My Days in Damascus Entry 1: Contagious Fear

Just before the civil war. Damascus, November 2010.

Farah is a young woman living in Syria’s capital city, where she faces the daily struggles of trying to maintain a normal social and professional life in a country being ripped apart by war.

It was a sunny December day when I got up and got dressed in preparation to go downtown to run an errand. When I left my room, my father saw me and his eyes widened in surprise. “Are you going to the city?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Don’t you know what is happening there?” he yelled, and warned me that missiles and rockets were everywhere.

Missile attacks had become a part of our daily lives, but some days were particularly intense, with attacks happening more frequently than on other days. I assured my father that I would not go to any of the “usually targeted” neighborhoods in Damascus. However, I did not mention to him that I was going to the old quarter of Damascus, which had been targeted on many occasions by missiles coming from the direction of the Ghouta areas in the suburbs. I simply did not want my father to get worried.

I was already late. The neighborhood where I live is a long way from downtown and does not have reliable public transportation, so I decided to order a taxi. When the taxi arrived, I told the driver that I wanted to go to Bab Sharqi, one of the seven ancient gates in Damascus’ old city. He did not believe what he had heard, so he asked me again. I confirmed that I was going to the old quarter. “Of course,” he said, and we took off. But he could not keep his fear to himself.

“It has been raining missiles since the morning,” he said. I told him that I had heard about it, and I asked him what areas exactly were being targeted. He gave me all the information that he heard in the news.

A very strange feeling washed over me, and I instantly regretted my decision to leave home on a day like this. I tried to calm my nerves by reminding myself that I always do crazy things, and that this was not the first time I had gone downtown when it was being targeted by missiles. I remembered when I needed a haircut the year before, so I went downtown despite all the news about the area being targeted. When I walked into the salon, the hairstylist told me with a nervous smile that the last missile had hit the street 10 minutes before.

When we arrived at Bab Sharqi, I paid the taxi driver extra money to compensate for the fear I had inspired in him. Although he had not told me directly, his fear was very clear to me – he had not stopped talking about missiles and death. I paid him, but I really thought that he should compensate me for the fear that he had sparked in me.

Bashar al-Assad billboard. Damascus Old Town,
Bashar al-Assad billboard. Damascus old city.

I was supposed to meet someone right at the arch in Bab Sharqi so we could go to the galleries together, but I was scared, so I decided to wait for him inside a convenience store. I thought that standing in an open space would raise my chances of being injured by a missile attack. Yes, I was that naive. The convenience store was dark because the electricity had been cut off. I pretended that I needed to buy a top-up card for my phone. I asked the owner, a very old man, “Have there been any missile attacks today?” “Not sure,” he replied, “I heard so. Maybe on another street.”

I left the store, but I was still not feeling safe. I could not think of work or of my appointment. I could not stay still in one place, and I kept walking back and forth. The street was narrow, and I was able to hear what passersby and store owners were saying. I wished I had my earphones with me so I could listen to music and avoid listening to what people were saying. They were all talking about one thing – missiles.

Later that day, when I finished my work, I headed toward the al-Jisr al-Abyad neighborhood, which had already been targeted by many missiles. Other neighborhoods had also endured heavy attacks that same day, including al-Sha’lan, Abu Rummana and al-Rawda.

While walking, I stayed away from people to avoid their conversations about death and attacks. I finally calmed down a little, perhaps because I knew that my time away from home was almost finished. However, on my way back, the first thing the taxi driver talked about was how he had miraculously survived death twice: One of those instances had been that morning, when a missile landed a few steps from his car, and the other had been the day before. I pretended to have sympathy for him, but all I was thinking of was getting home.

I finally got home safely. I felt lucky that I had not been harmed, nor had anyone else I care about.

Like every time I had been in a targeted area over the past couple of years, I thought to myself that day about how fear is contagious, and how it paralyzes people. When living under fear, one cannot think of anything but how to avoid danger. I thought of how we unintentionally spread fear, simply because we are scared; how we tend to look for fear in other people’s eyes, not only inside of ourselves. This, I realized, helps those who want us to be scared.

It is one of the dynamics of Syria’s war; it is the collective mind that takes control during war times, not the individual her or himself. This made me also recall the days when the collective conscience courageously faced death and real bullets during the peaceful demonstrations against the government authorities. How I miss that collective action! I hope that, one day, we Syrian people will have that confidence again, because confidence is fear’s first enemy.

This article originally appeared on Syria Deeply, and you can find the original here. For important news about the war in Syria, you can sign up to the Syria Deeply email list. Photographs courtesy of Evegeni Zotov and Oliver Laumann.  Published under a Creative Commons license.