Damascus Says Bon Appétit Amid Brutal War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
An urban prison, the Syrian capital is seeing an explosion of restaurants and cafés — as outlets for war-weary residents.
By Stephen Starr
A pizzeria may not sound like an obvious choice for a business venture in a war zone, and Somar Hazim wasn’t counting on it to work out. But two weeks after he launched his restaurant in Syria’s capital in September 2015, Hazim knew he had struck gold. La Marionnette Pub & Pizzeria on Straight Street in the historic old Damascus district now draws around 600 customers — businesspeople, students and couples — every week. Hazim’s is no monopoly, though. His customers have options, and a growing number of them.
Syria’s brutal civil war has cost more than half a million lives and sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Checkpoints, terror threats and the shadow of foreign missiles have turned Damascus into an open prison. The mountains, rivers and country homes on the city’s outskirts, once traditional weekend escapes, are now out of bounds. But amid despair, dining out has emerged as a way for city inhabitants to blow off steam. And that’s spawning an explosion of restaurants and cafés — from fast-food joints to high-end brasseries — inside the fortified city limits.
The Syrian government no longer releases data on employment and industry activity on its websites. But experts affiliated with international agencies monitoring the service industry in Damascus say that in the Old City alone, 63 restaurants and bars with a capacity for between 15 and 30 people each have opened in the past five years.
A 20-minute walk west of the Old City, in the Shaalan district, Aref Tabbee has been moved to open not one but two restaurants — such is the demand. Three Tables, a small eatery specializing in high-class Syrian food, opened in 2013, while two streets away, Oxygen, a bar and restaurant for people in search of a more international experience, opened two years later. “There are a lot of customers,” Tabbee says. “All Syrian people care about their food, and whether they are poor or rich, they will eat outside [of the home] at least once a week.”
For the owners of these enterprises, the risks of the war are balanced to an extent by increasingly lenient regulations from a government preoccupied with survival. Riad, a Damascus businessman who requested his last name not be used because of his fears of retribution from the regime, claims as many as 95 percent of all city restaurants offering liquor sell it without legal permits. That doesn’t matter to most residents, though. For them, the restaurants represent respite.
It’s the only entertainment available in Syria.
Lamis Mohammed, Damascus resident
“I go to eat, drink and socialize — it’s the only entertainment available in Syria,” says Lamis Mohammed, 31, an accounts executive for a Damascus advertising agency.
In the past, the city’s best restaurant districts were located almost exclusively outside the city limits — in the snow-covered village of Bloudan, northwest of Damascus, or among a strip of popular family oriented restaurants along the highway that leads to Damascus International Airport. On Fridays — Syria’s official weekend — before the war, residents would crowd eateries, including Damascus Gate, then the world’s largest restaurant, according to Guinness World Records. Today, out of reach for their customer base, many have either closed or sit empty.
The restaurants that are replacing them inside Damascus also face the challenges that blight businesses in any conflict zone. Access to stable electricity and supplies of fresh food are major hurdles. Hyperinflation that’s seen the lira fall to one-tenth of its prewar value against the U.S. dollar means that for the poorest, eating out isn’t possible. Even for those with cash to burn, there are the security threats: In March 2017, a suicide attacker injured 28 people inside a restaurant in the Rabweh district of west Damascus.
Like many other Syrians, Hazim was caught between staying and leaving the country when he launched La Marionnette. He didn’t expect it to succeed, he says. “Strangely,” he says, “within two weeks, business was booming.”
It isn’t that surprising, though, suggests Mohammed. Before the war, going to restaurants on the weekend was a family tradition. Then, though, there were other avenues of entertainment — those who could afford it traveled abroad for vacations. Today, securing visas for overseas travel is next to impossible for Syrians. Even leaving the city is fraught with risk. That’s why the demand for restaurants within Damascus has gone up, she suggests. Mohammed makes it a point to eat out at least three times a week.
It’s not only longtime residents who are turning to eating and drinking to relieve the tensions of war. In 2016, the U.N. infamously ran up a $9.5 million bill at the Four Seasons Damascus, a hotel co-owned by the Syrian regime, feeding and accommodating its staff. The hotel is the most exclusive venue in the city. A three-course meal costs 60 percent of the monthly salary of an average Syrian worker.
There are possibly darker drivers of this booming industry, Riad suggests. Militia henchmen and regime lackeys whose wallets have been fattened through illicit war profiteering have got in on the game, he says. “When the war gods had some money but no business experience, their trick was to give it to somebody to convert it to cash,” says Riad.
The “war gods” likely aren’t done. Nor is the war, which shows no signs of ending. The residents of Damascus have no choice but to sit it out. Why not do it over a drink and a pizza?
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr