BEIRUT

Middle East

In Damascus, reminders of lurking war on the dinner table

Boys use a bucket to extract water from a well in Arbeen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, in this May 6, 2014.(REUTERS/Diaa Al-Din)

DAMASCUS: As Syria approaches a presidential election in the midst of its civil war, the capital has avoided the worst of the conflict but reminders are increasingly coming out of the water taps and appearing on the dinner table.

Before the war, the government of President Bashar Assad maintained tight control on food prices and quality. Distracted by fighting, 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 a rise in price, especially for fast food favorites such as shawarma, falafel and 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. “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 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,” Lamia, 32, said.

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? Animal 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 occur 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 yoghurt,” said Abu Mustafa, a dairy shop owner in the middle-class neighborhood of Mazraa. He denies he does it as well.

Before the war, the authorities kept a close watch on dairy makers to deter cheating and enforced fixed prices, forcing producers to compete with each other based solely on quality and taste.

Now there is hardly any oversight. White cheese, a daily must-have in every 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 Mustafa’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 Mustafa’s said he had been unable to access Ghouta for months, but instead now supplies them from Qunaitra 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.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 31, 2014, on page 11.

Recommended

Advertisement

Comments

Your feedback is important to us!

We invite all our readers to share with us their views and comments about this article.

Disclaimer: Comments submitted by third parties on this site are the sole responsibility of the individual(s) whose content is submitted. The Daily Star accepts no responsibility for the content of comment(s), including, without limitation, any error, omission or inaccuracy therein. Please note that your email address will NOT appear on the site.

Alert: If you are facing problems with posting comments, please note that you must verify your email with Disqus prior to posting a comment. follow this link to make sure your account meets the requirements. (http://bit.ly/vDisqus)

comments powered by Disqus
Summary

As Syria approaches a presidential election in the midst of its civil war, the capital has avoided the worst of the conflict but reminders are increasingly coming out of the water taps and appearing on the dinner table.

Before the war, the government of President Bashar Assad maintained tight control on food prices and quality.

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.

Before the war, the authorities kept a close watch on dairy makers to deter cheating and enforced fixed prices, forcing producers to compete with each other based solely on quality and taste.

Now, it varies between 400 SP to 1,300 SP ($8.70), the latter closer to Abu Mostafa's prices.

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.


Advertisement

FOLLOW THIS ARTICLE

Interested in knowing more about this story?

Click here