On a brisk, late-winter evening at Zeriab Café, a popular coffee shop in the Old City of Damascus, a trio of young musicians picked up a guitar, a ney, and an oud and began to play. It was Thursday, the start of the Syrian weekend, and the café was packed with stylish young customers, who broke from their conversations as the music started. Zeriab is small—just five wooden tables pressed close together, a bar counter, and a red sofa. Like any decent café in the Arab world, it is part business establishment, part living room—in this case, the living room is that of Bernar Jomaa, the café’s owner, who, at the moment, was angling between the tables to deliver mugs of hot tea to a group of women seated near the back. Depositing the mugs, he lingered to listen in on their conversation, throwing his head back in laughter. He had poured himself a drink behind the counter—cheap vodka and orange juice—and his mood, like that of the café itself, was elevated.
“See those four ladies over there?” he whispered, after leaving their table. “They work at the hospital. They come here so they can have some calm in the middle of this fucking war.”
Jomaa is thirty-seven years old, with a soft face and shoulder-length black hair that he wears pulled back into a loose ponytail. He is a constant presence at Zeriab, a place he likes to think of as a cultivated refuge from the uncertainties of life in wartime Damascus. When he set out to open the café, in late 2010, it was an unsightly box of crumbling walls and metal cages, which were once used for storage. He scrubbed away the filth, replaced the cages with a salvaged-wood countertop, and filled in missing chunks of wall with old stones and clay, following an ancient technique. As with much in the Old City, the décor consists mainly of exposed rock and dark wood, and it makes the café look like the inside of a wine cellar.