The Syrian love affair across the lines
- 1 February 2014
- From the section Magazine
The Syrian capital, Damascus, is a divided city, with some parts under the control of government forces and other areas held by rebels. But what happens when love crosses the lines?
The labourer was like most young Syrian men you meet these days - tough, sardonic and old beyond his years.
We met in a busy street in central Damascus - from its tree-fringed cafes you could hear the thud of shells hitting the rebel-controlled suburbs.
He was from one of the towns under bombardment, and his family were still trapped there. He had been explaining, without much emotion, how hard it was to get supplies through the checkpoints surrounding it.
As we talked, he flicked constant glances at the people around us from under his thick eyelashes. We were in a government-controlled area, full of smartly-dressed shoppers and ponderous traffic police.
Though we were not doing anything wrong, life under the eye of Syria's feared intelligence services - the mukhabarat - leaves its mark on people. He asked me not to use his real name - I will call him Abu Anas.
At one point, he started looking through his phone to show me a photo. When people from opposition areas in Syria hand you their phones, you brace yourself for gruesome images of people wounded in government air raids.
But Abu Anas had something different to show. He produced a doe-eyed young woman in a sparkly top and skinny jeans.
It turned out this streetwise son of the rebel suburbs had fallen in love. Unfortunately for him, it was with the daughter of a senior mukhabarat official.
"I'm in a mess," he sighed, suddenly seeming much closer to his real age. "I hate the regime, but I love a daughter of the regime."
He had met her by chance before the uprising broke out, and has spoken to her on the phone almost every day since then, throughout the protests and the bombs.
Like many people in his hometown, Abu Anas supported the uprising when it first started, but that did not stop him pursuing the mukhabarat official's daughter.
"I made a clear distinction between my relationship with her and my relationship with the government," he explained.
None of his friends in the local rebel outfits knew about his girlfriend - if they did, they might suspect him of being an informant.
The girl's father was furious when he found out about the relationship, but still has no idea the working-class man who stole his daughter's heart has links with the rebellion.
"I kept which side I am on unknown," he boasted, chuckling at his own audacity in slipping between the two worlds.
It is not only star-crossed lovers who lead double lives in today's Damascus. A knot of checkpoints separates the largely undamaged centre of the city from the shell-blasted suburbs under rebel control.
But this does not mean everyone on one side supports the government and the other, the opposition. As the war drags on, many find it pays to be flexible.
The rebel-held areas are teeming with paid informants who pass information back to the government. On the city's southern frontline, a loyalist fighter told me that the government knew the names of everyone who had taken up arms against them on the other side.
"They know exactly who is involved and who is not involved - we have informers in their community like they have in ours," he explained.
The harried-looking soldiers and militiamen at government checkpoints can also be bribed, Abu Anas told me. Although, in some places they are imposing a tight siege, causing acute hunger, in others they have grown rich by accepting money from smugglers.
"Some officers used to just have enough money for food," Abu Anas said. "Now they have got cars, they are getting married, they are making progress in their lives."
A note of envy crept in to his voice as he spoke. At this point, he was more interested in getting on in life than with the revolution - he felt completely disillusioned with it.
He had moved out of the suburbs before the siege there tightened, and was trying to earn a living in the city centre.
He had tried to put the girl behind him too. He could not see how they would ever be able to get married. But when he tried to break it off, he found he could not bear it.
A doomed love affair between two people from warring communities does not exactly provide hope for Syria - the conflict here looks more entrenched than ever. But for Abu Anas it seems to offer some respite from a life that has become unremittingly hard and bleak.
"It is not often you find someone who adores you that much," he said. "It is a wonderful story, but it is full of conflict."
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