Christmas just knocked on the doors of Damascus city, in a land far away in the east, the like of which we cannot find with the same characters in the world today. Its markets have been known far and wide, full of the bounties of vine and vale. Peaceful and prosperous, the city was a gateway to what used to be one of the greatest kingdoms ever lived on earth. It was built beside the heart of the mountain Qasyun, where the sun used to set with a golden crown and the leaves of jasmine trees sang lullabies for vacant swings. And it has walls and doors as a live witness of what used to be one of the greatest empires ever lived. The beauty of this fortress city is legend.
The skill of the Damascenes is unequaled. They are renowned for fashioning objects of great beauty out of gold, silver and copper which every visitor admires and seeks to take back with them to the lands from where they came, to remind them forever how beautiful their visit to Damascus was.
But the years of peace and plenty were not to last. Slowly the days turned sour, and the watchful nights closed in. The fire was red and its flames spread, turning huge parts of the city into ash. Walking in the streets of a city ravaged by four years of brutal conflict there is almost no place for a happy day like Christmas. Streets that used to race to be titled as the most shiny, crowded and beautifully-decorated have now grieved the loss of a father, a son , a neighbor or a friend – making one wonder if Christmas would really enter these streets nowadays.
Christmas talk is still there shining in every heart, of what this day used to mean before the war possessed the normal talk of everybody’s life, hoping that remembering what the beauty of such days used to be would break the spell of the doomed darkness of war to carry what’s left of people back to the life they once enjoyed living.
Just in the middle of an alleyway an incredible sound of a crowd broke the thoughts of having no Christmas any more. People gathered around a pastry shop. Their eyes reflected what they saw of the shiny lights to draw a wide smile on their faces. It was like someone let their head out of the water for a moment and gave them a chance to breathe. The little shop had made all efforts to make Christmas decorations look just like the ones people had in their memory once.
The lights, bells and Santa’s little corner turned into a place where boys, girls, grownups and even the elderly would immediately stop to take a photo. It was like every happy memory had jumped into the hearts of people, making them forget about how war has changed their life for a moment.
The owner of the shop stood out of the light circle like he enjoyed watching the reactions and expressions on the little and old faces – expressions erased a long time ago to be replaced with the scars the war had left reflected in the faces and talk of everybody.
With a wide smile on his face, Tony told everybody to take photos saying: “Yes, take as many photos as you can. Make us feel that we still have Christmas.” Asked about his little project he answered: ”I was cleaning my attic the other day when I found Christmas decorations in a box that had been gathering dust for almost three years now. We haven’t decorated our house or shop since my two uncles and their sons died due to mortar a while after the war began. They died in the winter, two weeks before Christmas. Our house had no celebrations since then and my mother’s cries echoed in every corner in the house. Her condition even got worse every year whenever she remembered how we gathered to celebrate that day. She just couldn’t bear to think that they’re not here to celebrate with us.”
Tony decorated his shop but his house remains without decorations. In his opinion, there was nothing he could do but to allow himself and all people passing beside his little shop to take a rest and be happy for a moment and capture that moment within a photo, so maybe that photo can get them to smile in the face of hard times, and be like a spark that shines to remind them that they can be happy no matter what the surroundings are.
“Sometimes we have no choice but to put salt on our wounds and keep on going. We should never forget the people we used to be once. If we lose our spark of happiness, war will be able to possess what we have left of a heart.” Tony has a camera himself and he’s capturing the happy moments of people to gather them within an album in order to prove how one moment of true happiness can make ages of darkness fade away.
In another part of the city, the Al Dahadil neighborhood, some of the old, poor wrecked houses are located. There, a Christmas wish of a child can make a heart shiver with tears.
Eight-year-old Mouhammad, who lives in an abandoned shop with his aunt and grandfather, might look just like a normal child before his wish breaks all the meanings of normality. “I wish I have a leg to play and chase after my friends. I actually used to have one but it’s in heaven now and there is a new one growing beneath it.” Mouhammad lost his leg due to mortar shelling of the Al Yarmouk refugee camp a few months ago. His prosthetic leg is now too small, preventing him from walking properly. All Mouhammad wanted to believe while touching and looking at his leg was that his old leg went to heaven and there is a new one growing to replace it soon.
Another wish comes from a little girl named Hanin, who wants to have a “ceiling” “I live there, in the half-destroyed house. Can you see it? I always have dreams of the ceiling falling on my head while sleeping or the stairs are breaking beneath my feet.” Hanin describes what dreams a child can have living in a half-destroyed house having nowhere else to go.
A chat between two men in a small bus also reflected the Christmas spirit in Damascus.
“Are you going to decorate your house this year?” “Yes, but I’m going to do that only from the inside because my house is located in a place that’s in the line of sight of snipers”
At the SOS village in Qadsaya and the SOS Child Friendly Space in Al Dwelaa, children were gathering waiting for the familiar activities they have every year in the village. The children who had been there longer and lived there before the war whispered to the new arrivals descriptions of what Christmas activity means in the village. Twelve-year-old Bilal, from Aleppo, started recalling how children in the SOS Aleppo village used to make a big tree and decorate it with all kinds of toys and shiny lights. “The most beautiful part was when we hung our wishes and waited for Santa to read them. We would sleep with one eye open waiting for him to come.”
Children got excited and it was not long before the tree was brought. They danced, sang, painted and laughed with the music of familiar songs of Christmas playing in the background. Everything looked normal until the time came for writing and hanging the wishes.
“When I was dancing I closed my eyes. I felt like I was flying up to the sky where they told me my father is now.”
“I wish our village in Aleppo gets back to the way it used to be before the war” was Bilal’s wish.
“I wish my mother was still alive.”
“I wish to be with the Red Crescent when I grow up.”
Wishing to have a car, a doll or a teddy bear were the second wishes of children for the Christmas of 2014. Wishes were hung too heavy on the tree – ones that no Santa in the world can ever bring to life. Habib Dahbar is the volunteer who wore the costume of Santa. Sitting in the corner he said: “Once I heard that there’s an activity for children I volunteered to take the role of Santa. We have beautiful memories in our hearts of Christmas. We had our time back in the days. If we, the grownups, can’t celebrate Christmas the same way we used to do it before, we should at least try to make children have a good memory of it. I remember how much happiness entered my heart as a child whenever Christmas time came and the name of Santa was mentioned. I just wanted to get that feeling into their heart, because a heart beating with love and happiness is all we need to transfer to the next generations. If we want to live in peace, teaching them peace is the only way we can do so.” Habib continues talking with a mix of different expressions drawn on his friendly face.
His expressions were the best way to describe Christmas not only in Damascus, but in all the Syrian cities. With sparkling eyes with a wide smile when going back in time to the past, a little bow when talking about the present and a touch of hope when trying to think about the future. Of all the people around Damascus many didn’t decorate their house like Tony because of a dead family member. Others didn’t do it because they have a house located on the edge of a frontline where a dark spirit of a sniper can ruin their decorations, putting a bullet in the heart of a beloved one. Christmas followed by a shadow of war and war with a sparkle of Christmas is the best way to describe the days in Damascus city.
Even as they delve deeper down into the dark, the Damascenes have always found a spark to keep their candles lightened while walking in the storm, lighting the way for a better future to come.