For the first time in sixteen years Damascus has inaugurated a new five-star luxury hotel. The Golden Mazzeh is a ten-story reminder that some Syrians are surviving America’s economic sanctions better than others. Its 111 suites and rooms, ten restaurants and bars, two outdoor swimming pools, ballroom, meeting rooms, theater, gym, and conference center make it a formidable competitor to the older Sheraton and Four Seasons. Guests can sip martinis in its two rooftop bars while contemplating a 360-degree panorama of the sprawling Syrian capital: suburban apartment complexes and parks to the west, Mount Qasioun to the north, and to the east the ancient walled city where Saint Paul eluded his persecutors and which tradition says the Prophet Muhammad bypassed in the belief that man could enter paradise only once. An Italian architect, Massimo Rodighiero, designed the hotel, whose manager, Patrick Prudhomme, is French. In the eucalyptus-shaded public garden across from the entrance, mothers watch their children as traffic rumbles along the nearby Mazzeh Highway toward Beirut.
This is the road that first delivered me to Damascus at Easter 1973, before high-rise government offices, embassies, and apartments for a new class of military officers, civil servants, and merchants absorbed semirural, suburban Mazzeh into the metropolis. I was a tourist then, an ignorant American graduate student on his way by land from Lebanon to Aqaba in Jordan, pausing long enough for lunch and a little sightseeing. When I returned the following October to cover the war with Israel, it was as a journalist on a visa approved by the Ministry of Information’s obstructive, sluggish bureaucracy. Since then I’ve had to apply to the ministry whenever I sought to return.
When I submitted my latest request on October 16, the Syrian consulate in Beirut informed me, “The visa process takes twenty to thirty days to get a response from Syria.” Three months later the ministry had yet to respond. Syrian and Lebanese friends with wasta—influence—in Damascus offered to obtain a visa for me through the more powerful Ministry of Interior. To my surprise, they succeeded. I took a taxi from Beirut to the Syrian border post at Jdaideh, where an officer behind the counter examined the visa and checked his computer. When my journalist status flashed up, he declared that I could not enter without the imprimatur of the Ministry of Information. My driver remonstrated with him, until a man in civilian clothes behind us offered help. He told the officer to admit me if I wrote a letter affirming that I had retired from journalism and would not be reporting from Syria. I did so, the official relented, and I paid $140 for the visa stamp. When I turned to thank my savior, he had disappeared.
Relieved of my journalist status, I skipped interviews with officials in favor of meeting friends, visiting monuments and museums, lingering in coffeehouses, gossiping with shopkeepers, and hearing again and again that life is unbearable. Electricity is supplied one hour in every six. Gasoline and diesel to run cars, heaters, and kitchen stoves are in short supply and, when available, too expensive for the average worker. Iran has increased the price it charges Syria for seaborne deliveries of refined oil, only one of the reasons Syrians pay about ten times what the next-door Lebanese pay for a liter of gasoline. Oil traders point to the government’s hoarding of gasoline and diesel in storage tanks near Baniyas harbor, which delays distribution and keeps prices—and profits—high.
The value of the Syrian pound has dropped steadily, from 3,000 to the US dollar last year to 6,500 when I arrived, and it continued to fall while I was there. With the largest denomination note only 5,000 pounds, men carry thick bricks of cash in handbags. Bread costs 40,000 pounds a kilo. A year ago, it was a mere 500. Meat, vegetables, olive oil, and other basics are beyond the means of most Syrians. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that 12 million out of Syria’s remaining 18 to 21 million inhabitants—6.6 million have fled the country since the civil war began in 2011—do not have enough to eat. More than a quarter of a million qualify for assistance to ameliorate what the WFP calls “acute malnutrition.” The World Health Organization had recorded more than 50,000 cases of cholera across Syria by the end of last year and warns of other epidemics due to the shortage of imported medicines…
Read the full review on The New York Review of Books