Sunday, October 13, 2013

Clubbing in Damascus

This remarkable article about the barely alive and kicking club scene in Damascus was published in the UK Daily Mail about a month ago.  The highlights are the pictures, and in fact I'd probably recommend just looking at the pictures and skipping the text entirely.  The most striking thing about them is how normal everything looks -- people are smoking, dancing, and enjoying themselves in scenes that could be almost be taking place in most Western countries.

As for the text, let's just say there's nothing approaching investigative journalism here.  It's the fluffiest of fluff pieces, and perhaps that was all the author and photographers were aiming for (N.B. it's difficult to tell which ones are stock photos and which ones were places visited by the reporter, the article is very vague about specific names and places for reasons we'll get to later).  But considering the very real horrors of the war that has torn apart most of Syria, and the wealth of misinformation coming out of there, the Daily Mail had an opportunity to dig beneath the surface and tell the story of a truly unique scene, far different from the usual narrative of club owners struggling to keep their doors open despite countless obstacles that we've seen told in a million other cities. Even a one-dimensional depiction of "downtown Damascus is a bubble where people can have fun and remain callously oblivious to the carnage in the rest of the country" would have been a story worth telling, and a lot better than the rather colourless reporting that was actually done.    

The main question that is never asked or even implied is this: how did they find all these clubs?  The club owners don't want their names or locations publicized for fear of "reprisals", so if we take those comments at face value, how does one get into these clubs?  Who was the insider with knowledge of the scene?

The political partisanship of the characters in the piece is hardly subtle.  In the midst of a civil war, where making your friends and supporters known to all is a matter of life and death, we see normal goings on in the centre of Damascus (an Assad stronghold), in venues that display pictures of Assad, and hear about music that's popular with Assad's supporters.  Dancing, drinking, Western-style clothes, and intersex mingling are obviously not popular with the rebel groups, so in that aspect the clubbers would strongly favour Assad.  But there's so much we don't know.  Have the businesses that refused, for whatever reasons, to show their loyalty to the regime been shut down?  Does the regime support or merely tolerate these kinds of establishments?  We can't even assume that the entire photo-op wasn't set up by people with business or personal links to the regime as a way to project a sense of normalcy in the capital.  Judging by many of the comments on the article ("Assad allows clubbing so he can't be all that bad!"), there are plenty of people ready to buy into just about any positive spin about Syria.  

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