Based on photographs brought by refugees coming into Beirut, Damascus is not once a city but several towns, neighborhoods, and villages. This signaled the fall of one of the myths about this nearby city. For the youths and elderly of Beirut, the Mezzeh neighborhood meant the famous Mezzeh prison. Whenever the Syrian army arrested one of our neighbors, we used to say, “He was taken to Mezzeh.” Mezzeh was just the prison that we thought was the most formidable of all. The first time we heard of Rif Dimashq was when Rostom Ghazala was made in charge of security there following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. We thought he was appointed in this position in order to stay close to Lebanon and keep eavesdropping on us and receiving Lebanese politicians that can meet him as soon as they cross the border. Rif Dimashq was for us this area right next to the borders with Lebanon. We had never thought it was made up of towns and villages and was inhabited by people.
Now, the Damascus we do not know is different from the Damascus we did not know. People who fled Damascus to Beirut brought with them their love for it and scenes of space and colors that we had never imagined existed that close to us. Those did not all leave for political reasons, for many women and men among them (the number of women is actually bigger than that of men) left because the city is no longer suitable for their lifestyle after it was torn apart by checkpoints and it became very hard to go out after 8:00 pm.
“I came here to stay close to my friends,” said a young woman whose companions in Damascus have left. This is something we have never done when Beirut got unstable. We used to leave because it was no longer safe, because schools were closed, or because we no longer had jobs. Wanting to be with people has never played a part in a decision as big as leaving the city. This young woman is like many others who left to live with their friends in Beirut then later think of finding a job and starting a new life.
There is some passion that surpasses what we feel for our friends in our city that is much smaller than Damascus in terms of space, population, and history. The Damascenes through whom we are rediscovering Damascus are not bored with their friendships, which they celebrate on daily basis as if they have just started yesterday. They miss each other more than we do. There is some form of childishness in the way they manage their time and lead their lives and which beats this senility residing in our souls after our youth was spent listening to Rostom Ghazala who lived behind the hill we later knew was called Rif Dimashq.
Here is, for example, a man who opens the window of his house in Beirut during a strong night rainstorm, the like of which he has never seen in Damascus. He starts screaming to see whether his voice can penetrate the rain at night. And here is a woman who calls up her friend on the same night to tell her she will sleep at her house because she is afraid of the sound of thunder.
Damascus lives inside those who left it for Beirut in a way that makes it very difficult for them to change their mood to fit that of the host city. In fact, something in Beirut has changed since the Damascenes started coming. There is a Damascene spirit in night spots, cafes, and middle-class neighborhoods. The Damascenes are practicing their yearning for their hometown in Beirut. For example, sidewalk pubs have never been that popular in Beirut or they might have for a short while. Now, they are back to life in the Mar Michael neighborhood and many Lebanese are flocking there, thus initiating a different Syrian era in their city. Despite all the political and social tumult that accompanied the advent of Damascenes to Beirut, the host city seems to offer all the space those people need, which unravels an astounding discrepancy between the levels of acceptance and rejection within one layer of consciousness in the Lebanese psyche as proclamations of racism are countered with manifestations of tolerance by the very same people.
Many of them did not take part in the revolution and did not leave because the police summoned them. They came to be next to their friends and to yearn from here for their city and people. They are not against the regime because it is tyrannical, but rather because it kicked out their friends and because it is firing missiles from Mount Qasioun that their families can hear. They talk about the Baath Party, whose teachings they learnt at schools, and they make fun of it without much bitterness. They recount stories of a Baath teacher and a security officer who confiscated a computer because its manufacturer in Japan was not aware that computers in Syria cannot have Hebrew among the languages programmed on it.
The Damascenes who left for Beirut also deconstructed the image the Lebanese had about Syrians and which basically revolved around two components with negative connotations: the first is the Syrian officer of the occupying army and the second is the violated Syrian citizen who would never be equal to the residents of Beirut. But the Syrian musicians on the Mar Michael sidewalk and in Metro Beirut alerted us that Beirut musicians do not play in the streets and that the poor in the name of whom Ziad Rahbani sings have never been able to attend any of his concerts because they cannot afford to pay for the ticket and that he sings about them and not for them.
*This article first appeared in al-Hayat on Jan. 13, 2013. Link: http://alhayat.com/Details/471818
Hazem al-Amin is a Lebanese writer and journalist at al-Hayat. He was a field reporter for the newspaper, and covered wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza. He specialized in reporting on Islamists in Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Kurdistan and Pakistan, and on Muslim affairs in Europe. He has been described by regional media outlets as one of Lebanon's most intelligent observers of Arab and Lebanese politics.