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In the oldest city, new Bohemians

Amid the devout Muslims in Damascus, there is also a transforming sense of confidence, and even hedonism.

By OLIVER AUGUST, Washington Post
Published July 29, 2007


DAMASCUS

"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."

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. 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. Four years later, 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 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. With the seat of the second caliphate now brought low, the first is resurgent. Unemployment is high and oil is in short supply, but Syria is calm. In the Middle East, that's 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 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.

How different things look now. 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 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. 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 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.

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. 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. 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, Abu Dhabi, Qatar or Bahrain. But they don't have historical roots or diversity. 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 that in China.

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

But for now, the Damascene are preoccupied. Even my neighbor. Most days, she scuttles down our alley to help 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.