The request came on my last evening in Damascus. I was getting ready to go out to dinner when a friend, a journalist who used to also cover Syria, sent me a message asking to get him a tablecloth. He wanted a particular type, handcrafted with charming prints of flowers and birds, the kind available at the souvenir and handicraft stores in the old Hamidiyyeh bazaar. He didn't want the intricate, silver-embroidered Aghabani style but rather the type stamped with block prints. "There's something beautiful in their simplicity," he told me. "Plus, when your friends invariably spill red wine on them, it's not the end of the world. You can throw them in the washing machine."
I figured it was an easy request. My dinner wasn't far from the bazaar, on a nearby street called Straight—famously mentioned in the Bible—in this ancient, continuously inhabited city. All I'd need to take was a five-minute detour. I was wrong. I couldn't find the tablecloths at the first store I walked into. Nor the second. Nor the third. I heard the same story in the five shops that were open that night in Hamidiyyeh: Only one man made them. He's from Hama, in central Syria. No one knows what's happened to him since the country started descending into chaos in 2011.
I was crushed. At the end of a five-day trip to Damascus the last thing I wanted was yet another reminder of loss amid the bloody civil war. Finding that tablecloth would have been evidence that a part of Syria's soul survives. So I continued looking.
Of course, in eight years of war, Syria has lost more than just the handiwork of its artisans. More than 500,000 people have been killed, most of them in brutal government bombings—including the use of shrapnel-filled barrel bombs. Half the population has been displaced; more than 2 million children are out of school in the country; and, according to United Nations estimates, 83% of Syrians now live below the poverty line.
The country's turmoil began as part of the Arab Spring, with protesters demanding democracy, but the ensuing civil war has led to the rise of Islamic State and other militant groups. These rebels, who are mainly Sunni, want to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, who's an Alawite (the Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam).
Although the violence has abated in most of the country, ordinary people have found no relief. They're struggling to survive in a broken economy. "Millions of Syrians inside face a critical lack of commodities, including fuel, approaching crisis levels," Geir Pedersen, the UN special envoy to Syria, said in an April 30 briefing to the Security Council. "The terrible scale of Syrians' suffering, and the uncertain future of millions, weighs heavily on me, as it should on us all."
On this trip, my third since the conflict started, I could see how Damascus's dynamism had been replaced by fatigue, even though the city had enjoyed a year relatively free from fighting after government troops defeated the Islamist forces that had besieged it. The residents of Damascus were weighed down by economic hardships and the struggle to survive their many day-to-day crises: dealing with gasoline rations; rushing home with heavy grocery bags to get on apartment building elevators before power was cut; ensuring there was enough cooking gas left in canisters to prepare a family meal.
The government, which produced more than 350,000 barrels of oil a day before the conflict, can pump only 24,000 of the 100,000 barrels it needs daily to power the country because most of its oil wells are either damaged or beyond its control mainly in Kurdish-held territory. The Shiite regime in Tehran has provided Damascus with a credit line to buy oil and shore up the economy. But Iran can't help as much these days. American sanctions prevent ships carrying Iranian aid from reaching Syria.
The country once prided itself on food self-sufficiency. It was key to the ruling Ba'ath Party's efforts to mitigate the impact of U.S. and Western sanctions. And so the damage to the agriculture is shocking. The war has ravaged the lush fields of Eastern Ghouta that supplied Damascenes with fruit and vegetables. Farmers have been displaced. Wheat production fell last year to a 29-year low, according to the UN. Potatoes and tomatoes have become extremely expensive—if not unaffordable—even for Syria's middle-income families.
Amid food shortages, a tablecloth may seem like an indulgence. But, until the war started, Syria was one of the few Middle Eastern countries that somehow managed to preserve traditional crafts. "The loss of this traditional Syria is akin to losing one's parents," says Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Landis, whom I first met in Damascus in 2005 while he was on a fellowship, runs an influential Syria commentary forum. "Syria was the memory and essence of the Middle East, and now it is largely gone," says Landis, who's married to a Syrian. "Syrians are in mourning and feel a terrible need to commemorate their sense of loss—not just for the many who have died, but also for the places and things that gave a particular texture to life."
Landis still has the tablecloths from Hama that he bought before the war. It's the Aleppo gold chains that he misses the most. "They're three-sided, hand crafted, not the superfine filigree Italian chains you find in some shops," he says. "You can see the irregularities, and you can see the beauty of this handiwork." The chains were made in workshops in Aleppo, Syria's prewar commercial hub, and were displayed in every storefront in the gold market. Families bought them as dowries, he adds. But Aleppo has been catastrophically affected by the war, and its manufacturing base destroyed. If there are chains for sale, people no longer can afford them. The conflict has dealt "a body blow" to Syria's traditional crafts, says Landis. "If they haven't been destroyed by the war, they've been destroyed by the economy collapsing."
Determined to find the tablecloth, I headed for the pub where I was to have dinner, thinking of the many times I've walked these streets since I started covering Syria in January 1991 amid the first Gulf War. That was a time of shortages, too—but mostly because the regime, ruled by the current president's father, was isolated from the rest of the world. It was a closed socialist country where basics such as salt and toilet paper were hard to find.
And news, too. During that war, Syrian newspapers—all government-controlled—made no mention of their country's contribution of several thousand troops to the effort that eventually kicked Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. That's because Assad didn't want to be seen siding with the West, including the U.S. I can still hear a friend, a Bolivian journalist, bellowing with laughter in the lobby of a Damascus hotel as he read a story in a local paper on how to sunbathe safely, this at a time cold winds were lashing the city. I got my news from a German journalist who was a frequent visitor from Amman, in neighboring Jordan. He would bring in boxes of Mozartkugel—Austrian chocolate balls filled with pistachio and nougat. They were treasures in a country then short of delicacies. But more important for me, they were wrapped in pages 5 and 6 of the International Herald Tribune, which were usually devoted to the war.
News continues to be restricted under the current President Assad, who inherited the position from his father in 2000. While access to the internet has increased the spread of information, Syria remains one of the most dangerous places to be an independent journalist.
Still, under the current regime, the economy opened up, at least initially. Local industry thrived—with a whole range of consumer items that Syrians couldn't have imagined being on sale in Damascus. Among them, a locally made line of lingerie more likely to be found in Amsterdam than in the conservative streets of the ancient Hamidiyyeh souk. There the items were, displayed in the windows of specialized stores or among other wares in lingerie shops: G-strings adorned with birds that sang Old MacDonald, miniature toy mobile phones with images of Spider-Man, or flowers that lit up.
During a previous visit, I'd ventured into one of these lingerie shops with a fellow journalist. We were embarrassed, but the saleswoman immediately put us at ease. "Do you want to see regular underwear or the other?" she asked. "The other," I said. She opened a heavy catalog with Eastern European models. Almost everything was in stock. The walls were lined with cellophane boxes containing the items. She produced a heart-shaped piece of chocolate with a surprise within: a rolled up thong. "Darling, I got you chocolate from Damascus. Take a bite, and see what's in it," was the line she said she suggested to the rich men from the Gulf looking for gifts for their partners back home. But, today, even the local naughty underwear industry appears to have vanished. On this trip, not a single store I visited on the main street carried such items.
I made my way past shops that sold jewelry and spices. Everything was shuttered because the evening was growing late. Then, as I got to Straight Street—pondering how it survived all these centuries of wars and invasions—I saw a few lights. Some souvenir shops were open. I walked into a few of them but couldn't find any that sold the printed tablecloths. Then a drizzle forced me into one close to the pub. While I was asking the owner about the tablecloths, he finished the sentence for me: You mean, the ones the man from Hama made? Follow me, he said.
We went down a few steps, and there on a couple of shelves were the last tablecloths he had left from what used to be a regular supply of different shapes and colors. He spread on a table a rectangular navy blue one with black print. It was dusty and faded in some places with the passing of years. The second and third were also discolored. At the end he pulled out one that was in fine condition. It wasn't the color or size that my friend wanted. I bought it anyway. On a whim, I got myself a round burgundy one I didn't need. I don't have a round table, but I just wanted to hold on to a little piece of prewar Syria. I left the shop, happy to have found souvenirs but sad that these may be all that's left of a once-prized craft.
The story didn't end there. I was supposed to leave by car at 11 a.m. the next day for Beirut, a three-hour drive. Before the driver arrived, I decided to pop over to a nearby arcade, just in case there were more tablecloths. A teenage boy there told me I was in luck. Although his dad's shop didn't carry the items, "the man from Hama, the only one in Syria who makes them," was right now stamping tablecloths in an alley at the fairgrounds nearby, which was hosting Syria's international horse festival. His name was Hassan.
Heart racing, I jumped into the car with a Syrian colleague, and we sped off. When we got to the fairgrounds a few minutes later, we saw long lines of people waiting to go through security. I had only 20 minutes left, not enough time to make it through the crowds. So we drove slowly along the narrow Barada River separating us from the fairgrounds. I saw the sign for the handicraft stalls, with rows of mostly empty tables. And then I saw a balding man in a navy-and-white checkered shirt bent over something, his arms moving up and down.
Was it Hassan, the man from Hama who makes the printed tablecloths? I want to believe it was.