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Regime barricades block a street in Damascus, Syria, on New Year's Eve. (Courtesy of the author)

Reflections On A Difficult Time: Spending New Year's In Damascus

Jan 1, 2013

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Editor's Note: The author is a Syrian citizen who is not being identified for security reasons.

At first, New Year's Eve in Damascus promised little more than a cozy family gathering to a backdrop of TV.

My older relatives had been looking forward to watching the famous astrologers who predict events for the New Year.

"Let's see what 2013 has in store for us," one of my elderly relatives said. "Inshallah there's some good news for Syria."

Like many Damascenes, most of my friends and relatives have long left town, fleeing the violence that began to plague Damascus last summer.

The few who remain often feel sequestered inside their isolated pockets. They are cut off from me, and each other, by the serpentine labyrinth of road blocks and checkpoints that now define Damascus.

Depressed and laden with survivor guilt, none wanted to make an effort to come out and celebrate.

So I resigned myself to the only apparent New Year's Eve plan available.

But a surprise text message appeared on my phone.

"Dinner?" it said. It was from a colleague, a European writer on a visit to Damascus. I shall call her Maya.

"Sure," I responded.

We could stick to the small patch of the city that was still strictly under regime control. Rebels have not yet arrived there, and regime forces are not yet shelling it. Life still had some semblance of normalcy.

I thought we would have a quiet meal out, then retire early. I had no idea that our evening would develop into a bizarre and sometimes sad, but festive, countdown to 2013.

I picked her up, and upon arrival in the Old City we felt disheartened to find none of the usual decorations of the season.

In 2010, no tree had been spared the festive, small white lights in some parts of the city, including the predominantly Sunni Muslim areas.

Now, on New Year's Eve, even the Christian Quarters went dark. Hardly anyone was out and about. A subdued atmosphere, combined with power cuts, were to blame.

Electricity generators droned in the background as Maya and I lit up a flashlight to guide us through the uneven cobblestone alleys.

Finally, we arrived at our destination. An exquisitely restored traditional Damascene home; Narenj Restaurant, where the likes of Sting, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie used to dine and wine.

Now, my friend and I were one of three tables.

Nonetheless, we sat near the stone wall by the jasmine tree in the enclosed courtyard. In the backdrop, the soft sound of a water fountain intermingled with the melancholy music of traditional Sufi-inspired incantations.

A flower petal fluttered down onto Maya, and we both decided it was a good omen for the coming year.

We dined on traditional stuffed grape leaves cooked in lemon juice and lamb broth. Thankfully, I thought, unlike so many craftsmen and tradesmen and guardians of heritage, the chef had not left town. He was still there, weaving his magic into the charm and soul of the city.

Maya, who had already visited Damascus half a dozen times before, said that during her stay this time she planned to really take in the historic landmarks.

"Because they may not be there next time," she said, echoing every Damascene's fear. We both lamented the grave losses to Syria's heritage in the city of Aleppo during violent clashes last summer.

Dessert arrived on a silver tray, complete with fruit and traditional semolina cookies stuffed with dates or pistachios. I dug my teeth into a slice of fresh pomegranate.

Maya and I could hear the muffled sound of shelling outside, but we could not tell exactly which Damascus suburb was being hit. The thumps and thuds of mortar shells and missiles have unfortunately become a common life motif in Damascus.

We sauntered out of Narenj and found that the Old City had come to life a little bit. Although most of the pedestrians around us were armed security men in civilian clothing, Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, we did hear music spilling out of a couple of bars.

We peered inside. The crowd looked young but somber, with cigarettes and drinks in hand. No one showed a smile.

We could have gone in, but the smoke was too much to bear.

In recent months, acrid smells have polluted the Damascus air, long known in Arabic poetry for its scent of jasmine. Now, at times you could smell burning flesh. Gunpowder, fighter jet fuel and debris from destroyed buildings have taken a toll on people's respiratory health. The last thing I needed was indoor smoke.

It was also time to head back. The shelling in the distance had grown louder, and we were lucky to find a taxi.

The clock was approaching midnight when our ride let us out near Maya's hotel.

We followed the sound of blaring music and arrived at an intersection. A party was rocking and rolling above us, inside a club on the top floor of a hotel. We could see the neon lights, and the windows pumped to the sound of the bass.

In a surreal moment, the song "Who Let the Dogs Out" began to roar from the rooftop club.

I looked around us and found only a handful of young men loitering at a food stand, and a city sanitation worker sweeping the street kitty-corner to us. Then, the countdown inside the club began. We could hear it from where we stood below.

"5, 4, 3, 2, 1..." the DJ yelled.

We did not hear the crowd cheer. Instead, we heard a staccato of gunfire, and it sounded quite near.

Maya and I headed to her hotel down the block.

With all the absurdities of war, we still felt like something was missing in receiving the new year. But with barely eight guests in the hotel, the bar and cafe had been closed for months. So we ordered two coups of champagne from room service, and held up our glasses for better days.

I then inquired about the gunfire, which seemed to have halted.

"Don't worry, it was just the guards," the taxi office told me over the phone. "They were celebrating the new year."

He sent me a car and I was home by 1 a.m.

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