Syrians watch a broadcast of Syrian President Bashar Assad at a coffee shop… (Muzaffar Salman, Associated…)
Reporting from Damascus, Syria — As the evening call to prayer sounded through the alleyways of old Damascus, the aging storyteller known as Abu Shadi clambered into an elevated chair at the Nawfara cafe, slipped on a pair of rimless reading glasses and turned to the page where he'd left off.
An expectant silence settled over the smoke-filled room, interrupted by the clink of coffee cups and tea glasses.
For two decades, Abu Shadi has regaled his audience of shopkeepers, university students and tourists with epic tales of war and romance, heroes and rogues from the classics of Arabic literature. Fewer turn out now, but still he reads.
This night's selection was taken from the tale of a 13th century sultan famed for campaigns against the Mongols and Crusaders. As Abu Shadi read from a battered text, his raspy voice took on the accents of his characters, and waiters yelled out sound effects.
The old epics still have lessons to teach, Abu Shadi said, lessons about honor, chivalry and standing up to invaders.
But the time has come for new tales.
"There is a need for stories about our times," he said. "Our story now is the story of our troubles, it is the story of our crisis."
The reverberations of a battle fought ever closer can be heard at night in the Old City.
Until recently, gun battles between government and rebel forces had been confined to provincial hubs such as Homs, Dara and Hama. Now they have reached the doorstep of Damascus, the center of power for the ruling Assad family for more than four decades.
Driving through the morning rush hour, when storekeepers are opening their shutters and streets are choked with traffic, it's easy to forget about the daily violence that the United Nations says has left more than 5,400 dead on both sides in an 11-month uprising. But when night falls, residents hurry home, spooked by the rumbling explosions from nearby suburbs and tales of masked gunmen who are said to prowl the streets after dark.
Since bombings in December and January shattered the surface calm in the city on two Fridays, few venture from their homes on the once-lighthearted start of the weekend here. That's except for the pro-government militiamen who appear at major intersections in combat trousers and leather jackets, many brandishing guns, ready to pounce at the first hint of trouble.
No one knows who the bombers were. Government officials blame their opponents, whom they label terrorists. But neighborhood activists accuse the government of orchestrating the deadly attacks to tarnish what began as a mostly peaceful uprising.
The uncertainty only adds to the fear and paranoia on both sides.
Syrian authorities acknowledge that they have lost control of parts of the country but are quick to crush dissent in the capital. Few here want to be seen talking to Western journalists, for fear of drawing the attention of government informants who seem to sidle up in every neighborhood.
What emerges are brief glimpses of life in an increasingly polarized city.
Meetings with opposition activists involve cloak-and-dagger-like subterfuge. An intermediary appears at a busy traffic circle and leads the way to a waiting taxi. No eye contact is made. The journalists walk several steps behind him so that it won't appear that they are together.
There is reason for caution: Protesters have been arrested and many of them beaten, tortured or even killed in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite-led government.
"It has been five months since I last saw my wife and kids," said an activist who goes by the name Abdul Hayed. "There are Alawite militiamen living in the same neighborhood, so I can't go home."
The 33-year-old painter is part of a close-knit circle of friends who have been demonstrating almost every day since March in the maze-like alleyways of Midan, a working-class neighborhood that was the scene of one of the bombings. But most don't know one another's real names, so they can't reveal them if they are caught.
Neighborhood kids are sent out on bicycles to see whether it is safe to gather. When they give the all-clear, the streets come alive with marchers chanting for Assad's downfall. Within minutes, word spreads: Security forces are closing in. Gunfire rings out. The protesters scatter.
After one recent protest, Abdul Hayed and his friends regroup at an apartment that serves as a makeshift clinic for wounded demonstrators who refuse to go to public hospitals, where they fear arrest.
Although they insist their protests will remain peaceful, they welcome the growing number of defections by security force members now fighting the government for control of nearby suburbs. Some would like to take up arms themselves. They would even welcome a Libya-style international bombing campaign to end the crisis, a scenario once rejected by the government and its opponents.
"We are dead anyway," Abdul Hayed said.