This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia
Since 2011, Damascus, the capital of Syria, has been central to the country's ongoing civil war. Yet over the past few years, a reinvigorated nightlife has emerged that is seeing more and more young people head out in the evenings despite the security risks.
For a city that reports civilian casualties daily from indiscriminate missile fire, you'd expect Damascus to be a ghost town like many other major Syrian cities. But the capital is proving to be the exception to the rule.
Before the war, Damascus was known for its bars, cafes and clubs. But the number of nightspots are on the rise, especially in Bab Sharqi – an area in the eastern part of the city. On clear nights, the neighbourhood is almost completely packed, as locals look to escape the daily challenges of constantly living under conflict.
"You could see it as a means to survival," drama graduate Fadi explains at a bar in Bab Sharqi. "As I see it, a lot of people have subconsciously come to terms with the fact that they or their loved ones could be killed at any moment. Without realising it, young people here are living every day as if it were their last – we're simply trying to enjoy ourselves as much as possible."
The 24-year-old remembers everything changing in Bab Sharqi after the war broke out. "The area used to be very quiet, with a limited number of bars that attracted few customers," he says. "But when the war started, Syria became somewhat narrower. It became difficult to go out to the outskirts of the city like we used to, and cultural institutions like cinemas and theatres started to close. As a result, bars became the only place to meet up with friends, or just pass the time. That's why they're flourishing. Also, when you've had to spend ten days locked inside due to rocket firing, you want to find somewhere you can get wasted."
"In the early months of the war, we wouldn't dare go out," says marketing professional Bisan, 28. "You only went out if it was an emergency. But over the years we grew bolder, and started going to places like Bab Sharqi. And I love it. Just being able to occupy these sort of spaces is really beautiful."
There are some people in Damascus, however, who argue that it's insensitive to party so openly in the middle of a war. But Bisan reiterates that it should instead be seen as a coping mechanism. "I think people are afraid of the unknown, and for us here in Syria, death no longer feels unknown. I feel sad saying this, but we've gotten used to death. But thanks to areas like Bab Sharqi, which has become the go-to destination when people want to party, we've been able to create a huge amount of special, positive memories in such a short space of time.
At La Marionette bar in Bab Sharqi, I meet Yosuf, 32, who has invested in – and designed – several bars and cafes in Damascus. "This area has enormous historical and commercial value, while remaining financially accessible for most people," he tells me. "People come here not necessarily to visit a specific bar, but to experience the entire neighbourhood, and its now-famous atmosphere. We want to have a space where we can express ourselves. With the current climate, that's been difficult to do for a long time."
But how do club owners and managers like Yosuf deal with critics who say it's wrong to establish and expand a nightlife culture in the middle of a civil war? "I can understand some of the criticism, when people make comparisons between the lifestyle in this area and other parts of the city," Yosuf says. "But we're not just about throwing parties – we're trying to actually live a life. Like everyone else, we've lost friends and homes and jobs to the conflict."
Marah has worked as DJ in Damascus for three years. "A few friends and I started off by playing small events. Now, on nights when the situation is a bit more stable, we're hosting parties for up to 300 people," Marah says. Some attendees, she adds, travel dangerous lengths just to attend their gigs.
"In the end, we're just as culturally literate as other groups of young people around the world. Here, we're just trying to live a normal life, and flip the world's portrayal of us as just by-products of war. It would surprise you to see how much financial and emotional support we get from a wide range of groups, just so we can keep holding gigs. Our community needs these spaces to be able to go crazy and release all the negative energy built up from exhausting week after exhausting week."
Although Maher doesn't drink, the 29-year-old long-time Damascus resident values how the city's nightlife has become an escape for his friends and family. Still, is it right, as their critics question, to knock back shots as dozens of their fellow citizens are killed every day? "It's neither wrong nor right," he says. "It's a personal choice that reflects our freedom. I'd happily come here after going through a day of listening to the sounds of conflict. It's important to have this balance for our mental health."
Nassouh, 25, is a weekly visitor to Bab Sharqi. He thinks it's too late to ever strip this pleasure away from locals. "Many people in Damascus would find it hard to give up the one space we have to enjoy ourselves," he says. "Remember that the war has added a huge economic burden on all of us. We have to work so hard all week to be able to afford basic amenities. It's exhausting. That's why we often can't wait for Thursday to arrive so we can go out."
Does Nassouh ever feel guilty about going out? "Yeah, sometimes – like when the shelling happens near Bab Sharqi, and our parents start calling to make sure we're safe," he explains. "But just like the rest of the city, we can't escape the conflict simply by going on a night out. So we're certainly not disrespecting anyone else when we choose to have fun."
"I sometimes hear that shells are falling on an area that I'm meant to being performing in later that evening," Marah adds. "But I know that although the attendance numbers will drop, there will be people who will still turn up. I know this ambivalence is strange. But I also know that I'll feel guilty if I ever left Damascus to live and perform anywhere else. We must find a way to live here."