Anxiety, relief, confusion build whirlwind in Damascus

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The author is a Syrian citizen in Damascus who is not being further identified for safety reasons.

It has been a 24-hour emotional roller coaster in the Syrian capital, as Damascus first went abuzz with speculation ahead of President Obama's speech.

But Obama's announcement on Saturday that he will seek congressional approval prior to a strike against Syria left ordinary Syrians slightly relieved and confused. State media, however, was gloating.

Last-Minute Frenzy

In the moments leading up to Obama's speech, which aired shortly after 9 p.m. local time, the city streets fell eerily empty. As people hurried home to watch the U.S. president live on television, many could be heard speculating about what he might say.

"The strike is coming tonight for sure," one man was overheard saying to his friend, as they both rushed to their destination.

"Oh c'mon man, say a prayer before you speculate like that," his friend replied.

"Anyway, strike or no strike, in the end it'll be the anticipation that kills us," the first man said with a nervous chuckle.

Their banter echoed the question that was most on Damascenes' minds: Will Obama announce the start of his military strike against Syria?

Many believed he would.

If for days people had been systematically hoarding food, then Saturday evening culminated in a last-minute frenzy to prepare for war, sending prices of nonperishable foods three times higher.

A can of tuna went up from 200 Syrian pounds ($1) to 600 pounds in just hours, and was impossible to find in the moments just before Obama began his speech. When available, a bag of pita bread sold for 350 Syrian pounds, up from 100.

Even the Syrian military and state security personnel seemed to feel the anxiety. In days prior, soldiers had taken up shelter in empty schools around town, loading up on provisions of bottled water and fuel.

On Saturday, truckloads of fresh produce and dozens of packets of pita bread, a staple food in the local diet, were seen entering intelligence branches throughout the city.

There were also dozens upon dozens of crates of ammunition trucked into these buildings, causing alarmed residents throughout the neighborhood to further believe that a U.S. strike was coming.

When workers arrived in one neighborhood with a truckload of metal tubing, panicked residents thought the workers were setting up "an anti-aircraft missile launcher" in their midst.

The tubing turned out to be for a new cellphone tower.

But all this hype would soon dissipate.

All Eyes On Obama

In one household in the middle-class neighborhood of Maysat, five family members gathered in the living room and sat down to listen to the newscast. Almost every Arabic channel was airing Obama's speech live. Even Syrian state-run television, prone to airing patriotic music and footage of Syrian military maneuvers, took the rare step of airing the event live, with simultaneous translation and all.

As Obama began his speech, reiterating his commitment to a military strike against Syria, the viewers in the room held their breath. In a household that usually carries loud conversations and familial bickering, only the sound of Obama's speech and the occasional drone of light city traffic outside could be heard.

But when Obama said he would first seek congressional approval before striking Syria, 35-year-old Safa seemed to exhale for the first time all evening.

"Oh my God! I thought my heart was going to stop," she said, referring to Obama's determined words leading up to that point.

"First, he says he's definitely going to strike us. Then he says, but first he will discuss it with Congress. Why is he playing with our nerves like this?" she added.

The news released a further barrage of speculation and confusion among the guests, who spoke in unison, each raising his or her voice to be heard. It went something like this:

"Oh then, it's not going to happen, is it?"

"Yes it is, but not now. After two weeks."

"It's over."

"No, it's not!"

"When does Congress meet, anyway?"

"If someone wants to go to war, do they talk and talk about it endlessly? War is about the element of surprise."

Back To Work

On Sunday, which is the start of the work week in Syria, people seemed to be back at work as usual. Grocery shops displayed a normal stock of fresh bread available for sale. Relaxed soldiers sipped hot tea while they manned their posts.

The state-run newspaper, Al Thawra, which translates to "The Revolution," ran editorials exulting Obama's speech.

"It's the beginning of America's historic retreat," announced one front-page article.

"It's the final moments before the fig leaf falls," promised another. "A season of political nudity awaits him, even as he tries to seek cover in Congress."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

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