The stormy winter weather that affected a number of areas in the Middle East last week also struck Damascus. Early in the week it merely rained, but on Wednesday morning it began to snow and then continued sporadically throughout the day. Very little snow settled on the ground during daylight hours, but by the next morning the city was covered by the snow that had fallen during the night and children were outside throwing snowballs at each other and building snow men.
Near the old city's citadel a small group of children decorated theirs with a red wig from one of the nearby cosmetics shops. In the modern centre of the city I saw a soldier making a snow man, with the help of a passing civilian, on top of a concrete traffic barrier next to his post -- scooping the snow off the front steps of the bank branch that he was ostensibly guarding. A short while later I passed the same spot and his work had been cleared away.
For people here the inclement weather is especially hard to bear given the drastic shortage of heating fuel and cooking gas, and the worsening situation with regard to electricity. Since the beginning of winter the regular electricity outages that have long been a feature of life in Syria have become much longer and much more frequent.
Before, the outages occurred according to a schedule of some sort -- the power cuts would occur at approximately the same time and be of more or less the same duration every day. Now, the power is cut seemingly at random and no one has any idea how long it will be before it returns.
In the part of the old city in which I live, the power is usually cut for a couple of hours in the morning, and then again for two or three hours in the late afternoon. Sometimes the outages last for an hour or two longer than normal, and occasionally much longer: one night recently we were without electricity for seven hours -- from the afternoon until well into the night -- while a few weeks ago, my neighbourhood had no power for two whole days. In other areas the situation is much worse -- in Bab Touma, the old city's famous Christian quarter, the power has, in recent weeks, been off more often than it has been on.
The situation has been even worse, however, in the suburbs on the outskirts of the city where people have been forced to contend with a reduced supply of electricity for considerably longer than those of us who live in more central areas. Some time ago I heard from one resident of such a suburb that in her area the power supply was alternating every two hours throughout the day and night. I have also heard of another suburb in which residents endured three whole days without power.
In the absence of electricity, people here have come to depend on candles and battery powered LED lamps and torches to light their houses -- all of which have become ubiquitous in the street stalls that have proliferated since the start of the crisis. As there is a shortage of the oil used for heating here, some people have begun to heat their homes using wood-fired heaters, and I have started to notice bags of fire wood now being sold in certain street markets. People navigate the dark narrow streets of the old city using the flashlights in their mobile phones, pointing them at the ground so as not to shine them in the faces of oncoming foot traffic.
Many business owners have invested in petrol-driven generators which they use in order to keep their businesses open and attract customers. I have heard of one cafe in the old city that benefits greatly from the presence of their generator -- despite the ever-increasing cost of the petrol required to run it. As the only place in the neighbourhood that offers electricity during blackouts, it attracts large numbers of people seeking to charge their mobile phones or to connect to the Internet.
The drone of vast numbers of generators can frequently be heard throughout the city whenever the power goes out. The Umayyad Mosque has a particularly large and powerful one, the noise of which dominates the surrounding streets whenever it is turned on.
Last winter a local friend and I often strolled together of an evening through Qassaa, a popular shopping district just outside the old city. Whenever our stroll happened to coincide with a power cut, however, conversation was rendered almost impossible as, every few metres, on the pavement outside each of the small boutiques that line the area's main street, there sat one of these box-shaped generators, each making a noise similar in sound and volume to that of a lawnmower. Some of the machines also emitted wafts of white smoke.
Last Thursday there was a particularly long power cut in my area and I was told that this was a result of a fire in some part of the electricity infrastructure which serves the old city. While there was no electricity inside any of the houses, the streetlights were unaffected. Eventually one of my housemates collected a small sum from everyone in the house and paid an electrician to illegally connect our house to the power line used by the street lights. There now seem to be electricians walking the streets offering just such a service.
Thus we were able to at least light the house, although the weak current did not permit us to use our electric heaters. After a while the regular electricity returned and all of hurried to take advantage of it while we could, knowing that we would soon be plunged into darkness once again.