Hello from not-very-good-at-keeping-up-with-blogging land. I interrupt this general blogging hiatus to share a very interesting article on Damascus’ high-end consumer culture. Those of you who have spent time in Damascus will be as amazed as I am (last trip there: summer 2006) at the long list of brand-name shops and cafes. I’m not a great fan of Lina’s, which I associate with the rather sad ending to a very sweet relationship; and nor am I a great fan of Aishti, which I associate with over-priced, under-curated designer glitz. But that these places are now part of the Chami landscape is nothing short of amazing.
Well, nothing short of amazing, but still less amazing than the idea that Chaalan could be described as an “exclusive” neighborhood. Still, that’s one flat note in an otherwise quite intriguing read. Enjoy!
Syria’s youth flaunt new wealth
By an IWPR-trained reporter
Under the arcade of the fancy Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, Anas Mashafej gazes at the windows of Aishti, an up-market clothing shop that sells designer brands such as Armani and Roberto Cavalli.
A bright – and expensive – shirt attracts the attention of the 22-year-old college student. After some hesitation, he decides to buy it and postpone buying other items he needs.
“The general atmosphere at college encourages wearing well-known brands,” he said. “Most students brag about their designer acquisitions.”
Close to Aishti, in the exclusive Damascus neighborhood of Chaalan, the streets throng with Western-style cafes and restaurants, like Segafredo and Costa, stylish shops and private banks.
The development of such areas, which are frequented by a small emerging class of well-off Syrians, epitomizes the economic transformation of Syria in recent years.
In 2005, Syrian officials proclaimed that the country was moving towards a more market-oriented economy by encouraging competition and that the Syrian market was opening to foreign goods and services.
This change gave rise to a class of Syrian youth, mainly the children of rich businessmen and officials, who increasingly adopt Western lifestyles.
Azzam Jamil, 26, helps his father at his printing company. He is part of the new wave of Syrian youth who drink filtered coffee at trendy cafes while checking their e-mail on laptops or making travel plans with their friends.
Jamil, who wears torn jeans and a T-shirt with an image of a skull on it and has dyed blond hair, said, “I don’t feel awkward dressing this way. All my friends dress the same … This is how I express myself.”
Kids like Jamil attend private universities and spend their free time in the new malls of Damascus, using restaurants like KFC and Hardee’s as well as an array of amusement centers, modern cinema theatres, and parking lots where they can show off their expensive cars.
Most of the posh spots are in Kafarsousa, where real estate agents say that homes can cost up to US$2 million. Other hot spots reflecting the craze for modern lifestyles include spas, tennis courts, gymnasiums and nightclubs.
Recently, a group of young rich Syrians started a club to play American football, considered an exclusive sport in Syria.
Damascus has also witnessed in the past few years the opening of large supermarkets that sell expensive foreign goods and exotic fruits.
Observers note that in parallel to the new islands of wealth, the liberalization of the economy has brought with it a starker contrast between the standards of living of the rich and the poor, in a country that once prided itself on having social equality and a solid welfare system.
In contrast to the new luxurious suburbs, there are more slums around the city, said Ahmad Nokrosh, a Damascus-based economic expert.
“Liberalization of the economy has impinged on the social reality in the country,” he said, adding that basic services provided by the state, such as education, transport and health, are getting worse at the expense of a flourishing private sector that caters to the moneyed classes.
He said that even hospitals now have advanced sections reserved for wealthier patients.
Zaher Mansour, a 24-year-old law student who makes his living working as a waiter in the trendy Lina’s cafe, said that the preoccupations of rich young Syrians were very different from those of the rest of Syrian youth.
“This place feels like Europe, as if you are somewhere in London or Rome,” said Mansour, who comes from a modest background, adding that the price of a cup of coffee is almost equivalent to what he earns in a day.
Wealthy youngsters speak about the latest fashion in clothes or new mobile-phone models while the likes of him worry about inflation, the increasing price of diesel, or building an additional room onto the house to accommodate a brother who is getting married, he says.