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Sizing Up Syria

Bashar is in the unenviable position of trying to fill his father's shoes. Not even Syria's most artful propagandists can make him appear to relish the task to come. Small wonder, for Assad set a daunting example. When Islamic fundamentalists in the town of Hamah rose up against the regime in 1982, Assad sent the army in. Thousands of civilians were killed and much of Hamah was destroyed. There has been no serious opposition since. Assad's image still hangs in every shop and taxi and public building, an avuncular patriarch dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit. Once, driving north through a deserted plain, I came upon a 30-foot-tall roadside statue of Assad, smiling familiarly, his arm outstretched as if to speed me on my way.

IN THE GREAT WORLD OUTSIDE—INCLUDING THE SOVIET UNION, SYRIA'S COLD WAR PATRON—THE OLD ORDER MAY have crumbled, but not in Syria. Dissent is rare and invariably brief. As one local journalist tells me wryly: "There is an opposition in parliament, but it thinks everything is going just fine." Government control of the economy has been eased, much to the delight of the ruling class, which has snapped up whatever businesses have come onto the open market.

At the same time, the mood on the street is perceptibly more buoyant than when I first saw Damascus six years ago. Western publications once were cut to ribbons by censors; now the roofs of the city sprout satellite dishes. Artists and writers concede that even if open protest might not be a good career move, there is room for criticism. Wisely enough, though, Damascenes have yet to drop their guard. Streets that are crowded with young people at nine in the evening are empty by 10, and though the slow-growth economy has plenty to do with that, it also reflects a city whose citizens are still on the defensive, where the preferred locus of social life is the home. Damascus is a city of tight-knit groups, small circles of intimates bound by ties of friendship or family, in which often stern public postures barely hint at the warmth and intensity of private life.

I have come to know well the members of one Damascene family. Each time I have visited I've been invited to their homes, showered with presents for my own family, and ferried around as if I were visiting royalty. They are professionals, mostly, successful within the system, politically astute, and progressive. They live with their teenage children in small apartments, with little garden terraces in the back where friends and family gather for beer or arak and mezes on warm weekend nights.

Within the family, no issue is off-limits and discussion is as frank, funny, and unguarded as one could expect in such a tightly controlled society. The regime is accepted somewhat wearily as a fact of life. But it is also defended, for keeping Islamic fundamentalism at bay in what is an avowedly secular state, for fighting Syria's battle in the war against Israel.

Syrians might still feel beleaguered, but social life in Damascus is slowly opening up. Granted, youth culture as it is known in the West, with its clubs and discos, is nonexistent. Yet as tourists come in greater numbers, luxury hotels are being spruced up left and right. There are beautiful little restaurants in restored old houses. Buildings, ranging from dilapidated Ottoman palaces to faded grand hotels from the days of the French mandate, seem poised for renovation. As yet there isn't a single McDonald's, but that probably won't be too far off either. IN THE UMAYYAD MOQUE IN OLD Damascus is a mosaic of a city in a garden. Golden minarets and alabaster palaces jostle for space amid the palms. Oranges and lemons hang from trees so green they seem to burst from the wall. Everywhere there is water: in spraying fountains, surging waterfalls, the rippling progress of a river.

This is either Damascus as it once was or a vision of paradise. If we are to go by Muhammad's reaction, the mosaic is an accurate portrait of the city. It is said that when Muhammad arrived at the gates of Damascus, he refused to enter, reasoning that one should see heaven only once.

Today it is difficult, at first, to identify the city whose temptations the prophet took such pains to avoid. The modern center has the banal ugliness and traffic-snarled streets of many a Middle Eastern capital with a perfumed name and a golden past. The Barada River, once the city's source of water, is now a muddy ditch. There is barely a garden to be seen.

Miraculously, though, the old city has survived inside the chaos of the new. At the center of it are the souks, the great, gaudy bazaar of Damascus.

The Hamidiye souk, the natural point of entry, is hardly the most welcoming. Much of the merchandise is tawdry tourist fare, the central avenue crowded with aggressive hawkers. After running that gantlet, I am able to wander undisturbed for miles along streets that date from Roman times. Beneath vaulted Ottoman ceilings mingle Armenians and Kurds, bedouin and Druze, Iranian pilgrims headed to the tomb of Ali and rich Saudis on shopping sprees.

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