Some Syrians lose themselves in music as war rages

By Dusan Stojanovic

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31 2013 1:31 p.m. MDT

In this photograph made on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, Titar Sahinian sings at a popular bar in the Old City in Damascus, Syria. While most people in the capital lock themselves fearfully in their homes as the night falls, the joyful crowd of young Syrians dressed in tight jeans and designer clothes go wild with the sound of local Arab hits, clapping and dancing and deafening the booms of the artillery outside.

Dusan Vranic, Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria — As cannons thundered and mortar shells exploded nearby, the young Syrian woman in a slinky dark dress and stylish bob performed a song by pop star Adele, taking refuge behind a microphone from the civil war raging outside.

Performing with a guitarist at a cafe in the heart of the historic Old Town of Damascus, Reem Khunsar lost herself in the lyrics. About a failed love, they also struck a chord closer to home: "Who would have known how bittersweet this would taste?"

While most people in the Syrian capital lock themselves fearfully in their homes at night, young Syrians dressed in tight jeans and designer clothes go wild at the handful of clubs still operating in a city once renowned for its nightlife.

"The war can't stop life," declared Oday Al-Khayyatt, as he took in the music scene at the Roma cafe. "You hear bad news in Syria, dangers, war and death. But in our reality, we are still alive."

Such revelries show the human side of a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people as the Syrian civil war grinds into its third year.

The Damascus nightclub scene often gets mentioned by the Syrian state news agency SANA on its English-language Twitter feed, drawing ridicule from observers outside the country. But people still brave the dangers to come to the cafes to take their mind off what is happening.

At the Roma Cafe, couples smiled as they danced on the black-and-white checkered dance floor. Some smoked flavored tobacco from water pipes. Women, some in big hair and low-cut dresses and others wearing headscarves, chatted as they mingled by the bar. There were no liquor bottles in sight, though some patrons were able to buy alcohol.

"There is a big difference between now and before the war," conceded Titar Sahinian, another young singer. "People are afraid to come out of their houses ... but they still come.

"Of course, it's all devastating. We can't pretend that nothing is happening. But at the same time we can't stop living," she said.

As she spoke, the sound of government cannons pounding rebels just a few miles away echoed down the stone walls of the ancient quarter. Nearby, so-called Popular Committees, local hard-line militiamen brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles, threw up impromptu roadblocks, searching cars for bombs.

They also kept a close watch on the young revelers, many of whom said they believe the militiamen, die-hard supporters of President Bashar Assad and his embattled government, don't approve of the Damascus nightlife.

"We were afraid of being attacked" by the popular committee militiamen, Roma cafe owner Rami Dahbour said. "We were threatened once. But nothing happened, and we are no longer affected by the threat."

Several mortars launched from rebel positions on the outskirts of Damascus have rained down near the cafe. Still, the singing goes on.

Khunsar said she feels like she is giving hope to the people who come to listen.

"Here in Syria we have not given up," she said. "We hope that everything will go back to where it was before."

As she threw herself into the Metallica classic, "Nothing Else Matters," those in the cafe joined in: "Life is ours and we live it our way, I don't just say, and nothing else matters."

Associated Press writers Darko Bandic and Dusan Vranic contributed to this report.

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