Damascus: where Arab culture meets police-state socialism

At the heart of Damascus, wrapped vinelike around the central mosque, the Souk al-Hamidiya has its own timeless Arab ecology.

The marketplace's narrow streets, shaded by an overhead canopy, are inhabited by carpenters, leatherworkers, and purveyors of gold, oriental carpets, pistachio nuts, and nickel-and-dime sundries.

It is a life governed by the crying of the muezzins five times a day, the dank, spicy smell of the Arab market, and the low murmur of salesmen pitching their wares.

The rest of Damascus is not like the souk. The Syrian capital is a stiff, modern city of wide boulevards, boxy, 1950s-style architecture, ubiquitous images of strong man President Hafez Assad, and wary young men on almost every street corner, toting Soviet machine guns.

Al-Hamidiya may be a quaint anachronism, or it may be the only really permanent section of this city that Gamal Abdel Nasser once called ''the great beating heart of Arabdom.'' The freewheeling, capitalistic spontaneity of the souk does not mesh with the austere state socialism of President Assad and the ruling Baath (Arab Socialist) Party.

The dissimilarity has been tolerated. But the tension between the vestigial Arab culture and the new world of police-state socialism remains. The old quarter of Hama, 100 miles to the north, was reduced to rubble two months ago, diplomats report, by Syrian soldiers. The rebellion emanated from the souk and was encouraged over the muezzins' loudspeakers.

Now the dozens of alleyways and tiny mud-brick garrets of al-Hamidiya may be harboring revolutionaries and weapons. But Damascenes are known to be much more discreet than their brethren in Hama. In February, for instance, merchants chose not to shut down their shops in sympathy with the Hama rebels. They were encouraged in their discretion by large numbers of plainclothes Syrian secret policemen patrolling the district that day.

''Damascenes are like southern Californians,'' an American diplomat here explains. ''They go with the flow.''

In the shops, merchants seem to enjoy doing business with Americans - even though the Syrian news media constantly blast the United States for supporting Israel. Whether it is simple salesmanship or genuine warmth, an American is welcome. One merchant explains, ''The Russians don't buy.''

Syrians can travel freely at home or abroad. Usually this means visiting Europe or America for education and culture, the Gulf for quickly earned oil money, and the Lebanese cities of Shtoura and Zahle, just across the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, for gourmet foods.

But if there is flexibility at the private level, there is a rigid and defensive attitude in Syrian officialdom. President Assad has packed Damascus with special security forces, as an ancient Hittite king might have garrisoned his capital to ensure his empire did not crumble from within.

One could blink and think he were in Eastern Europe: The Soviets, with whom Syria has an important strategic cooperation agreement, are not a highly visible presence. But the government prints reams of Tass news agency dispatches in its newspapers and loads evening television with anti-American, anti-Israeli propaganda.

Government officials complain about Western media bias against Syria, but they stonewall when a correspondent requests information or interviews. News dispatched from Damascus hotels by journalists is scrutinized by officials. Diplomats say phone and telex lines are probably tapped. (This report was actually dispatched from elsewhere.)

A story that displeases the regime can get a foreign correspondent banned from the country, threatened, or worse.

The Syrian regime is, indeed, in trouble. It has resorted to a very un-Arabic form of control to stay in power. On almost every street corner armed men eye passers-by suspiciously. Armed men are a common sight in the Middle East, but nowhere do they look as menacing or as frightened as they do in Damascus. Many major roads are blocked to traffic for fear of car bombs. Approaching a barricade, a visitor is sternly shooed away.

But a Syrian who minds his own business can be quite happy and comfortable. The ordinary Damascene has freedom of private expression. With some coaxing, a Syrian on the street might offer a few cautious words about the regime of President Assad. More likely, however, he will shrug resignedly. But he does not seem to worry about his neighbor ratting on him.

Despite its problems, Damascus is still the Garden of Eden to the Damascenes. The seven branches of the Barada River are reputed to be the seven rivers of Eden. Damascus itself claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Its heyday came in the 7th century when it became the capital of the first great Arab empire, an empire stretching from the Pyrenees to the Khyber Pass.

Those days are long gone. Only the incurably romantic still believe Damascus is at the heart of Arabdom. Syria is a pariah in the Arab world. The friends it keeps - Libya, Iran, South Yemen, and the Soviet Union - run counter to the conservative, Western orientation of most Arabs.

''The Syrians see themselves as leaders of the Arab world,'' says a Western diplomat stationed here. ''Hafez Assad feels he has all the credentials to lead the Arabs. But he is able to lead Syrians only at the point of a gun.''

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