Life turns bittersweet for the people of Damascus

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Abu Iyad puts his life on the line every Friday to visit his confectionery factory in the embattled southwest outskirts of the capital to make barazeks, Syria’s prized wafers of pistachio and sesame.

“Every trip is an adventure because I could be kidnapped or killed,” said the owner of Mahanna pastry shop in the upscale Mazzeh district of Damascus.

Every day shells land around Abu Iyad’s factory in Moadamiyet al-Sham, southwest of Damascus, where rebels are engaged in a merciless battle for control against a regime anxious to push the opposition far from the capital.

As the peaceful uprisings that began in March 2011 morphed into a devastating civil war, once self-indulgent Damascus residents found themselves trading their sweets for basic groceries and heating fuel, whose prices have skyrocketed.

On Friday, the authorities raised the price of diesel by 40 percent per liter to 35 Syrian pounds ($0.49, 0.37 euro cents). In the freezing winter, its value on the black market has shot up to 115 pounds ($1.62) a liter.

Ghrawi, the capital’s most renowned and expensive chocolatier, scaled down its offerings and replaced costly apricots with oranges to flavor the shop’s pistachio paste.

The business was forced to shutter its factory in the war-ravaged southeast town of Hamuriyeh and shift production to a smaller workshop in Damascus.

“We produce anyway. Sales have gone down but people in Damascus are not about to abandon sweets,” said one employee.

The prices are exorbitant: a kilo of dark chocolate goes for 3,800 Syrian pounds ($53), far beyond the reach of most Syrians whose purchasing power has dived by a third since inflation hit 65 percent in 2012.

One customer at Ghrawi, an engineer, admitted that chocolates and sweets have become rare pleasures amid the conflict that has gripped Syria for more than 22 months.

The shelves are bare at Semiramis, a pastry shop in the Shaalan shopping district known for its Arabic delicacies.

Its factory in Sabbura, 13 kilometres (eight miles) northwest of Damascus, "has been closed for five days. There is no flour or fuel,” an employee told AFP.

“I think work should restart in 10 days, if the raw materials are available,” he added.

The Syrian capital has always been famous for its sweets. The Crusaders discovered the frozen drink sharab on arrival, which became French sorbet.

“One Thousand and One Nights,” the famed compilation of Arabic folk tales, is filled with descriptions of an array of specialties found on the tables of Damascus residents.

“Since the revolt began, I’ve reduced my production by 90 percent, as I sold most of my cakes to foreigners and they are all gone,” lamented Abu Salah, the owner of Saddiq bakery in the city Centre.

In the working class neighborhood of Marjeh, the atmosphere in the Amina pastry shop is dark, even if barazeks are still on display.

“This year and in 2012, production has declined because of the political situation and the rising price of raw materials like sesame seeds and vegetable shortening,” complained shop owner Moatez Barudi.

Like its pastries, the spirit of the capital has waned. Scores of factories have closed, electricity is in short supply and residents shiver at home because of a lack of heating oil.

Hisham, a tailor, said his family has shifted to survival mode and no longer buys either fruit or sweets. “I spend my time looking for oil, gas, rice and sugar,” he said.

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