Damascus enjoys relative calm this Ramadan as missiles subside
For the first time since 2011, residents feel safe enough to celebrate Ramadan in the city's cafes
Each evening, Zakaria Orchi has been meeting up with friends at a favourite 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, until late," said the man in his 40s. "It's a big change from Ramadan last year when we'd race home at sunset and stay there," Orchi said 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 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," Zakaria said.
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 district of Qassaa in 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 televisionscreens, perched next to portraits of President Bashar al-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," he said.
At the Dama Rose hotel, in an upmarket district, manager Dima Muammar proudly announced: "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 two in morning", she said.
At the height of the conflict, they were rushed affairs running from 4 in the afternoon until 7.
Taxi driver Wael Sharabi said he felt more relaxed and "not afraid any more".
"Last year, I would work afternoons and go home, but just yesterday I picked up my last fare at 2 in the morning," he said.
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 nine million Syrians to abandon their homes.
Even so, on Tuesday, the eve of Assad's inauguration, shells rained down on Abbassides Square, near rebel-held Jobar, which was in turned bombarded, 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."