The “Damascus Brings Us Together” festival in Tishreen Park on June 29. Photo courtesy of Damascus Brings Us Together.
AMMAN: Squeezing his way through the crowds by the entrance of Damascus’ Tishreen Park in late June, 29-year-old Damascus resident Abu Mohammad was baffled by the sight of a park filled with children playing and people of all ages enjoying themselves late into the evening.
“No one is afraid of going out anymore, even late at night,” he says. “I saw it in people’s eyes that they’ve broken the barrier of fear.”
Starting late last month and continuing throughout July, the Damascus International Flower Festival has returned to the Syrian capital for the first time since the beginning of the uprising and ensuing conflict, marking the capital’s transition from war to peace. But as Damascenes fill out public spaces in a way not seen since before 2011, it is clear that seven years of conflict have left their mark on both the city and its residents.
Since 1973, the annual Damascus International Flower Festival gave Damascenes and visitors alike an opportunity to take in the sights of exotic flowers and plants from all over the world, participate in lectures by renowned botanists and buy everything from plants to herbal oils, honey to handicrafts. The original logo of the festival, a Damask rose, is one of the oldest and most sought after rose strains in the world and has long served as an emblem of Syria’s ancient capital.
But after nationwide protests against the Syrian government escalated and transformed into all-out conflict, the flower festival was cancelled as social life in Damascus became increasingly paralyzed by fears of shelling, bombs and kidnappings. After security checkpoints appeared across the city, residents moved more cautiously, and rarely after nightfall.
“You would leave your house not knowing whether you would ever return,” says 23-year-old Damascene, Umm Sham. Umm Sham and other Damascus residents interviewed for this report asked that their full names not be published.
But after visiting this year’s festival for the first time, Umm Sham says she feels a “blessing of security” in the capital.
Damascenes attend the Damascus International Flower Festival on June 29. Photo courtesy of SANA.
In May, the Syrian government recaptured the last remaining pockets of territory held by rebel groups or Islamic State fighters in southern Damascus and the outlying countryside, and subsequently removed scores of checkpoints across the capital. Since then, residents have slowly started to move around with greater confidence.
Damascus residents described the return of the flower festival as another sign of normalcy returning to the capital.
“Seeing the joy in people’s faces made me feel happy, for the first time in a long while,” Abu Mohammad says, adding that he “felt that Syria has really started to recover.”
Before the war, more than 250,000 visitors would visit the Tishreen Park throughout the month-long festival, which included more than a hundred stands from all over the world. This year’s flower festival saw no more than 44 stands, and only two countries—Bulgaria and Iraq—were represented, according to London-based news outlet Al-Arab.
“This festival has everything except flowers,” complains Abu Mohammad, adding that “you feel like you’re in a mall.”
Originally an independent event, this year’s flower festival is for the first time integrated into a larger festival, “Damascus Brings Us Together,” organized by the Ministry of Tourism and including everything from music and theater performances to a market selling clothes and electronics.
But while the festival promises unity, not all Damascenes can attend. Residents of formerly rebel-held areas in the capital are still hesitant to leave their neighbourhoods in fear of arrest or possible conscription into the Syrian army, Syria Direct reported last week.
Seven years of war has also left the Syrian economy in tatters, marked by rising unemployment rates and rents, as well as price hikes that have left war-weary Syrians with little extra spending money. For Um Safi, prices at the festival meant that she “returned unhappy,” and isn’t planning to go back again.
“My children had fun,” she says, “but I wasted my money.”
“The festival has changed, and our circumstances have changed too.”
And while the festival’s return reflects a gradual resumption of a normal life for some, the Syrian capital has been irrevocably changed by years of conflict—particularly for Damascenes missing and grieving absent loved ones.
“My heart hurts when I think of the people I would usually go to the festival with,” says Abu Mohammad, referring to his brother and neighbours who fled the country during the war, “but they are gone now.”