DAMASCUS – Each evening, Zakaria Orchi has been meeting up with friends at a favorite cafe to lounge away the hours, just as they used to during Ramadan nights in Syria’s capital before war broke out.
“We get together to chat, smoke a hookah (water pipe), until late,” says the tall, slender man in his 40s.
“It’s a big change from Ramadan last year when we’d race home at sunset and stay there,” Orchi says of the month of daytime fasting that for many Muslims turns into a nighttime celebration.
For the first time since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011, Damascenes can try to enjoy Ramadan, even though clashes still take place on the edges of the city.
They can once again indulge in the pleasures of cafe society, linger late into the night, despite the violence ravaging their country.
“For weeks now, the sound of rocket fire has seemed further away and fewer missiles are falling on Damascus,” Zakira says.
Another sign of a return to something like normal life has been the reopening of Damascus roads closed to traffic ever since the summer of 2012 because of their proximity to government buildings.
In the eastern Qassaa district of the capital, the celebrated Steed Cafe is pulling in the customers.
“During the World Cup, there wasn’t a table to be had,” said manager Hussam al-Halabi, pointing to three giant TV screens, perched next to portraits of President Bashar Assad.
However, “there were a lot fewer people about” after rebel bombardment of Damascus that state media said left four dead on Wednesday when Assad was being sworn in for a new term, he admitted.
“But we’re still optimistic, it was a lot worse last year.”
At the Dama Rose hotel, in an upmarket district, manager Dima Muammar proudly announces: “The restaurants are fully booked every evening and the swimming pool is mobbed at weekends.”
Wedding ceremonies, popular in summer, “are now being held in the evenings, and they go on until 2 in morning,” she says.
At the height of Syria’s conflict, they were rushed affairs running from 4 in the afternoon until 7.
Taxi driver Wael Sharabi says he feels more “relaxed” and “not afraid anymore.” Things are looking up, he says with a broad smile.
“Last year, I would work afternoons and go home, but just yesterday I picked up my last fare at 2 in the morning.”
The capital, heavily protected by the regime, has escaped the full brutality of a conflict that has claimed more than 170,000 lives and forced 9 million Syrians to abandon their homes.
Even so, rebel missiles still crash down on Damascus and authorities bombard rebel strongholds around the capital, often just meters (yards) beyond the city limits.
On Tuesday, the eve of Assad’s inauguration, shells rained down on Abbassides Square, near rebel-held Jobar, which was in turned bombarded with rockets, locals and militants said.
“It’s a precarious calm,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“It’s true that missile attacks are increasingly rare, but opening roads to traffic and removing checkpoints doesn’t mean much.”
His words are echoed by Damascus residents.
Nabil, 50, standing in his deserted furniture store, agrees that the thunder of cannon fire has become less common.
“But we don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” he says.
“This crisis won’t be over even in 10 years. . . . Look at all the destruction, the unemployment and the beggars filling the streets.”