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Dispatches From Damascus: How the Other Half Live

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While many Syrians have suffered immensely during the current conflict, others continue to live much as before. The stark contrasts that exist in Syrians' experience of the ongoing crisis were illustrated for me at the beginning of August when a young single mother and her two-year-old son came to stay in my house for a few days.

She had been living with her family in the impoverished southern suburb of Saida Zeinab until the outbreak of violence in the capital in late July, when the suburb was infiltrated by opposition forces and consequently subjected to artillery bombardment by the Syrian army.

For a few nights, until it was safe for her to return home, we sat together watching television and drinking tea, while both of us kept an eye on her roaming son to make sure that he didn't stumble into an altercation with the cat. She told me how she and her family had fled from their home in fright as the walls shook from the shelling, and how she had become separated from them as they each sought refuge in different parts of the city.

She and her son spent several days living in a school -- the first time she had ever spent the night away from her family, before being offered the vacant room in my house by the owner, for whom she had worked before her child was born and who continued to assist her financially.

She told me of her concern for the well-being of relatives that she hadn't heard from, as well as for the state of her home. She had heard a rumour that, after the shelling, government security forces had ransacked the vacant houses and stolen everything -- including fridges and washing machines.

This rumour later turned out not to be true, and she learned that her brother had stayed behind alone in their house until the fighting ended. He told her that on one morning he had gone out and had had to step over a dead body that the security forces had simply left in the street near their house.

She sympathized openly with the opposition and blamed the government for the violence. In her view, the residents of all of the suburbs on the outskirts of the capital, along with the rest of the country, supported the opposition, leaving the prosperous central suburbs isolated in their continued support of the regime.

On one of these nights I went out and met a western friend for a drink in the old city. After the first bar that we went to closed for the evening and we were asked to leave, we decided to look for somewhere else to continue drinking. Having wandered around for a while without any success we eventually found a bar that was still open, and went in.

There were only a handful of people inside but the bar was small enough to still feel crowded. The small clientele consisted mostly of young people, with the exception of one slightly odd couple -- a paunchy, balding middle-aged man accompanied a noticeably younger woman with pencilled eyebrows who sat at their table looking wistfully at the bodies on the dance floor.

All of the girls were expensively and revealingly dressed and danced with their male companions seemingly unencumbered by their towering heels, while everyone was knocking back a range of exotic cocktails and shots.

The powerful sound system blasted out a variety of western dance music, such as that of Shakira, Pitbull, Rihanna and J. Lo. -- interspersed with the Arabic equivalent. Occasionally the DJ played selections from a peculiarly Syrian sub-genre of the latter -- presumably soon to become obsolete -- with lyrics praising the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad himself.

This always prompted an enthusiastic response from the dancing clientele, and at one point a girl took a small Syrian flag -- with a photo of the president's head between its two stars -- from its place on the wall and began to wave it around and dance around with it.

Once it became apparent that the two of us were foreigners they took it upon themselves to explain the situation in Syria to us. They all greatly admired the president and described him as "nice" or "sweet" and asserted that almost all of Syria supported him against the uprising.

They also treated us to a recitation of a few of the pro-government chants that used to be heard frequently at pro-government demonstrations. Such chants are generally in fairly poor taste and tend to glorify the Syrian president and the pro-government militia and encourage them in their defence of the regime, or to mock the people of other Syrian cities who have been brutally punished for their support of the opposition.

At around four in the morning the bar closed and we were all turned out onto the street. We walked with some of our fellow patrons to the deserted square inside the old city's eastern gate, where their car was parked, and made our farewells. They told us that they would be back the next night to continue the party. Meanwhile, my friend from Saida Zeinab would be stuck in a house full of strangers, eating food given to her out of charity and wondering when her suburb would be safe enough for her and her family to return to.