Syria’s affluent seek fun as civil war grinds on

Amid a conflict lapping at the edge of Damascus, Syria’s better-offs spend their time in cafes and at parties

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A vampire, a medieval knight and a man dressed as an Islamic militant walk into a blue-lit bar in a Damascus hotel, all determined to have fun at the costume party. The music is pounding, a break dancer stands on his head and in the DJ booth, a man and woman are kissing.

Over the loudspeakers, a droning voice intones: “Welcome foolish mortals. There’s no turning back now.”

Amid a conflict lapping at the edge of Damascus, Syria’s better-offs spend their time in cafes and at parties, strolling a gleaming new mall and enjoying the controlled adrenalin of amusement park rides overlooking a city skyline of buildings and columns of smoke from bombings - striving to deny war its miserable monotony.

Yet as the Syrian conflict grinds on, well into its fourth year, almost no family has been left untouched by death, injury, poverty, homelessness or missing relatives.

“We want to change our boring routine,” said Naja, a she-vampire with fake blood drooling from her reddened lips. “Every day we live a horror show (in Syria) but this one is a comedy,” she said, laughing at the hotel Halloween party. Nearby, a woman painted makeup on arriving guests, turning them into vampires or Spiderman. Beside her, Cleopatra and a two-faced man posed for photographs.

Like most Syrians, Naja only gave her first name, worried she would cause offense to government officials in a country that brooks little dissent.

Inside the club, one man sported a fake luxurious beard and a flowing robe.

“I came as Caliph al-Baghdadi because he is a frightening person, he’s scarier than Dracula,” said a 42-year-old lawyer, Hassan, referring to Iraqi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant Islamic State group. The group has massacred rivals, enslaved women and children and decapitated enemies in seizing swaths of Syria and Iraq. Al-Baghdadi has declared the captured territory a new Islamic caliphate.

“There are even films where Dracula does good things, but there is nothing good about (al-Baghdadi),” Hassan said.

He came to the party with his wife and child because, he said, “We are here to live, and defy the culture of death that they want to drown us in.”

Hassan’s wife was a kind-of vampire, because they weren’t sure if al-Baghdadi had a spouse, he shrugged, laughing.

Break-dancers performed to the thumping song “Turn Down for What.” The small crowd hooted as three men flipped and spun around to lyrics “Fire up that loud/ Another round of shots! Turn down for what?”

One young man posed for photographs with his girlfriend. In a booth, the chain-smoking DJ spun music, as another man working the lights frequently paused to kiss his girlfriend.

Outside, the sound of aircraft bombing a nearby rebel-held town shuddered through the city.

This year, more attention than ever has been paid to how middle-class Syrians wile away their time amid war, as businessmen opened a mall in the coastal city of Tartous, and a smaller one in Damascus. A new entertainment center called “Uptown Palace” in Damascus features amusement rides, a shooting club, bowling and sports fields.

For activists, it suggested a certain callousness toward the suffering of ordinary Syrians, who have grown visibly poorer since the conflict began to threaten the rule of President Bashar Assad. Businessmen say the new entertainment options are a form of defiance at a time of war; their patrons say they are badly needed distractions.

Television footage of Uptown Palace from a summer’s day showed the amusement center packed with families strolling the sprawling complex of water fountains, brightly-lit shops and flashing lights.

Children slid down red, yellow and blue slides in a water park. Some residents fastened themselves into ball-cages that were hurled into the air. Others rode a pirate-ship style ride that flipped them over. Some smoked water pipes in an outdoor area decorated with Hellenic statues.

The amusement park’s management wouldn’t allow The Associated Press to film, saying they were worried the project would be portrayed as frivolous at a time of war.

Many other Syrians find relief in more traditional parts of Damascus.

In the city’s cavernous bazaar, Bader al-Deen Ali smoked a water pipe with his buddies. For eight years, he has smoked at the same cafe, a ritual made only more important because of the war.

“It means a lot for me to be here. This is where I come to breathe,” he said, gesturing around the cafe. “I should buy stocks here,” he joked.

Other nightspots, in rebel-held territory in towns outside of Damascus, are no-go zones now.

When asked about the prospect of entering the rebel-occupied suburbs, Ali made a slicing gesture across his neck and said “Daesh!” Arabic slang for the Islamic State group.

In another alleyway, a woman ate ice-cream in Damascus’ most famous gelato shop, Bakdash.

Even here, the usually crowded shop was half-full on a recent day as many Syrians grow too poor, even for ice-cream. But for those who could still come, the ice-cream was a treat.

“I always come to Bakdash, it’s part of our heritage, and the ice cream is delicious,” said Nawal, a 50-year-old housewife.

She fled her home in southern Damascus last year because of shelling; later, her nephew was killed. Nawal said she preferred not to say how he died, common societal code for the boy being a rebel.

She gestured to the ice-cream before her. “We want to live our lives to the fullest, we want to overcome what has happened to us. If we didn’t, we’d become depressed.”

The poorer find relief in the grand Umayyad mosque of Damascus, a light-filled soaring space.

Fayza, 44, leaned on the mosque’s outer wall, taking in the afternoon sun after finishing her work as a cleaner. One of her sons, a soldier, was missing in southern Syria. Another was wounded in fighting and she had to flee her home in a nearby town because of clashes.

“We have so many worries,” said the woman in a tidy brown robe. “I come so that maybe my heart will rest a little.”

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