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In A Syrian Souk, Support For The Regime Falters

Jun 28, 2012
Originally published on June 28, 2012 8:25 pm

In Syria's capital, Damascus, the Hamidiyah souk is a landmark — a centuries-old covered market linked to a maze of alleyways in the heart of the capital. Over the 15-month uprising, Syria's merchants have supported the regime of President Bashar Assad. But that support is crumbling.

Shops selling everything from cold drinks, ice cream and spices to wedding dresses and electric guitars line Hamidiyah's cobblestone streets.

Everyone in the traditional market is keen to sell something, so when these merchants closed their shops in May to protest a massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, a remote village far from Damascus, it was unprecedented.

Old Alliances No Longer Assured

A merchant who participated in the strike — who is too afraid to give his name — is still angry enough to say he was part of the strike the security police tried to end by force.

These merchants are mostly Sunni Muslims, who form the core of Syria's business community. For decades, they were regime loyalists — the backbone of Assad's Alawite-dominated regime — but no longer, says another merchant, who also wouldn't give his name.

"The strike, of course, it is unusual. It is something very new in the Syrian society, because it's a police regime here," he says. "You cannot express yourself. You cannot speak up."

So, for the businessmen to strike was a big statement, he says.

"Yes ... it's a message to the regime that merchants are not with him anymore," he says.

The regime's brutal response to the uprising has taken a toll. Add to that the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the international community that have driven up prices and dried up the tourist trade.

Another merchant, who stocks scarves and handmade Syrian goods, says his business has dwindled to zero.

"My brother, he help me, he give me money to eat, to live," the man says. "And my son, too."

He has owned his shop for years. It was once a thriving business, supported by visitors from abroad. He was part of the Sunni business community that supported the regime.

Sectarian Divisions Growing

But Syria is changing fast, fragmenting along sectarian lines, and the tensions are reflected in this market and in the comments from this unfailingly polite businessman as he gives directions to another part of the old city — the Christian part.

When asked whether there is any way to tell the difference, he says most Christians like the government and are now afraid.

Although it's hard to measure fear on the streets of the Christian neighborhood, it's well-known that Syria's Christians fear an Islamist takeover of the country. They know what happened to Christians in neighboring Iraq, where churches were burned and Christians driven out. Many of Iraq's Christians are still sheltered in Syria.

Syria's Christians share the economic crisis with the rest of the country. The streets in the Christian quarter are unusually quiet; restaurants and hotels are empty.

Fear Prevails

Roula Dodoch runs Al Mamlouka, a boutique hotel housed in an old Damascene home with a beautiful terrace and orange trees in the courtyard. It was once one of the most successful hotels in the city, but Dodoch hasn't checked in a guest for months.

Echoing the regime's line, she says she wants the Syrian army to crush what she calls armed terrorists. But how can the government protect us, she asks, when these gangs are armed and supported from outside?

"Of course, when the Gulf people send guns and money to these gangsters, of course, nothing will be finished," she says. "They want freedom? What kind of freedom they want?"

Asked whether she thinks the anti-government protesters are a danger to Christians in particular, she responds that they are a danger to everybody.

Fear is the prevailing mood in Syria now. Christians fear more sanctions and economic collapse; Sunnis fear the violence of the government. And everyone in Hamidiyah seems to dread the chaos they say will come if the Assad regime collapses.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Damascus, the Hamidiyah souk is a landmark. It's a centuries-old covered market linked to a maze of alleyways in the heart of Syria's capital. Over the 15-month uprising, Syria's merchants have supported the regime of President Bashar al Assad. But that support is crumbling.

As NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Buy a cold drink, get a serenade in this traditional market in Damascus. The cobblestone streets are lined with shops and you can find just about anything at the Hamidiyah market.

Here you can buy wedding dresses, spices, electric guitars and ice cream.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'd like to sell you something. Totally(ph) .

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: Everyone wants to sell something here, so when most of these merchants closed their shops in May to protest a massacre of more than 100 people in a remote village far from Damascus, it was unprecedented.

Did people close their shops?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yes, me.

AMOS: Did you strike?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible)

AMOS: And why?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Because the people, all of them are angry - not me, all of them were. (Unintelligible)

AMOS: He's too afraid to give his name. He's still angry enough to say he was part of the strike the security police tried to end by force.

These merchants are mostly Sunni Muslims, the core of Syria's business community. For decades, they were regime loyalists - the backbone of Assad's Alawite-dominated regime - but no longer, says this businessman who wouldn't give his name.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The strike, of course, it is unusual. It is something very new in the Syrian society, because it's a police regime here. You cannot express yourself. You cannot speak up.

AMOS: So for a businessman to strike, that was a big statement.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, of course. It's a message to the regime that merchants are not with him anymore.

AMOS: The regime's brutal response to the uprising has taken a toll. Add to that the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the international community which have driven up prices and dried up the tourist trade.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: This is my shop here.

AMOS: This merchant, who stocks scarves and handmade Syrian goods, says his business has dwindled to zero.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: My brother, he help me, he give me money to eat, to live. And my son too.

AMOS: He's owned his shop for years - a thriving business, supported by visitors from abroad. He was part of the Sunni business community that supported the regime. But Syria is changing fast, fragmenting along sectarian lines. The tensions are reflected in this market and in his comments, as this unfailingly polite businessman gives directions to another part of the old city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And this is the Muslim area. And about 20 minutes from here you will be in the Christian area.

AMOS: Is there any way to tell the difference?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, because most of the Christians, they are (unintelligible) the government. They like the government and they are afraid.

AMOS: It's hard to measure fear on the streets of this Christian neighborhood, but it's well-known Syria's Christians fear an Islamist takeover of the country. They know what happened to Christians in neighboring Iraq - churches burned, Christians driven out. Many of Iraq's Christians are still sheltered here. Syria's Christians share the economic crisis with the rest of the country. The streets are unusually quiet. Restaurants and hotels are empty.

ROULA DODOCHI: Hi.

AMOS: This is a beautiful terrace. It's an old Damascene home with stone and orange trees in the courtyard, and there's nobody here.

ROULA DODOCH: What can we do?

AMOS: Roula Dodoch runs The Mamlouka Hotel, once one of the most successful in the city. She hasn't checked in a guest for months. Echoing the regime's line, she says she wants the Syrian army to crush what she called the armed terrorists. But how can the government protect us, she asks, when these gangs are armed and supported from outside?

DODOCH: Well, of course, when, you know, the Gulf(ph) people send money and guns to this gangster, of course nothing will be finished. They want freedom. What kind of freedom they want?

AMOS: And do you think that they are a danger for Christians in particular?

DODOCH: Well, they are a danger for everybody.

AMOS: Fear is the prevailing mood here now. Christians fear more sanctions and economic collapse. Sunnis fear the violence of the government. And all here in Hamidiyah seem to dread the chaos they say will come if the Assad regime collapses. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.