DAMASCUS— As Syria approaches a surreal presidential election in the midst of civil war, the capital has avoided the worst of the conflict but reminders are increasingly coming out the water taps and appearing on the dinner table, to the dismay of Damascenes.
Before the war, the government of President Bashar al-Assad maintained tight control on food prices and quality. Distracted by war, its grip has slackened and shady business practices have flourished to the detriment of water and food supplies.
Rushing to the kitchen sink the other day to fill up a container with water, Mayada, a Damascene, wanted to store as much water as possible. “I must hurry, because sometimes the water cuts off in an hour,” she said.
“And look at all this sand. We can't drink the water anymore without filtering it first.” She pointed to black and brown grains sinking to the bottom of her freshly filled water jug. “And God knows what else is floating in there that I can't see.”
Residents say the quality of food is also deteriorating, coupled with price rises, especially fast food favorites like shawarma and falafel as well as “farouj”, or roast chicken.
“Taste the falafel and you'll know they add bread crumbs to it to save on chickpeas,” said Issam, a restaurateur in central Damascus, referring to the main ingredient in falafel. “You can easily tell the difference. Today's 'fake' falafel is greasier and darker and just looks wrong all around. People eat it because it's cheap, but everyone is complaining.”
Shawarma, cut from a giant rotating hulk of meat, is also under scrutiny. “Only God knows what meat they're using these days. Is it even beef? All I know is it doesn't taste the same as before,” said Lamia, 32.
As for poultry, the birds look either skinnier than usual or unusually plump but without taste, prompting many Damascenes to wonder what poultry farmers might be feeding the chickens.
“Is it hormones? Animals protein? Garbage? Sewage? We cannot know,” said Marwan, who considers himself an amateur nutritionist. “Back in the good days, poultry farmers got away with dubious practices. Now? I hate to even think about it.”
Damascenes anxiously await the presidential election on June 3 which Assad looks certain to win, given that voting will be held only in state-controlled areas, but which they fear will be marked by a fierce mortar barrage from rebel-held suburbs.
The government, however, is waging a “Together, We Rebuild” campaign that now peppers the capital's streets with posters that feature hands clasped together - despite Syria's widespread fragmentation into sectarian and tribal enclaves.
Damascenes have been luckier than Syrians living in areas of the country beyond government control, bombed daily and cut off by prolonged but inconclusive army sieges.
Some 160,000 people have died in the conflict, which started in March 2011 with street protests against decades of Assad family rule but turned into an insurgency following a security crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. Malnutrition is rampant and doctors say children have starved to death in besieged zones.
In Damascus, people notice the small changes - daily staples soaring in price, sometimes selling at three or four times what they used to be, with the quality plummeting.
“Almost every single dairy maker these days is adding water to milk and to cheese and yogurt,” said Abu Mustafa, a dairy shop owner in the middle-class neighborhood of Mazraa. He denies that he does it himself.
Before the war, the authorities kept a close watch on dairy makers to deter cheating and enforced fixed prices, forcing the dairy makers to compete with each other based solely on quality and taste.
Now there is hardly any oversight. White Syrian cheese, a daily must-have in every Syrian household, used to sell for 250 Syrian pounds ($1.60) per kilo. Now, it varies between 400 SP to 1,300 SP ($8.70), the latter closer to Abu Mostafa's prices.
Marwan is a regular customer at Abu Mostafa's, though he privately complains about the prices.
“I don't know what it is, but everything is starting to taste terrible. Dairy, bread, even the meat we buy these days. It's the same cut and everything as I've always purchased, and from the same neighborhood butcher, but it now tastes like rubber,” he said.
The outlying district of Ghouta was long one of the main food supply sources for Damascus but it has been in rebel hands for almost two years, rendering most of its produce, poultry and meat inaccessible to Damascenes.
Much of Ghouta's farmland has also turned into danger zones as Syrian warplanes routinely bombard it and government snipers prevent farmers from tending to their crop.
A dairy supplier who was unloading merchandise at Abu Mostafa's said he had been unable to access Ghouta for months, but instead now supplies them from Quneitra 45 miles (73 km) away in the Golan Heights near the Israeli border.
“They still have good farms there, cattle and poultry and everything, though it's not always easy for us to transport the goods into the city.”