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Dispatches From Damascus: The Old City Under Surveillance

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The Syrian government has now established a permanent network of surveillance over the old city. A combination of uniformed soldiers and plain-clothes security officers, many of them armed, now constantly monitor vehicle and pedestrian traffic passing along the narrow cobbled streets.

On my way home through the old city I often take a short cut through an archway and along a narrow lane. Like many others in Damascus' labyrinthine old quarters, it passes underneath a number of houses, and at other places is so narrow that the houses on either side seem to converge above it, so even during the day it is dark and gloomy throughout its length.

This particular lane ends about a block from the Umayyad Mosque, near a traditional bathhouse and a small perfume shop. It is beside this perfume shop that for the last few weeks there has been an improvised checkpoint consisting of a couple of soldiers sitting on plastic chairs and checking peoples' documents.

One day the pair of young soldiers that were stationed there saw me as I walked past and called me over, asking for my identification. I handed my passport to one of them and he flicked through it and then, presumably more accustomed to the identity cards that all Syrians must carry and unable to read English, held it up before me and asked me what it was. The other soldier laughed at him and called him a donkey, and the two of them traded good-humoured insults for a minute. After asking me about my business in Syria and checking through my bag, they sent me on my way.

A short distance away is the shrine of Saida Ruqayya -- an important place of pilgrimage for Shiite Muslims. Before, the streets leading to the shrine were frequently packed thick and rendered almost impassable by groups of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran and even further afield, and the nearby shops thrived selling them clothes, sweets and toys.

Now the doors of the shrine are closed and many of the shops are shuttered. The street in front of the shrine is patrolled by plain-clothes security men equipped with walkie-talkies and almost every time I pass my bag is searched thoroughly.

To the east of the Umayyad Mosque there are the remains of the gates to the ancient Roman temple that once stood on the site of the mosque. Against the white stone ruins, on a spot on which the local store-holders used to sit and drink tea and play chess or backgammon on summer evenings, the army has constructed a simple shelter of metal poles and canvas sheets.

The shelter is occupied by a group of soldiers who sit here throughout the day and into the night. They take turns to sit alone a few metres away and watch the passing foot traffic, checking the identity documents of anyone unfamiliar or who seems out of place. Occasionally one of them is sent to collect a pot of tea from one of the nearby shops.

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At other points in the old city, soldiers have erected transparent plastic tents of different sizes in which to take shelter as the weather becomes cooler. One such tent has been placed in the small park located near the corner of Straight Street -- one of the old city's main thoroughfares -- and Bab Touma Street, which leads to the quarter of that name.

The park was once a popular and lively meeting place for foreign students and locals, famous for its mushroom-shaped seats. Now it is mostly empty in the evenings but a few months ago someone decided to enliven it by painting the grey cement mushrooms in bright colours. The soldiers stationed here often stop and search the cars heading towards the old city's eastern gate, inevitably backing up traffic in the one-lane street.

At its western end Straight Street becomes the Souq Medhat Pasha -- one of the Ottoman-era covered markets for which Damascus is famed -- which specializes in clothes and fabrics. Running perpendicular to this market is Souq Al-Bzouriyya, the spice market. At the intersection of the two, soldiers have constructed a guard post that is protected by a mound of sandbags. The emplacement is decorated by a Syrian flag stuck to the wall behind it.

The Souq Al-Bzouriyya is still lively and colourful during the day, filled with damascenes shopping for spices, herbs, preserved fruit and sweets. By night it is silent and all but deserted, but one can still smell the fragrant spices that are on display throughout the day.

One night recently I was strolling through the souq and saw a figure walking slowly ahead of me in the poorly-lit passage, an object dangling from their arm. When I drew within a few paces, he started and turned quickly to face me, watching me closely as I passed. It became apparent that he was a very young and nervous plain-clothes security officer, armed with a Kalashnikov and patrolling the streets alone.