Middle class residents of Damascus cling to a surreal good life, even with ISIS pounding on the door

The World
A woman stands inside a Damascus grocery shop beside a picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. The text beneath the Syrian leader reads "With you" in Arabic.

A woman stands inside a Damascus grocery shop beside a picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. The text beneath the Syrian leader reads "With you," in Arabic. 

Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

The militants of ISIS are hunkered down just six miles from the center of Syria's capital. But in prosperous central Damascus, residents with means have weekend plans. 

"Me and some friends actually are going out. We thought that we would go to a swimming pool here close to the center of Damascus, and then we'll go just to a restaurant and have lunch together," says a Syrian resident who uses the pseudonym Al-Sayed Ward. "I'm not saying we are normal, but we are trying to be normal." 

Al-Sayed is part of the Syrian middle class who has decided to stay put in a city that is increasingly in limbo. She describes a surreal existence in Damascus, where many residents are trying to go on with their lives even though they can't push thoughts of the war out of their minds. 

"People, they are more anxious and worried. There's lots of news that ISIS and other armed groups are all around the country and having more control," she notes. "But it's sunny now and people are going out during the weekends and you can see more people at the restaurants." 

Al-Sayed says just in the last few weeks, four new elegant dining establishments have opened in the city center. 

"You can see them full of people," she says. "This a bit shocked me. I don't have any rationale or logical justification how this is going on."

Not every Damascus resident can frequent the new, high-priced locales. And she says young men are increasingly worried that when they're out on the town, they might be stopped and asked for papers confirming that they are exempt from military service. 

"If you are now in an age between 20 to 40, or 45 you are requested to rejoin the army even if you did your military service," she says. "I saw, myself, two soldiers just suddenly appear on the street. They were stopping the cars and asking people if they had their certificate or not. So if they don't, they might be sent to serve."

Suspicion divides city dwellers, even within some families who have had dramatically different perspectives since the conflict broke out four years ago.  

"Some of them from the beginning considered that this is extremists coming to the country and want to create a mess," she says. "Others think that this is a revolution and people are asking for more justice and to change what's going on."

Al-Sayed says her personal approach was not to be "very tough" with Damascus residents whose point of view clashed with hers.  

"I could understand their fears and the way they are thinking," she notes. "I was trying to keep these linkages between us in one way or another. But I know lots of people who lost lots of friends. They broke relations completely."