My Days in Damascus: Leaving the Belly of the Whale, Part 1

The Assad regime, past and present. Damascus, 2006.

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.

DAMASCUS – I haven’t been anywhere out of the city and inside Syria for three years. Our trips to the sea or the mountains used to be so easy that we would decide to pack and leave two hours before we hit the road, with loud music and lots of energy. There was still tension in the country back then, but things were much easier – or maybe we were still easygoing.

Leaving the city on a road trip now is an impossible thing for most people here, including my family. There’s always a vision of mysterious death or kidnapping awaiting you on the road, in the village you might be headed to or at one of the checkpoints, along with so many other threats and stories people believe might happen.

Most Damascene families used to take a yearly vacation by the sea or in a Syrian village in the summer, but it’s not an easy option anymore. The international Damascus–Homs highway witnesses armed clashes every so often, as well as checkpoint bombings. Also, the lines of car traffic at some military checkpoints are so long. One of the most important military checkpoints is the Qtaifeh, known as the nightmare for all travelers – aside from your luggage, you also get your I.D. checked, which means you risk being arrested on your way out of Damascus if the system detects anything suspicious or unusual in your records.

Despite all these difficulties and worries, and after a long process of persuasion and planning, I finally succeeded in throwing off the troubles I was drowning in. I left Damascus with a couple of friends, and went on a vacation to the mountains and the sea.

I spent the night before leaving trying to postpone the trip; I was feeling seriously uncomfortable at leaving the city. It had been so long! So long that now I find it hard to change the rhythm of my day-to-day life.

But I was amazed at how much I actually needed this trip. I always say so, but I hadn’t really realized how tired I had become. On the trip, I discovered that my eyes can actually see, my ears can carefully listen and my skin can still feel fresh air and sun. It was hard for me to speak with the tone I usually use in the city; I had to lower my voice, so as not to disturb the silence around me.

“Nature! I’m on a nature trip in Syria!” It was a sentence I kept repeating to myself so that I didn’t lose the beautiful moments that could possibly be the last of their kind in this place.

The city is a monster. There is ugliness all over the place. I have become used to it, but after a very long time inside the belly of the whale I had forgotten what it looks like outside. Aside from the ugly colors of cement, and oddly drawn Syrian flags everywhere, Damascus is becoming a literal torture to the human brain. With a constant assault on all five senses, and a continuous sense of tension, it is a hypnotic state from which you cannot wake up unless you force yourself out and realize how much you’ve forgotten, how much you’re missing, being away from nature.

For me, going to Latakia in 2016 to enjoy the sea and mountains was a privilege, and one whose grandness can be fully understood only by Syrians who have had to flee the country or who are living under siege. It was in equal parts a mixture of thankfulness and sorrow for the way of life we Syrians are forced into. We can’t travel freely inside our own country, let alone around the world.

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. Photograph courtesy of Maureen. Published under a Creative Commons license.