News / Middle East

As Syria Economy Falters, Damascus Somewhat Spared

Elizabeth Arrott
The Spice Market of Old Damascus is a strange sight in a country ravaged by civil war.

The military pounds pro-rebel towns ringing the capital, but here at its heart, business is brisk.

Naiem Bezraa stood in the shop once owned by his father and grandfather, topping off neat pyramids of cumin and dried peppers, pine nuts and almonds.

Bezraa said work carries on, but prices have gone up, affecting both customers and  business.  But he said, "Thank God," his supplies are still coming in.

Syria's economy has suffered severely from 18 months of conflict. Bezraa conceded that people are cutting back, sticking mainly to buying essentials. Customers on this ancient, bustling alleyway complain that foreign products are especially expensive.

Sense of normalcy

Still, a certain normalcy prevails.  Goods are more expensive, but available.

A man who declined to give his name carried several full shopping bags, noting the price of imported goods is high.  But he said locally manufactured products have risen less.

Government economist Afif Dala said Western sanctions, slapped on Syria for its crushing response to the uprising, have taken a toll.

“But the Syrian economy actually depends on itself," Dala said. "There is a self-sufficiency in the Syrian economy because the Syrian economy is very diverse and we almost produce everything."

In the city's Hamadeya bazaar, its roof still pockmarked with the bullet holes of French colonialists putting down an earlier uprising, shopkeepers also said business is down. 

At a scarf shop, Abdel Rehim tried to entice customers by elaborately twisting a hijab for display. Finally, a group of young women approached and a sale was underway.

Rehim said it is “a very difficult atmosphere - the atmosphere of crisis.”

Still, with the bulk of his stock made in Syria, he is able to keep the shelves stretching to the ceiling behind him, replenished. 

  • A veiled woman walks down the street in Damascus's old city. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • As fighting continues in and around the city, shops remain open and life appears surprisingly normal. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • A vegetable vendor does brisk business in Damascus. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • A child peers out of a micro bus window into traffic. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • A poster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad hangs in the rear window of a bus in Damascus. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • A man crosses a busy street in Damascus. Though some streets are closed to traffic due to safety concerns, most of the roads remain open. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • Business appears normal in Damascus's old city. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • A shop owner in a Christian neighborhood in Damascus's old city. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • Gray smoke rises over a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus, where fighting between government forces and rebels continues. Residents are learning to live with the sounds of distant explosions and gunfire. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • A cobbler busy at work. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • A man waits on the side of the street in a Damascus market with boxes full of goods. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • A woman from Aleppo now lives in a government-run refugee center in a Damascus suburb. The center is now home to many refugees, many of whom are ethnic Turkmens. (J. Weeks/VOA)
  • A newlywed couple celebrates at an upscale Damascus hotel. (J. Weeks/VOA)

Economy gets help

The government has made it a goal to keep business in the capital normal.  And, for what Syria does not have, it can count on help. 

Dala, of the Syrian Ministry of Economy and Trade, points to Russia, China and Venezuela as strong trade partners.

“There are a lot of countries, actually, because finally the interests, the economic interests between countries are talk, not anything else," Dala said. "It is not a moral thing, the Syrian economy, only; also its interests, benefits."

What makes some countries flinch, though, is the morality, and mortality - tens of thousands of people killed nationwide.

Again, Damascus is an anomaly.

At the market of gravestone carvers, there is little sense of urgency. 

Samer al Etouni, plying the trade his forebearers, carefully carved a marble marker, taking time on the curved lines, blowing away the chips and dust.  He said orders for war victims are few.

Al Etouni said the pace of work is the same as before the war.  He said nothing has changed. Yet even as he speaks, the war gets closer.

How long things will remain the same for him, and the rest of the capital, is the question on everyone's mind.

Japhet Weeks contributed to this report.

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Comment Sorting
by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
October 11, 2012 8:17 AM
The ancient Spice Market in Damascus may be vibrant as long as civil war does not creep into the neighborhood. In most countries meat and vegetables are not imported and this is the big ticket item in markets. But the locally produced non-perishable items and luxuary items will be hard hit since they are not essential for survival in the midst of civil war. The imported goods will be hard to find and hard to sell. This is the same story if there is economic downturn in any country whether there is civil war or not.

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