “business is booming.” For while there are great shows of affluence and construction around the city, they are well out of the grasp of the average Syrian. It is evident that the fruits of the “new Syria” are intended for the small moneyed elite that (as Josh has mentioned in a previous post) is being co-opted by the regime. During my stay, it seemed that the more money a person had, the more favorable their opinion was of the government, while those who have fallen on harder times have correspondingly dimmer views.

The problem with this is that as Syria becomes more capitalist, more and more people who were ‘middle class’ are now falling out of that designation. And while the small number of ‘Haves’ get cosy at In House Coffee or their new Kafar Suseh condos, the ever-growing number of Sunni ‘Have Nots’ blame their problems on other groups or sects, be they ‘Alawis, Shi’a, Christians, or the Iraqis (I don’t know how many times I was told that an Iraqi had bought Bakdash, something I never was able to verify).

I left Syria much more worried about its future than when I arrived – and that’s not just because In House Coffee really sucks. I had hoped to see a Syria where people of all confessions had begun to move together for the betterment of the country. What I saw instead was an oligarchic replay of Russia in the 90’s with a much less unified populace, much of it seething.

And yes, Jami’ Umawi is beautiful at night.

July 17th, 2007, 3:39 am


Alex said:


you have listed a number of opinions. When you say “we know” usually you have a “proof” or “evidence”.

May I suggest that you are not as secular as you think you are. The fact you drink Alcohol has nothing to do with it. I do not drink Alcohol (since we are all declaring our preferences today) but I am genuinely secular … drinking Alcohol does not make you a certified secular. I have Muslim friends who drink but have the most sectarian opinions… some of them declare it publicly, other hide it behind the typical “I have many Christian friends” .. which also does not make you genuinely secular.

I see in your last comment a mix of two ideas:

1) the regime does not give a damn about the religious feelings of the people:

“The main reason for my disgust is the abuse of power by the big thieves who think that they can keep stepping over the head of the people.”

2) The regime does not have the guts to confront those who Ataturk confronted by force ..

“And I wished they were as powerful as Ataturk to impose the civil change but they are not. They always play it with the religious and never were able to come out showing their real skin or agenda.”

Ataturk confronted the Muslims, no? .. he forced them to change their habits, their language, their clothes, their head covers …

So which one do you have a problem with? .. not enough sensitivity (evidence: serving alcohol in one restaurant) or too much sensitivity (not doing what Ataturk did)

July 17th, 2007, 4:36 am


Joshua said:

This is a note I just received from Richard Parker, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge during WWII and was US Ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco.


Sounds like Damascus is a fun place.

A note about John the Baptist: My recollection is that the keepers of the Umayyad Mosque claim that it is the head, not the body, of John he Baptist that is buried there. He had lost it, of course, at Herods’ palace at Machaerus (sp?) high above the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan. When We told the worthy guide that a church near Nablus claimed his head was buried there he explained that that was his head as a boy. His adult head was in Damascus.

Don’t have time to look it up, but thought you would like to know.


July 17th, 2007, 7:26 am


Joshua said:

The owner of the Restaurant is a Quwatli, a Sunni, and his partner and manager is someone Fadil, an Alawi from Tartous.

July 17th, 2007, 2:02 pm


Nur al-Cubicle said:

There’s “alcohol” and then there’s a nice Lebanese wine with dinner. It’s not like it’s Dead-Eye Dan’s Booze Den.

July 17th, 2007, 8:37 pm


ausamaa said:

Well, I just had a couple of scotches, but Alcohol is Alcohol. And wine can be bad as anything else when one wants to be. Ask me, or some of you. So it is the “idea” not the “substance”.

And nice lebanese wine means customers can not be served scotch/gin or french/italian wines. so it is a negative not a plus. and after all it could be some Ma”loula wine served under a lebanese label. After all who in the hell has heard of a “Lebanese” wine? Arak? Ok. But WINE????

It is still overdoing things and taking advantage of things. And I bet all of you, the place does NOT have an Alcohol License!Just the Quatl .. who is abusing the assumed influence of the other who to take advantage of a “situation”.

Please remember, I am saying all this after having a couple of scotches, so I can not really be labeled as a Jihadist. As if I care either way!

July 17th, 2007, 10:36 pm


K said:

How many of Ausamaa’s comments were typed up after a couple of scotches, I wonder?

July 17th, 2007, 11:29 pm


ausamaa said:


Not as many as I would have liked while going through some of the comments that get posted here sometimes.

July 18th, 2007, 8:00 am


sham said:

First I,d like to say welcome back to you , I,ve been reading your posts for a couple of years and find them very interesting and sometimes enlightening… for example the post on your evening out at Leila,s. Its obvious that the owner has the tourist market in mind when he opened this restaurant and and didn,t care for the opinions of muslims from whatever sect, so making money is the most important thing , as Findalaawi implied.
The Omayyad mosque isn,t a museum , its an active mosque , where people pray 5 times a day, I really find it disgusting that while prayers are being held , someone could be looking down with a glass of whatever type of alcohol in his hand.I would feel the same if a bar was opened overlooking St Pauls in Rome!
The Omyyad Mosque as you said is holy to both Christians and Muslims , Muslims believe that Jesus will appear there.
I,m not Syrian , but it seems to me that the ordinary Syrian is pragmatic, with a live and let live attitude, I don,t think they are hypocrits, perhaps they do blame other people for their troubles, but perhaps they have a point sometimes ,since the Iraq war prices are rocketing, the rich are making money while the poor are struggling, I just wish some of this wealth would trickle down to the people in the form of job creation and not just be banked away in Swizerland, then perhaps all the Syrians who have left home to study and work abroad will be able to come home and have the money to frequent these new restaurants!

July 18th, 2007, 11:55 am


SAISgeist » Another Syria Link said:

[…] I guess I’m a litle late in finding this, but my downstairs neighbor, who I believe knows Josh Landis, sent me this link about Syria. Apparently the article that he refers to was published the day after I returned to Beirut from my trip to Syria, so he may have been there at the same time as me. I had actually eaten dinner at the restaurant mentioned in the blog posting with Tommy Iverson. We didn’t order any wine that night (I have plenty of Lebanese wine here in Beirut). But we did have mint lemonade. (Interestingly enough we went to another place after that where Tommy tried to order decaf tea and we got . . . mint lemonade.) […]

July 19th, 2007, 12:13 pm


adiamondinsunlight said:

As I’m sure you remember from your last summer in Damascus, Leila’s served no alcohol at all during its first two and a half years. By last summer, though, you could bring wine to the restaurant and – wink, wink – the waiters would serve it in the blue glasses also used for water. It made me sad then, and it makes me sadder to think that the restaurant is now licensed for liquor. Leila’s is a lovely restaurant with a good menu, well prepared food and a to-die-for location. If any Damascene restaurant did not need alcohol to draw a crowd, Leila’s would be it.

July 19th, 2007, 6:18 pm


Mustapha said:

What a crappy ill-informed story with racist overtones even….I wonder if your country contains kidnappers, fanatics and throat-cutters throughout its history also……when are you leaving here?? Soon I hope.

July 20th, 2007, 9:08 am


Rima said:

There’t no reason to make a mountain out of an anthill… its nothing new nor is it a big deal that there is a RESTARAUNT that serves alchohol next to a mosque. In the Hameh District in Rural Damascus, there is a BEER factory right across the street from a mosque, and at the same time there are “night clubs” on the same street we all know what is offered in the night clubs, and as Syrians we know whats’ best for us. We’ve lived in harmony for over 1000 years Muslims and Christains and even Jews, here in Syria. The only thing i can understand from your “article” other than promoting hate and racism is that you learned a new term which here is not new, nor does it affect us in any way. Either way we would like to say THANK YOU for spreading our culture to the rest of the world with reference to how we can have a restaraunt acroos from the Ommayad Mosque, and with the “biqaqi” term. A word of advice… many have tried to incite and promote hate amongst Syrians of different faiths, and backgrounds but have failed misrably, hence why Syria from now and until the end of time will remain an impregnable fortress, and its people will always live happily and harmoniously amongst one another whether you like it or not. Thank you and GOD BLESS SYRIA

July 25th, 2007, 7:36 am


Two posts instead of one « Discovering Damascus said:

[…] In the old city, a bohemian rhapsody  […]

July 29th, 2007, 6:28 pm


New Threat to the Old City of Damascus? « Bayt Arabi said:

[…] I also can’t imagine that Iranian pilgrims (who flood Damascus every summer) are considered a more important tourist population than the Western tourists Syria is trying harder and harder to attract.  The Western tourists want to see the Old City and its houses and architecture.  Unfortunately, attracting Western and other non-religious tourists has resulted in the placement of alcohol establishments right outside the door of the Omayyad Mosque. In some ways I guess I should be at least a little happy that they are willing to court the Western tourists with alcohol because it likely means that the international pressure to save the Old City for the tourists with more money to spend will overcome any pressure to accommodate Iranian tourists who doubtless are probably not such big spenders. […]

September 17th, 2007, 8:42 pm


Terry said:

AUSAMAA: There are plenty of Lebanese wines, the best wineries are Chateau Musar, Kefraya and Ksara. In fact the red wines of Musar are well known amongst wine aficionados around the world. Just so you know…

September 27th, 2007, 6:40 am


Syria Comment » Archives » Is Damascus Cracking Down of Islamist groups? Why? said:

[…] beer (in a room where once student were being taught religious preaching). When Damascus’ Layla’s restaurant started serving alcohol on the terrace overlooking the grand mosque many eyebrows were raised. now the area next to the […]

September 5th, 2010, 1:24 am


Bohemian Queen said:

This has been a very interesting read although I must admit I haven’t read all the comments and responses. I wholeheartedly agree with the early comment by OFFENDED and your reply. It seems very hypocritical to me, especially as I’ve been living in a Christian country for a couple of years where they have a strong view that Muslims should abide by their laws and standards. So to see the other side of it where Christians are living in Damascus and using contacts and influence to sell alcohol, it really shows the true nature of people. But in a reality, and this is the same across the board, it’s about a minority. No matter what race or religion, there will always be a section of it who cause the rest to be labelled. That’s the nature of people as a whole.

July 27th, 2011, 5:20 am


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