1. The bubble surrounding Damascus

Meet S:

(Rushes in with a big smile on his face, slightly stressed, and says so too)
‘You’ll never guess where I’m from, take a wild guess. Yugoslavia? No, not that wild, I’m from Syria. Just came from Damascus, whoa the border, four hours drive … I’ll just go change and then I’ll be back, ready to socialize. 
 — -
In a nutshell, I’m an entrepreneur who is always trying to figure out what I’m good at. I tried six industries, six companies, only two of them worked out. One super failure … So basically this is me, in a nutshell. 
 — -
The borders are the worst, they take so much money for nothing. Taking a cab here is way cheaper than having your own car, like from Damascus to Lebanon. The economic and political situation makes everything harder and complex. So any sort of transportation with a Syrian owned entity, it will be way harder to move and operate … Sometimes there’s a lot of people waiting in line [by the border], not because there’s so many people, not because it’s crowded, it’s because it’s not moving. The Syrian and Lebanese government tease each other using us, they use us. So today I didn’t wait at all actually, it was a really smooth ride. Really, like, this is the first in three years, I come here a lot, and this is the first time in three years.. Coming to Beirut, it’s the worst, just because of the border, I have to wait three-four hours, at least. Today I waited fifteen minutes, it was weird … Basically, there’s no current events. When there’s no current events, there’s no Syrian people moving or coming back from other places, so it’s not crowded. It was a really smooth ride, which is the first, I was like ‘oh my god, where are all the people’.
 — -
Last time I was here was like, six-seven months ago, quite a while. I try to come like, two-three-four days each two months. Yeah, visit friends, I visit people I know here, investors. There’s a lot, a huge chunk of the society, the Syrian business society has spread all over the world. A significant chunk of that is here in Beirut. I visit here, not just because I’m like, having my vacation, no I need to see and be connected, it’s a work thing. 
 — -
[My friends here] are investors, they’re billionaires, they invest in everything. They have like fifty businesses, seriously. They’re really, extremely successful. They fled the country, they are my mentors, so basically I need to keep in touch … Especially this guy — he’s a cool guy, ‘call me whenever you’re free’. Once you know the busy schedule he lives through.. He’s awesome, he taught me shit load of stuff, I love him, he’s a real mentor, he’s not a coach, not an advisor, he’s a mentor, there’s a way difference … 
 — -
The thing is, there’s no one pushing in the right direction when it comes to entrepreneurship in Syria. People are always.. Even the government, when I work with the government oh my god, they’re walls, when I negotiate with them, they say that ‘we’re having a war for crying out loud, you want startups right now?’ … So this is why I organize these conferences, last September we got people from Microsoft … No one comes, it’s only through Skype. 
 — -
I don’t travel a lot, not because I don’t want to, it’s because I have the Syrian passport, which is like the best passport of all, it’s like I have access to the moon and, everything, besides the earth. So, yeah I can’t, no visas what so ever. In addition to that, time is a reason, I’m super busy, extremely. With everything going on in Damascus, like if I leave everything hanging for a month, it’s like … I’m a micro manager, it’s a bad thing, you know what I mean? 
-Do they still always have beer in the fridge? (Gets up to grab one)

I booked four nights, basically I’m here for the conference, I’m gonna go to Gemmayze, have some fun because the pubs in Damascus, they’re nothing, they’re, amateurs. So I come here, have some fun, lay off some steam. Yeah. People need that, when you live in a country like Syria, now. You ask me what it’s like to live in Damascus. It’s like, it’s like living in a movie, a non-stopping movie. A very good example, is, when you hear a bomb going off, you don’t flinch, and you don’t react, you just continue living. That says a lot, yani, like I’m watching a movie, boom, and keep watching, like there’s zero reaction, nothing happened, I keep watching. And it’s been like this for five years. Because it’s been like this for five years, we developed this sort of behavior. So, this is living in Syria, this is living in Damascus. There are a couple of safer cities in Syria, it’s, on the western side of the country, on the shore, they’re pretty calm, they’re just like Beirut, there’s nothing going on there. Damascus; pretty noisy, extremely noisy. Like you hear bombs going on and off. I live downtown, I live in a place controlled by the Syrian government so, relatively safe, basically not much. Since the cease fire, really, good things happened …

It’s some sort of an ally who stabs you in the back and gives you money at the same time, it’s super weird. (Laughs). So yeah this is Russia, and also Iran. But basically, living in Damascus is no way to compare to the whole Syrian image. Like, Damascus has never seen what happened in Aleppo, never seen it, and Damascus has never seen what happened in Raqqa. So I really don’t know what’s going on, I’m a Syrian who’s been living in Syria for the last, like, twenty six years; I have no clue what’s going on in the eastern cities of Syria. There’s ISIS and those things, we don’t have them in Damascus, and we have like daily fifty bombs going off, you hear fifty bombs a day, but you don’t have them, and you don’t have ISIS. Imagine having ISIS. So basically I don’t have their experience. But I can tell through the number of refugees, and IDP:s (=internally displaced people). It’s a bit crowded, nothing more, it’s safe, culturally stable. You don’t feel it much, Damascus is, a really well organized city. 
— -
… Not seeing the reality makes me.. (Laughs). Like, it’s right under my nose, ‘yeah, we can fix stuff’.. -But it’s home. Yeah, it is home. I think this is the only reason, yeah, this is the only reason that I, even bother talking to government officials about entrepreneurship, like they have zero knowledge of what I’m saying, none. ‘Yeah we can do this’, ‘No, we already did that five years ago’ — No you didn’t. Stop saying that you did, like you can’t convince them that they’re doing something wrong because, they’re actually living in their own city of dreams (laughs) … I have two companies right now. I have a company called ‘Intellect’, it’s intellectual events, that company organizes entrepreneurial knowledge-conferences. So, Intellect is booming, I’m doing really good with Intellect, but basically I’m starting a new business now, I’m planning to fail again (laughs), in a new industry..
 — -
[The war] made us famous. No one knew about us ‘Where are you guys?’ ‘We’re near Israel’. Now everyone knows about Syria … If we were in Damascus now, where do you think the difference is between now and then? Seriously it’s extremely safe, living in Damascus, living in the city. It’s just like here. There’s no difference, you can feel it, take five seconds, imagine yourself in Damascus. This is Damascus. Zero difference. Since the cease fire, there’s no sounds. But without the cease fire, just like now, safe, but you hear bombs … And there’s a cool place in Damascus. There’s a huge mountain, it’s called Qasioun. My university is up there … I’m doing my master degree now. So when I go up; I say up because it’s in the mountain; to my university, the view is amazing, it cannot be described, it’s amazing.

But when you watch the clashes and the battlefields; with the –s, not just battlefield; you see like, spots, here and there, like smoke going off far away. But surrounding the whole city. The whole city lives in a bubble, it’s a bubble, of, the illusion of being safe. You’re not safe.

But we have the illusion and the fear of them being afraid to enter the city, they can’t, the rebels and ISIS. No we don’t have ISIS. We have Jabhat al-Nusra, I don’t know what the western media calls them. They’re like, ISIS:s son (laughs). They’re same, they’re ISIS. So basically this is the whole thing. Yeah –so yeah this is exactly what it’s like living in Damascus.

Back in 2013, it was the, one of the worst years ever, like, we were seeing bombs everywhere, being thrown, we were seeing missiles, we were seeing everything. You know like videogames, we would see everything happen. Since you are in a high place, you see everything happen, and the sounds.. Yeah so, that experience, it’s the Damascus experience. When you are on a mountain, and you are watching the battlefields, this is what I meant when I said you are living in a movie. So this is it, this is what it’s like living in Syria … It’s never a normal life, it’s never. Basically we made it normal.

We designed normal life between the cracks. Because, whatever is going on outside you still need to go to work, and you still need to love someone, and you still need to go to college and learn, go to school. So, life doesn’t stop, life doesn’t stop.

This is why, eh, we adapt. This is what I mean by, by.. This is not normal life, this is not anyway near normal life.The Syrian way of normal life has really changed dramatically, like, every Friday, the weekend –people do stuff, very certain stuff, this is Syrian culture. They don’t anymore. This is huge, it cannot be changed; it has changed. Like every Saturday now, it’s a new thing, people do stuff and go out. Basically people have fun, in a very different way. People used to go places now not accessible, outside the city. Those places, Damascus people are fond of, really really attached to, they can’t access those places because they are, they are –outside of the bubble, outside of the safety. This is it, yeah. Culturally, this is what really changed, about the way of life. -My life? Everyday cannot be noticed, it’s not about everyday, it’s about the macro picture,

it’s about what could have been.

This is what has changed. Personally in my life, many things where set to be on the right track and didn’t. It’s really hard to plan ahead in Syria right now, you cannot trust the future at all. So this is why it has to do with everything simultaneously, because you cannot trust anything … Even in Lebanon. It’s a shit country, I know it is, because we’re neighbors. So basically, even people here are fleeing. Many Lebanese people they buy Syrian passports and act like Syrian people. They all know that there’s a big difference between the two. They get caught and sent back home. –It’s really embarrassing by the way, super weird. But basically, the big change, what the war changed, it’s the macro picture of what I planned and of what happened. –What I planned? Depends on the year. Like I mentioned, you can’t trust the future anymore, you can’t plan ahead, you just can’t … Entrepreneurs need to plan. I fail a lot, like a bunch of times. But basically I got used to this process of failing in Damascus, so it’s not failing, it’s doing. It’s part of [it]. But, I’m focusing on things that I’m good at. This I why I love my failure rates.

–I live in a place extremely similar to, North Korea, extremely similar, like it’s the same mindset–

(Tells a story of getting a visa to Italy); Yani, I still think that, my government, if they found this out, they will ask some questions, they will invite me to one off their palaces (laughs) and ask me couple questions. -What would happen? This is Syria. I told you it’s very similar, you should use your imagination. It’s exactly what you’re imagining … A lot of us, people who think like me, would mention this comparison, will focus on the things like the open minded kind of people. So basically, what I’m saying, there’s a lot of people supporting Assad, friends, really, not pretending, no one pretends for that long. Really supporting, they are really convinced. And this is alien to me, this is weird, this is beyond my understanding, how can you support such a thing.

The first year of the revolution I was asking these things, so after discussion, spending hours and hours with those people, trying to pick on their brains; there’s no, not the logic you would look for in a sane human. This is what they do. When you say brain washing, the first country that comes to mind is North Korea. So basically.. So basically, we’re students, really good ones. They did that to people for forty years and it worked so they’re really good, not on a hundred percent, luckily, but a very significant portion. This is why it’s extremely complex, the Syrian situation.

-Why are you not supporting Assad? It’s not like that no. I was an activist, I was. It’s a thing I stopped doing, but it doesn’t mean I reversed to doing the opposite thing. I stopped. Not because of safety no.

We started the revolution 2011. I finished supporting it in mid-2012. I was among the people who are protected against the government in Syria … Extremely dangerous. You have no clue, I would have died, this is real life, I was one those people. One of those days that I was in there with the protestors, we were like ten thousand people. You just can’t understand this number, in a neighborhood, it’s a huge number. So I was there saying everything in my heart. The very next day nothing happened. The very next week nothing happened, next month, next six months, next year. Nothing happened. So I stopped because this is not a revolution. Because this is not how a revolution works … We were ten thousand people.

So I started thinking. Giving the fact that we were ten thousand in the capital of the country, very powerful place. And nothing happened. Nothing changed. Zero things have changed. And ten thousand people protested for zero effort. So basically I stopped thinking about it like a revolution, started thinking of it like a plan for someone else’s game. So I walked out of it, giving the fact that I still support it. Gave up? No, no. Like I’m out, I’m not gonna support actively, those endeavors, because they’re useless …

So I stopped focusing on these things because they’re not working, they’re wasting my time, they’re putting me in a huge danger … I started listening really to the news — not our news. It started being painted to me like, it’s not a revolution, this is not how it works. This is not against Assad, this is not about Assad at all. It’s someone else’s game, and you’re just the playground. This is just, this is not how life works … This got me thinking, to look outside the whole thing. And, turns out I was sort of right. No, this is not how it’s done, this is not about Assad at all, this is about Russia, China. It’s their game, our playground. They’re playing with our, everything. So basically, — What I’m trying to say, giving he fact that I am against Assad and the regime, in every sort of way, in every meaning of the word, it doesn’t mean that I want it to be changed, because, changing it will not solve the problems that are laying behind it. Because there are bigger issues at hand. It’s the game, the geopolitical game, it’s where Syria is on the map between the European Union, the place, it’s.. it’s way bigger than Assad. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s not the vocal issue, people are like ‘Yeah we want to remove Assad’, like who cares, no one cares!

Even the cease fire. I’m still in shock, why did this work, I have no clue why this worked, this shouldn’t work, it worked. Why, I’m just, the question marks, just, illuminating my mind.

I think, it think it will not last long. This is my, projection. It will not last long. It will be ending pretty soon. No huge change is made. Damascus is way safer, way safer. Also the rebel controlled areas are way safer. The regime is not bombing them. This is amazingly good. Cause there are schools, there are people there, civilians for crying out loud. There are people living there that are not terrorists. So this is good on all sides, cease fire was a really good step in the right direction; it will not last. I don’t feel it will. This is not how we operate, this is not the game. So, I think it will end, the whole thing will end some year, not sure when. Cause I was sure a couple years ago and I discovered it’s not gonna end in anyone’s terms. It’s not a pressure anymore, it’s like, this is how things work right now, get used to it. So this is it. So I think the cease fire will end pretty soon. Giving that, think people will be a bit disappointed but will not get shocked, it’s like, they will see it coming, like ok.

–How do you see it ending? I have no clue. I’m no expert in politics. But I think a very reasonable idea to ending this once and for all is creating a federal country dividing Syria, which is a bad thing for the main things in Syria. Cause they love multicultural things. One thing bout Syria is we don’t have racism, really don’t have racism … This thing in Syria is a thing to be proud of, Because we’re an extremely diverse society, there’s like fourteen kinds of people living in the same country for thousands of years, no one’s gonna change that. So this thing, if you divide Syria into federal areas, it will solve a huge part, like Alawites will live in the west, Sunnis will live in the center, the north will be devoted to Kurds … basically, doing that, will solve a bunch of problems … I support this idea, which is a cutting edge idea, like ninety nine percent of my Syrian friends disagree with me, for the reason I just mentioned. ‘No, this is not us, we’re diverse, we live like this’. I see it’s a very good solution for the shit storm that we have. Because since we don’t have racism, we do have hate.

Let me explain why we feel hate for the sort of people that are clinging to power. They’re from the cities in the western parts of Syria, on the shore. The majority of them are from the Alawite cult. So those people are being hated all around Syria because they are representing the regime, those people, and this is the regime’s fault because those people are nice, they’re nice people. When you go to those cities, they’re generous, they have cool food, they talk, they’re nice people. You shouldn’t hate people, you should hate persons and their actions. Yeah, but you don’t hate people, this is wrong, stupid. But basically this is how Syrians are thinking, because of the regime. They are the reason for generating hate towards these people. This is solved through dividing the country, this is easily solved by that –But, then you lose bunch of things. So I think this is a good way to minimize the damage that is being done by this war.

But once you think about it, it’s not a war, it’s not a revolution, it’s a shit storm of people just playing chess on your table so… yeah.

— -

So basically this is the whole thing in a nutshell … You just heard one side of the story.’

Five years of conflict, Beirut March 19.
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