In “Damasco” Café in Riyadh, there are many aspects of Syrian culture and traditions: from the fava beans to the popular songs that sound from the loudspeakers, to the pioneers who are divided over the participation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the upcoming Arab summit on Friday, which reflects the state of the country that is being torn apart. war for more than 12 years.
The cafe management has hired someone who looks like the beloved Syrian comedian Duraid Lahham, who spends most of his shift taking “selfies” with customers. However, this unity in homesickness is not reflected in the position of Assad’s arrival to Saudi Arabia, which the expatriate Syrians describe as their “second country”, to attend the Arab summit.
Some hope that this step, which ends Assad’s isolation after more than ten years of suspending his country’s membership in the Arab League, will ease Syria’s isolation and the economic difficulties associated with it since the start of the war there in 2011.
“We were waiting for this moment,” said Syrian Heba Sidawi, 37, adding, “It is torture now to visit our country and see our people. The war has not achieved anything.”
And with the cessation of direct flights between the two countries for years, thousands of Syrians in Saudi Arabia were forced to bear the hardship of traveling for longer hours at a greater cost to visit their families.
On the other hand, there are those who cannot bear the idea of Assad’s presence on Saudi soil, and they spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I hate him! I hate him!” says one of them, before continuing, “He comes for what, what will he do? Will he fix things? Will he change the country?”
She believes that Assad “is the only one who needs change. I want to say out loud that I am against him, but I have relatives in Syria, they will stop them all and kill them.”
“Does it heal our pain?”
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries severed relations with the Assad government in 2012 in response to the campaign to suppress protests against the regime, which developed into a civil war that claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people and displaced millions inside and outside Syria.
The steps leading to Syria’s return to the Arab incubator began in 2018, when the United Arab Emirates restored relations with Damascus.
But the whole process accelerated after the major earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey last February, which led to an influx of aid from the region.
During the height of the conflict, Saudi officials publicly supported the idea of ousting Assad.
However, after the earthquake, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan stated that there was a consensus in the Arab world that a “new approach” to Syria that required negotiations with Damascus would be necessary to address the humanitarian crisis.
The foreign ministers of the two countries have exchanged visits since then, and Riyadh has lobbied hard for Assad to be invited to Friday’s summit in Jeddah.
News of Assad’s imminent arrival in Saudi Arabia, says one Damsco patron, is nothing to celebrate. “How can I be optimistic about that? Every time I look at his face I remember how many people died because of it.”
He wonders, “Does he bring back our beloved who died? Does he heal our pain and wounds?”
But Fatima considers that Assad’s visit raises hopes that things will return to normal before the war, despite the lack of a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
“The main problem is travel, import and investment. These are all things that have closed,” she says, adding, “Now it will go back to normal and things will get better.”
Ahmed Abdel-Wahhab, who is performing at the café, shares Fatima’s optimism. “In the past we were left alone… Now we come back together,” he says, referring to the Arab League.
At the same time, he stresses that the return of Syria does not eliminate the pain of the past 12 years.
Fighting back his tears, he says, “Any Syrian, when you talk to him about his country, you see tears in his eyes.” And he continues, “Our country has gone back 500 years. It is more than oppression. As if your heart is burning.”